When Mentality Goes Wrong: How Abuse is Prevalent in Gymnastics

(Dominic Frempong • The Student Life)Since the early 1990s, the United States women’s gymnastics team has dominated international competition. Under the reign of dynamic coaching duo Béla and Márta Károlyi, the National Team has secured seven all-around medals at the Olympics, three of them gold, and eleven World Championship medals. Recently, both the Fierce and Final Five captured viewers’ hearts and social media streams alike. They successfully brought gymnastics in the national spotlight, but at what cost?

In the fall of 2016, it was revealed that USA Gymnastics ignored allegations of sexual abuse directed at many of its affiliated coaches. 2000 Olympic team member Jamie Dantzscher filed a lawsuit against USA Gymnastics and the team doctor at the time, Larry Nassar. She alleged that Nassar sexually abused his patients throughout his tenure with the team.

Forthcoming lawsuits also accuse the Károlyis as being complicit in the abuse because the vast majority of the reported incidents took place on their property, referred to as 'The Ranch', where the National and Olympic teams train and will continue to train following the couple’s retirement.

Former elite gymnasts who spent much of their youth training at the Károlyi Ranch have gone on the record saying that Nassar was allowed to treat them in their cabin beds, without other adults or athletes present. As children, they assumed this was the norm, but later realized something was not right. The Károlyis deny that they knew about this practice.

An extensive report published by The Indianapolis Star last summer alleges that there have been 115 or so adults implicated in the accusations throughout all levels of the sport. While reports do often lead to quick firings of the perpetrators at their current workplaces, USA Gymnastics lacks a system to track these coaches, who are usually hired easily at other gyms.

Additionally, the sport has a policy in place that dismisses allegations of sexual misconduct unless the report comes directly from the victim. According to the Star’s investigative reporter on the case, Marisa Kwiatkowski, the organization dismissed secondhand reports as mere “hearsay.”

It is likely that many cases of sexual abuse go unreported due to athletes’ fear of ruining their own careers. Herein lies the most dangerous aspect of coach-athlete relationships in the sport: to be an elite gymnast requires total mental and physical devotion to the sport, as well as complete faith in their coaches.

Athletes routinely give up their bodily autonomy to their coaches, so the presence of abuse is not wholly surprising. The sport is known for its “do whatever it takes” mentality, which admittedly gets results.

Young gymnasts don’t have the power to question the main authority figures in their lives, so when so-called experts like Nassar violate their bodies in the name of helping success, they may assume nothing is wrong. Many of the women who came forward against Nassar said that they didn’t realize at the moment that anything was wrong; the power dynamics were such that they trusted him totally because he was supposed to help them win. Nassar is now being held without bail in Michigan, where until recently he was working as the team doctor at Michigan State University.

In late February, the 1996 Olympic gold medalist Dominique Moceanu called for USA Gymnastics President and CEO Steve Penny to resign, and said that gymnastics’ culture “set the stage for such atrocities to take place.” Penny stepped down on March 16.

Upon his resignation, Penny said, “[It] has been heartbreaking to learn of instances of abuse and it sickens me that young athletes would be exploited in such a manner." According to the Star’s report,  Penny's job description included personally handling allegations of sexual abuse.

Going forward, Paul Parilla, chairman of USA Gymnastics’ board, will serve as the interim head, and he has called for a crackdown on safety in the sport. Whether or not he can shift the script on gymnastics’ powerful culture of submission and instill a more effective policy on sexual abuse remains to be seen.