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Facing the Danger: Shining a Light on Sexual Abuse in Gymnastics - Women's Sports Safety Initiative

Facing the Danger: Shining a Light on Sexual Abuse in Gymnastics

When a child begins participating in gymnastics, their safety should be a paramount concern for their parents. Certainly, you would not expect parents to allow their young children to train in a gymnasium without plenty of mats and padding, well-maintained equipment, and adult supervision. But there is more to keeping young gymnasts safe than that. The very people who we trust with our children’s safety can, at times, turn out to be the greatest threat to that safety.

In a long-running investigation, The Indianapolis Star has exposed the pervasiveness of sexual abuse among gymnastics coaches, trainers, and physicians. The newspaper began an investigation in March of 2016 into how USA Gymnastics handled allegations of sexual abuse against its coaches. The newspaper discovered that the organization’s policy was not to report all sexual abuse allegations against its coaches—a practice that enables coaches to continue preying on children despite repeated warning signs. The Star also found that coaches who had complaints against them managed to avoid recriminations simply by shifting to another gym where they were not known. To date, The Indianapolis Star has documented allegations of sexual abuse from 368 gymnasts involved with USA Gymnastics over the last 20 years. They published their initial findings on August 4, 2016—just 3 days before the USA women’s gymnastic team began competing in the Games of the XXXI Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro.

Headquartered in Indianapolis, USA Gymnastics is designated by the U.S. Olympic Committee and the International Gymnastics Federation as the national governing body for gymnastics in the United States. The non-profit organization has a membership of more than 148,000 gymnasts, and an additional 25,000+ instructors, club members, and professionals. Besides being a resource for gymnasts of all levels, USA Gymnastics sets rules and policies that govern the sport, and selects and trains the U.S. Gymnastics Teams for the Olympics and World Championships.

Just after USA Gymnastics’ moment of triumph in the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, where the United States women’s team won the team all-around gold medal and Simone Biles won the individual all-around gold medal for the United States, the Star followed up their story by naming one of the alleged perpetrators of sexual abuse, who had been accused by two former gymnasts: Dr. Lawrence G. Nassar, who had served as team physician for the U.S. men’s and women’s Olympic gymnastics teams from 1996 to 2015. Dr. Nassar also taught in the College of Osteopathic Medicine at Michigan State University.

Once he had been publicly accused, other gymnasts came forward with their own allegations against Nassar, including Simone Biles, the most decorated American gymnast of all time, with 19 Olympic and World Championship medals. Eventually, 125 victims reported to the Michigan State Police that they had been sexually assaulted by Nassar. In June of 2017, Nassar pleaded guilty to the charge of receiving and possessing child pornography, and in November of 2017, Lawrence Nassar pled guilty to 7 counts of sexual assault. Three of the victims he admitted to sexually assaulting were under the age of 13 at the time of the assault.

In the summer of 2015, well before The Indianapolis Star’s investigation, USA Gymnastics had reported Nassar to the FBI and severed relations with him, following an investigation prompted by a complaint made 5 weeks earlier. But the scandal still rocked the organization. As gymnast Aly Raisman asked 60 Minutes about the offenses of Nassar only coming to light after nearly 2 decades of abuse, “Why are we looking at why didn’t the girls speak up? Why not look at, what about the culture? What did USA Gymnastics do, and Larry Nassar do, to manipulate these girls so much that they are so afraid to speak up?” (Mather).

In response to the scandal, USA Gymnastics hired former federal prosecutor Deborah Daniels to review its practices and policies. Her 100-page report (which is available to read here) included 70 recommendations that were unanimously accepted by the USA Gymnastics board of directors. “[I]f USA Gymnastics does as they have said they will today, adopt these recommendations and implement them effectively, it’s poised, I would think, to be in the forefront of the U.S. Olympic movement in the protection of its athletes from abuse,” says Deborah Daniels (qtd. in Armour).

