Playgrounds of Abuse
As they turn their heads and spectate once every four years, the patriotic majority of an Olympic gymnastic audience typically watches in awe, and questions how one can perform such seemingly impossible elements without hesitation. Paired with this admiration comes a hunger for gold, an expectation many attribute to the “American Dream” of wealth and success. While many may hold a deep passion for the American success story, few are truly aware of what occurs behind the curtains of the sport appreciated for its elegance and poise. This false interpretation of the true depths of the sport held itself up, as countless spectators critiqued the decision made by world renowned American gymnast Simone Biles, to withdraw herself from the team and all around Olympic finals at the Tokyo games.
Produced by the gold star gymnastics factory known as the United States, Simone Biles has accumulated 30 world championship and olympic medals in the last 9 years, and is regarded to be the most dominant gymnast throughout time. However, despite being the crowd favorite to lead the US team to gold and uphold her titles in the individual competitions, Biles took a rather unexpected turn during the team’s first rotation, when her otherwise usually near perfect vault was performed to a substantially lower level than anticipated. Shortly after, Biles was seen with a medical professional and her Coaches Cecile and Laurent Landy before exiting the arena for further medical consultation and announcing that she will no longer participate during the event. Upon completion of the team final, Simone confided during a press interview that her abrupt stop in the competition was made as a decision in the best interest of her mental and physical health as well as the chances for team USA to hold a place on the podium. Described as a sudden lack of spatial awareness and one’s mind and body being out of sync, Simone opened up through social media about the “twisties”, which had caused the astonishing and uncharacteristic performance during the event. “[I] literally cannot tell up from down. It’s the craziest feeling ever. not having an inch of control over your body. What’s even scarier is since I have no idea where I am in the air I also have NO idea how I’m going to land. or what I’m going to land on.” (Schuman) The cause behind this phenomenon is not entirely agreed upon and opinions vary due to a lack of information, however it is highly suggested that it may be induced by stress. Had Biles not made the decision to step out of the event, the result of her performances may have ended with extreme injury, or possibly even a fatal consequence.
What many may not recognize however, is the fact that the decision made was truly a remarkable breakthrough in the history of the sport and USA Gymnastics (USAG). This ability to put health and safety at the forefront of one's priorities, has consistently been neglected by the culture ingrained through the roots of this beloved athletic discipline, and this outcome set forth by Biles presents a sign that USA gymnastics sincerely is moving towards a more positive direction away from its undoubtedly controversial past.
The American powerhouse recognized for its consistent success on the international stage, was brought to the United States in 1981 by Marta and Bela Karolyi, the two names known as the engineer’s behind the first ever perfect 10 performed by Nadia Comaneci at the Montreal 1976 Olympics. With their defection from Romania, the Karolyi’s set forth their Comaneci blueprint, and designed an all-American gold producing machine. Since then, the US has become a household name and has rendered itself unbeatable on the world stage. Despite the nation’s unmatched track record and sheer pool of talent, the governing body for American gymnastics has practiced dubious means of ensuring success, many of which infringe on human rights and the sworn protection over the athletes.
