By Liza Sisk ’19
USA Gymnastics has been at the center of significant controversy this year. Last winter, more than 100 female athletes joined together to testify against Lawrence Nassar, the longtime national team doctor. The group of women was led by Olympians Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, and McKayla Maroney. The athletes shared stories of sexual abuse and institutional neglect. Their testament served as a catalyst for conversation around sexual assault, institutional corruption, and the protection of young athletes in these organizations.
The strength these athletes showed through stepping forward to expose the corrupt nature of USA Gymnastics at the institutional level was recognized internationally. Nassar’s sentence of 40 to 125 years in prison from Eaton County Michigan and 175 years from Ingham County seemed like a victory for the athletes, and for individuals affected by sexual assault across the country. The courage and perseverance as champions for women’s rights in gymnastics displayed by the over 100 athletes who shared their stories was recognized through the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs.
The Arthur Ashe Courage Award is named after the American tennis player and is presented annually to an individual, or in this case a group, whose contributions “transcend sports” according to ESPN. The gymnasts received this award for their courage in standing up against demons from their past, and serving as ambassadors for the #MeToo movement, creating a community of survivors in a world where so many are silenced. They served as statues of empowerment and faced an institution that perpetuated abuse for far too long.
In June, USA Gymnastics named Tom Forster the new high-performance coordinator of the Women’s National Team. This hire came with backlash from stakeholders, specifically the athletes.
Forster had a history of defending Nassar and an alleged reputation among “many former gymnasts for pushing athletes to unnecessary extremes and haranguing them about their weight” according to an article in the New York Times written by Juliet Macur.
Many athletes pushed back against this appointment with complaints of not being consulted in this attempted rebranding of the organization after a tumultuous year exposed an empire of abuse. This appointment was an effort to create a new face for USA Gymnastics in hopes of reestablishing their credibility as a governing body.
In a culture of victim blaming and attempts to brush allegations and controversy under the rug, the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) took a step in the right direction on Nov. 6. The USOC announced that they would begin the process of stripping USA Gymnastics of its power as a national governing body.
Sarah Hirshland, chief executive officer of the USOC, announced the news in her letter to USAG gymnasts and the gymnastics community in the United States. She explained that the committee’s decision was “not a conclusion that we have come to easily” and that “this is a situation in which there are no perfect solutions.” The Olympic Committee will assume control of the national governing body “on the grounds that the federation had proven incapable of running itself properly” according to the New York Times.
Hirshland addressed the athletes in the gymnastics community by explaining “you deserve better” and that “in the short-term, we will work to ensure that America’s gymnasts have the support necessary to excel on and off the field of play.” The USOC decision sends a strong message against abuse and can be considered a victory for the movement as well as the sport as a whole.
The first gymnast to accuse Nassar of abuse, Rachael Denhollander, reveled in the decertification of the organization. She tweeted, “Thank you. After overseeing the abuse of 100s of children by Larry [Nassar], national coaches and club coaches, it is high time for this organization to end and a new one, truly dedicated to athlete safety to begin.”
Although the news comes as excitement to many, the critique still stands that this move is not enough. Lawyers of Olympian Tasha Schwikert and her sister Jordan shared a statement that read “[the] announcement by USOC seeks only to deflect from their total failure over decades to protect gymnasts in their care.”