These changes are both welcome and necessary, and should make it more difficult for sexual predators to persist in the world of competitive gymnastics in the United States. But they will not eliminate sexual abuse in the field entirely, nor could any set of policies by the sport’s governing body. “Whatever the USA Gymnastics policies are—they have courses and lots of information—they can’t protect everyone, because some gym owners don’t respect the rules. USA Gymnastics can’t check everyone. It’s just not possible,” points out Aly Raisman’s coach, Mihai Brestyan (qtd. in Macur).

That’s why parents need to be vigilant, and be sure that the gym they take their child to has policies and practices in place to reduce the risk to the athletes, such as those at the gym owned by Mihai Brestyan and his wife Sylvia. They forbid anyone but athletes—even parents—from entering the locker rooms. They don’t allow a coach to be alone with an athlete at any time. And they watch for warning signs—like a coach being too hands on in adjusting leotards, making unnecessary hands-on corrections, and hugging too much (Macur).

Understandably, it’s an uncomfortable subject to broach when one has been given no cause for suspicion. But it is something that parents need to ask about. A gym with no specific policies in place to prevent sexual abuse is no more safe than one with no padding in place to protect the athletes when they fall. If the representatives are reluctant to provide answers to parents’ questions on the subject, then it might be just the kind of gym that sexual predators seek out, where their activities can go unnoticed and unreported.

USA Gymnastics, parents, and all those responsible for the welfare of these vulnerable young gymnasts need to face the danger, rather than ignore it. Sexual predators rely on keeping their abuse hidden—we must be vigilant and shine a light on their activities. And if that light reveals trouble, Mihai Brestyan urges people, “Go first to the police. Go directly to the child abuse department, to the police there and say: ‘Look, this is what happened. What should I do?’” (qtd. in Macur).


Armour, Nancy and Rachel Axon. “USA Gymnastics: Sexual assault investigation urges cultural change.” USA Today. June 27, 2017. Retrieved December 1, 2017 from https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/olympics/2017/06/27/sexual-assault-usa-gymnastics-olympics-usoc-larry-nassar-deborah-daniels-usa-gymnastics/431358001/

Barbash, Fred. “’Horrid sexual assaults’: Former USA team gymnastics doctor charged with abuseing 9 female athletes, some younger than 13.” The Washington Post. February 23, 2017. Retrieved December 1, 2017 from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/02/23/horrid-sexual-assaults-former-usa-team-gymnastics-doctor-charged-with-sexually-assaulting-9-female-athletes-some-under-13-years-old/?utm_term=.91e3a2ae00a9

Hoffman, Benjamin. “Gymnastics Doctor Larry Nassar Pleads Guilty to Molestation Charges.” The New York Times. November 22, 2017. Retrieved December 1, 2017 from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/22/sports/larry-nassar-gymnastics-molestation.html

IndyStar Investigations Team. “Out of Balance: An IndyStar investigation into USA Gymnastics.” Retrieved December 1, 2017 from http://interactives.indystar.com/news/standing/OutOfBalanceSeries/index2.html

Maese, Rick and Will Hobson. “USA Gymnastics says it alerted FBI to doctor accused of sex abuse in 2015.” The Washington Post. February 16, 2017. Retrieved December 1, 2017 from https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2017/02/16/a03f968c-f489-11e6-a9b0-ecee7ce475fc_story.html?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.7804778ff7ad

Macur, Juliet. “Sexual Abuse Charges Put Shadow on U.S. Gymnastics Federation.” The New York Times. September 13, 2016. Retrieved December 1, 2017 from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/14/sports/olympics/sexual-abuse-charges-put-shadow-on-us-gymnastics-federation.html

Mather, Victor. “Gymnast Aly Risman Says She Was Molested by Team Doctor.” The New York Times. November 10, 2017. Retrieved December 1, 2017 from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/10/sports/olympics/aly-raisman-sexual-abuse.html

USA Gymnastics. “About USA Gymnastics.” Retrieved December 1, 2017 from https://usagym.org/pages/aboutus/pages/about_usag.html

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