In 2016, the Indianapolis Star published an ongoing investigation with a focus on the hidden yet prevalent issue of sexual abuse in gymnastics, marking the beginning of a long awaited uncovering of the true depths of abuse which the authority figures in the sport have enabled. The publication triggered a long overdue analysis of the measures USA Gymnastics was taking to defend their gymnasts against sexual abuse. In response to this article, former gymnast Rachael Denhollander publicly opened up about her experience of abuse under Larry Nassar, who at the time was the team doctor for USAG and a practicing sports physician at Michigan State University (MSU). (Kirby) It was revealed not long after that dozens of complaints and lawsuits have been filed against Nassar, with the first reported allegation on record being in 1997, each case being dismissed by MSU, USAG, and the police. As more victims began to open up about their stories, it was concluded that Nassar’s abuse began in 1992 with a 12 year old girl, only 6 years after commencing his position at USAG as a medical trainer. (Dator) After decades of enabling such scathing abuse, USAG did everything in its power to save their reputation and silence their athletes, including buying the cooperation and silence from World and Olympic gold medalist Mykayla Maroney, who later sued the governing body and disclosed that she was paid $1.25 Million to remain silent. (The New York Times)
During Nassar’s court trials, 156 victims provided testimonies and detailed accounts of their experiences, all of which included how Nassar abused his power and position to inappropriately treat the athletes under the guise of medical treatment, without adhering to standard medical protocol on any account. In 2017, Nassar was sentenced to 60 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to possession of child pornography and tampering with evidence, as well as an additional 40 to 175 years in 2018 after having plead guilty to the sexual assault of minors on seven accounts, before further increasing his sentencing by a supplementary 40-125 years to be served in Michigan State prison for three more accounts of sexual assault. (U.S. Attorney’s Office) His consecutive state and federal sentences conclude to a sentence of de facto life without parole. (Staff) Over 300 victims have since joined this army of survivors, including Simone Biles herself who also has shared her perspective on USA Gymnastics on her public platforms. ''It's hard coming here for an organization, having had them fail us so many times," Biles said. "We had one goal. We have done everything that they asked us for, even when we didn't want to, and they couldn't do one damn job." (CNN)
Although it was Larry Nassar in the centre of this scandal and the subject of countless allegations of abuse, the issue at hand was not the case of one bad apple who fell far from the tree, and rather the product of a system that has time and time again enabled and supported this misconduct as a transactional system to gain power and success. Notoriously known for obedience, discipline, and a strive for perfection, the expectations of the sport have proven to be fertile ground for abuse and malpractice at the expense of the athletes, which is why Nassar’s abuse was able to continue for such an extended period of time. His presence was supported and admired by those surrounded by the organization, not only because he possessed the ability to appear sympathetic and selfless towards the athletes to gain their trust, but for the fact that he would clear athletes with severe injuries to train and compete, when any other medical professional would refuse this action. (Howley) Despite denying any awareness of Nassar’s practices, it is well understood that the abuse was tolerated for so long by the organization and coaches such as the Karolyis and those alike, as it would permit them to operate under their own wrongdoings. Aside from sexual abuse, there has always been a tense yet accepted presence of physical, verbal, and mental abuse in the sport, fostering trauma and lifelong physical and mental effects in the athletes. 1996 Olympian Dominique Moceanu who at the time was only 14 years old, expressed the scathing methods that she encountered in her years of training with the Karolyis. Competing with a fractured leg, Moceanu collapsed and hit her head at the end of the beam during the dismount, after which she received immense backlash from her coaches despite the severity of her injury. Often, coaches would body shame and humiliate the 75 pound gymnast to the point of disordered eating. (Pucin) Upon reflection of her own episodes during her career and the current situation regarding Simone Biles, Moceanu said the decision made by six time olympic medalist Simone biles "demonstrates that we have a say in our own health—'a say' I NEVER felt I had as an Olympian." (Dupre)
Nevertheless, USAG has made significant changes in recent years to ensure a safer and less stigmatizing environment for the athletes, setting their wellbeing as a priority. The organization has introduced safe sport policies in attempt to raise transparency and minimize abusive behavior. Athletes, Coaches, parents, and survivors of the abuse inflicted upon the athletes by USAG, all had a say towards drafting the new policies which U.S. Center for SafeSport obtains complete jurisdiction over. Previous policies only included vague parameters around abuse prevention, where only sexual abuse was a criteria in question, whereas the new policies direct a clearer perspective on how to handle such events including physical, mental, verbal, and emotional abuse as well as bullying and hazing. The governing body has replaced its former CEO Steve Penny who has been involved with defending abuse and tampering with evidence, and have instilled former gymnast Li Li Leung as the new head of USAG. (Macur) In addition, Martha Karolyi has been replaced by Tom Forster as the US women’s national team coordinator, who has put in tremendous effort to ensure the safety of the athletes, consistently monitoring the behavioral patterns of their coaches and training settings. The effect of these changes is slowly becoming more apparent to the public eye, with gymnasts suffering less injuries and sustaining longer careers than before.
The decision made by Biles this Olympic games, impeccably demonstrates the responsible conduct which should have been practiced by USA Gymnastics long before, and is a push for a cultural and methodological shift in the sport of gymnastics. Although Biles has withdrawn from five out of the six Olympic events, she has announced that she will be competing on the balance beam final and hopefully be able to perform to her prodigious standards. Biles has received support and solidarity from athletes globally, expressing their appreciation and applause for the statement her decision is making, teaching a valuable lesson to athletes all over the world.
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