This week at the Rio Olympics, gymnasts will dazzle our TV screens by defying gravity, one handspring, backflip, and side aerial at a time. Simone Biles, thought “the one to beat,” and Gabby Douglas, the reigning Olympic all-around champion, are expected to lead Team USA straight to gold.
But casting a shadow on what could be a fairytale ending for these young women is a story of sexual abuse inside the tight-knit gymnastics community, and worse, the sport’s national body covering it up. On Thursday, the Indianapolis Star published a months-long investigation accusing USA Gymnastics of routinely sweeping under the rug claims that coaches have committed sexual abuse.
The organization, which is involved in everything from early development to the Olympic games, “failed to alert authorities to many allegations of sexual abuse by coaches,” the report said, all in some twisted attempt to protect “coaches over kids.”
One coach, William McCabe, was charged with “molesting gymnasts, secretly videotaping girls changing clothes and posting their naked pictures on the internet,” the report said. USA Gymnastics received at least four complaints against McCabe in the years prior, with one gym owner even warning McCabe should be “locked in a cage before someone is raped,” but the organization never reported those claims to federal authorities. Reports to the organization, typically after criminal investigations and court proceedings, are supposed to be logged in a banned coaches list so offenders can’t move to another gym or state and start again.
To be clear, the members of the USA gymnastics team—Biles, Douglas, Aly Raisman, and Laurie Hernandez—have nothing to do with the investigation. But now, their achievements at the Rio Olympics will be tainted by the heartbreaking report.
‘It Was Better to Have a Male out There’
Any case of sexual abuse is awful and wrong. But to allow coaches to take advantage of underage gymnasts is particularly horrifying given the nature of the sport.
As a former gymnast for more than a decade, I know how intimate relationships must be between an athlete and her coach. In the gymnastics world, it’s also not uncommon to prefer a coach of the opposite sex.
Yet gymnastics requires physical, sometimes intimate touch. Not intimate in the sexual kind of way, but intimate in a way that no other sport requires. At times, your coach is the only person standing between you and gravity. He’s the only one there to stop you from splitting your head on a four-inch beam, or from landing on your back as you fly from the high bar looking for the low. Both physically and mentally, gymnasts must trust their coaches. So when it breaks, it shakes the sport to its very core.
If you don’t understand this special bond, look no further than 20-year-old Douglas, who just days before the Rio Olympic trials made a rare last-minute coaching adjustment. In explaining the risky move, Douglas said she wanted to switch from a female coach to a male.
“It was better to have a male out there to help out with spotting,” Douglas said, according to Sports Illustrated. Natalie Hawkins, Douglas’ mom and manager, chalked the change up to another reason.
“Gabrielle trained with a male coach almost her entire career,” Hawkins said. “Gabrielle hasn’t had a true father figure in her life. I’m a single mother and I can’t be both roles.”
Coaches Who Cross the Line
The hands-on nature between a gymnast and her coach should cause USA Gymnastics to be extra-sensitive to claims of sexual abuse. In a sport so focused on the physical and where little girls practice in nothing more than a leotard, there should be no patience for coaches who cross the line.
Parents, too, deserve an explanation for the negligence USA Gymnastics appears to have demonstrated. Understandably, some might never look at a gymnasium the same. Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics, responded to the Indianapolis Star’s investigation, stating in part, “Addressing issues of sexual misconduct has been important to USA Gymnastics for many years.”
But those efforts fell short—the Star investigation documents many cases of reported coaches, even some convicted of sexual abuse, not appearing on the banned list at all or until years later. Until the organization owns up to the many instances where they failed gymnasts and their families, leaders like Penny don’t deserve to be in charge.
‘They Don’t Need Distractions’
Understandably, the coaches of this year’s Olympic gymnasts are doing everything they can right now to shield their athletes from the controversy unfolding around them.
“They don’t need any distractions right now,” said Aimee Boorman, Biles’s personal coach.
“Every negative thing—it’s a distraction—but we try to keep the kids away [from] that,” added Mihai Brestyan, Raisman’s personal coach. “We have concerns, but we are here to do the best we can.”
Their coaches are right—the allegations against USA Gymnastics are a distraction during the most important moment in these gymnasts’ careers. Now isn’t the time for Olympic gymnasts to respond to a scandal that weighs so much more than them. But in time, it’s likely that Biles, Hernandez, Douglas, and Raisman will have to respond. When they do, they’ll likely find the right words to say.
Sadly, if the Indianapolis Star chose to publish its investigation at any other time, there’s a chance the public would have read the story, flipped the page, and moved on. Gymnastics, after all, is only a household favorite once every four years.
But now, because of the talents of Team USA, the country has the opportunity to take seriously a story of cover-up and sexual abuse. The public has a chance to demand that instead of flipping the page, we flip the story straight on its head.
For the dozens of young gymnasts who are victims of abuse, doing so would take on more meaning than any amount of gold medals ever could.