How America Failed Its Gymnasts

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A lengthy history of cover-ups and codified sexual abuse casts a shadow on Team U.S.A.’s recent victories.

By Sam Sutton


(Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The Olympics provide an all-too-rare platform for female athletes to shine on the same stage as their male colleagues, and few athletes receive more attention and admiration than the women of the United States’ gymnastics team. Led by Simone Biles, Team U.S.A. took first in the women’s all-around competition on Tuesday. Biles and teammate Aly Raisman captured gold and silver medals with their individual performances two days later.

But just last week, as Team U.S.A. made its final preparations for Rio de Janeiro, the Indianapolis Star published a report casting the organization charged with stewarding young gymnasts in a terrifying new light.

For decades, U.S.A. Gymnastics, the sport’s governing body, suppressed or buried allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated by its coaches, according to the Star. The organization maintained complaint files on more than 50 coaches who’d been accused of sexual misconduct between 1996 and 2006, but rarely reported allegations to the police or child protective services, the Star reported.

More alarmingly, U.S.A. Gymnastics officials in Indianapolis dismissed allegations of abuse unless they were substantiated in writing by a victim or a victim’s parent, creating administrative barriers for young women whose trust had already been violated. Rather than reporting suspected sexual abuse to the authorities immediately, as Indiana law requires, the organization tasked administrators with investigating hair-raising allegations of molestation, assault, and child pornography.

“We’re getting reports of institutional cover-ups out of all sorts of places.”

In doing so, U.S.A. Gymnastics prioritized its reputation and the competitive value of its coaches over the well-being of 90,000 member athletes. In one case spotlighted by the Star, that of 2010 Women’s Coach of the Year Marvin Sharp, U.S.A. Gymnastics waited four years before reporting his behavior to the police. Sharp killed himself in jail shortly after being charged with sexual misconduct and molestation.

“Gymnastics is such a bubble. It’s its own universe,” former U.S. National team member Molly Shawen-Kollmann told the Star. While Shawen-Kollman thinks some officials operated under the best intentions, “the federation is thinking about the Olympics, then the World Championships. It’s go, go, go. That’s how they have to be.”

That might be true if their failures were unique, but the only thing separating U.S.A. Gymnastics from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland, Horace Mann School in New York City, and/or the countless, daily betrayals of authority are perceived stakes. For the roughly one-in-10 children who are victims of sexual abuse, the sad outcome remains the same.

“What’s so disheartening about this case, these kids are putting so much of their health, their education, their mental focus [on the line]. And for a coach to come in and create that kind of distress for any athletes, I’d want to see that organization to have a very aggressive policy,” says Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.

Instead, motivated by fears of internal sniping within its highly competitive coaching community, U.S.A. Gymnastics codified its mistakes and played dumb when confronted with evidence to that effect in court. Headquartered in Indianapolis, the organization’s efforts to substantiate complaints with victims or parents contradicts Indiana’s mandatory reporting law, which requires individuals to report any and all rumors or suspicions of abuse to the authorities.

“Indiana is pretty strict with its reporting laws. Anyone who suspects or has reason to believe there’s abuse or neglect, has to report,” says Sandy Runkle, director of programs at Prevent Child Abuse Indiana. “Every Indiana citizen is a mandatory reporter.”

In testimony prompted by a civil case, U.S.A. Gymnastics President/CEO Steve Penny pleaded ignorance to the law, arguing that the organization’s policy was necessary to protect against “a witch hunt,” according to a deposition quoted by the Star.

“It’s possible that someone may make a claim like this because they don’t like someone or because they heard a rumor or because they received information from other third parties,” he said. “You have to take that very seriously, because the coach is as much a member as the athlete.”

Penny’s describing a disturbingly common trend in serial sexual abuse cases that have been in the news of late: an organization that prioritized its reputational concerns over the safety of its youth members; in this case, the young female athletes. Taken at face value, they also allude to a sociopathic environment in which false accusations of sexual misconduct could be weaponized to cut down rival coaches.

Suppose you ignore the organization’s myriad failings and set aside statistics demonstrating the limited number of false reports: In what world is that an acceptable environment to foster young athletes? As an institution, U.S.A. Gymnastics was so blinded by its ambitions, and those of its coaches, it didn’t take into account the perspectives of actual victims.

Without strict rules and training, adults with the best intentions unwittingly provide a framework abusers can manipulate.

Take that of gymnast Kaylin Maddox Brietzke, whose coach began touching and kissing her at age seven. At that age, Breitzke lacked the tools to describe what was happening to her and her teammates, she told the Star. Adults who should’ve known better re-assured her the coach’s unusual techniques were a means to an end.

“He had different ways of doing things,” she said. “And we were told that his ways of doing things got people to the Olympics.”

Olympic hopefuls subject themselves to hours of practice and training, injury, dieting, and fatigue for their sport. In events as competitive as gymnastics, those sacrifices begin at a young age. Their development and ascension rests, sometimes literally, in the hands of coaches. The bond between young gymnasts and their coaches, like those of teachers and students or priests and parishioners, is forged by a necessary power imbalance. Without strict rules and training, adults with the best intentions unwittingly provide a framework abusers can manipulate.

It’s the responsibility of the organization, not the athletes, to safeguard against the inherent risks of that framework. And, like countless other institutions before it, U.S.A. Gymnastics failed to do so.

“What’s interesting at this point in time is, we’re getting reports of institutional cover-ups out of all sorts of places,” Houser says. “Every community, however you define it, presents opportunities because there are vulnerabilities that are inherent in life. You’ll find them anywhere. The details change, but the theme is the same.”