1992 US women's gymnastics team Barcelona
BARCELONA – 1992: (L-R) Kim Zmeskal, Kerri Strug, Shannon Miller, Dominique Dawes, Wendy Bruce and Betty Okino of the United States stand on the podium

They are little girls. But they are as tough as nails. They have to be in order to be a top flight gymnast. And there are real costs.

The revelations last year of sexual abuse in the world of USA Gymnastics, led by reporting by The Indianapolis Star, were shocking – well over 300 cases of sexual abuse of minors over the past 20 years!

But when you listen to people in the know, former gymnasts who grew up in the seemingly cruel world of competitive gymnastics, these stories of abuse are no surprise.

Wendy Bruce Martin won a bronze medal as a part of the US women’s gymnastics team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. She currently runs a consultancy that helps athletes with the mental and emotional aspects of competition, and has thought deeply about what she calls the “cult culture of gymnastics.” Martin believes it is a culture that feeds an addiction, as she writes in a blog post:

Gymnastics is like being in an unfair relationship, it takes way more than it gives back to the gymnast, and whatever it needs from us gymnasts, we give it. When it does give back, it gives us feelings that reach straight into our souls. The little tastes of success are enough to keep us working, and get us addicted.

I was willing to give anything to gymnastics and I was willing to give everything. My addiction had me focused mostly on my immediate gratification. As long as I could perform my skills, I was willing to ignore the advice from my Doctor. When my Doctors told me to take time off of gymnastics to heal, I didn’t. I pushed myself and worked in pain, and when I couldn’t handle the pain, I begged the Doctor to help. I begged for something to help ease my pain and so against my Doctors advice, I made them give me Cortisone shots in my ankles and wrists.

Jennifer Sey is a US national champion gymnast, and author of the book, Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics’ Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams. She too knows first hand of this culture. This is how she described her experience for The New York Times:

When I was training, I blackened my eyes when I fell on my head on the beam after fasting for three days before a competition. “I don’t coach fat gymnasts” was a common refrain from coaches antagonizing me about my weight. I competed on an injured ankle swollen to the size of a baseball. At one point, I required monthly cortisone injections to limp through my floor routine.

After I broke my femur at the 1985 world championships, I had the cast removed early under pressure from my coaches so that I could train for the next national championships. I competed and won, but not without breaking the opposite ankle in the process.

The message I got was that if you couldn’t take it, you were weak. If you complained, you didn’t deserve to be on the team. In fact, if you perceived it as abuse, rather than just plain old tough coaching, you were delusional.

Jennifer Sey
Jennifer Sey

The problem that these two former gymnasts reveal is that it is not just the children and the coaches that perpetuate this culture of success and abuse, the parents of these children do as well. Martin explains that she had bulimia, an eating disorder. And an adult close to her was aware of this issue, and could have decided to reveal this secret, the consequences of which could have led to treatment and possibly a loss on the Olympics squad. But, she wrote, the adult was also complicit in the culture.

This adult told me that they knew about my eating disorder and they said, “Just don’t do it too much.” I was so relieved that they didn’t want to send me to treatment or therapy. I knew that I would miss out on my chance on being an Olympian. This was exactly the response I wanted. I shook my head and promised not to do it too much, and walked away in relief.

To me, Bulimia was something I was willing to sacrifice for the chance of my dreams. I was never upset at this adult for not doing more or forcing me to go into therapy. I was fine with their passive and non-confrontational advice on my disorder. I knew that they didn’t want to ruin my dream, and they didn’t want to be the one who spoke up and destroyed the 14 years of training I devoted my childhood to. They understood the Cult Culture of Gymnastics and so did I.

Sey has similar sentiments, understanding that the child gets so locked in the culture that “you learn to focus only on achievement and to disregard your own sense of right and wrong, along with your own well-being.” But she goes on to say that parents and adults do not have that excuse, particularly when it comes to sexual abuse.

Because of this, I can understand how young gymnasts might be confused about whether and how to speak up for themselves when they’ve been mistreated. But there’s no excuse for adults to turn a blind eye to sexual misconduct.

The strength and discipline of our gymnasts shouldn’t cause us to forget that most of them are children for a majority of their careers. The coaches, officials and other adults charged with harnessing their talents must also stand up for their well-being.

I wish I’d had someone to stand up for me.

Martin exclaimed the same.

The bottom line is that NOTHING is more important than the health of a child. No skills, routine, meet, medal, or trophy is more important than the child. Gymnastics will end one day, then what will the gymnast, coach, and parents be left with?

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about the revelations by The Indianapolis Star of sexual abuse of teenagers and pre-teens by coaches and officials within and affiliated with USA Gymnastics.

At the time, IndyStar was aware of about 50 cases. Now they report they have uncovered through police files and court case documentation that hundreds of gymnasts have been abused in the past 20 years.

“At least 368 gymnasts have alleged some form of sexual abuse at the hands of their coaches, gym owners and other adults working in gymnastics. That’s a rate of one every 20 days. And it’s likely an undercount.”

The IndyStar’s most recent article on this travesty provides a fascinating analysis of a sports organization and its affiliated officials, coaches, and gym owners in denial. Here is a good chunk of that shocking analysis in full:

  • USA Gymnastics focuses its efforts to stop sexual abuse on educating members instead of setting strict ground rules and enforcing them. It says it can’t take aggressive action because member gyms are independent businesses and because of restrictions in federal law pertaining to Olympic organizations. Both are contentions others dispute.
  • Gym owners have a conflict of interest when it comes to reporting abuse. Some fear harm to their business. When confronted with evidence of abuse, many quietly have fired the suspected abusers and failed to warn future employers. Some of those dangerous coaches continued to work with children.
  • Some coaches are fired at gym after gym without being tracked or flagged by USA Gymnastics, or losing their membership with the organization. USA Gymnastics often has no idea when a coach is fired by a gym and no systematic way to keep track. Ray Adams was fired or forced to resign from six gyms in four states. Yet some gym owners hired Adams, believing his record was clean.
  • Though the vast majority of officials put children’s well-being ahead of business and competition, some officials at every level have not. Coaches suspected of abuse kept their jobs as long as they accepted special monitoring. Others were allowed to finish their season before being fired. In 2009, Doug Boger was named a USA Gymnastics Coach of the Year and was sent to international competition while under investigation for alleged sexual abuse.
  • Victims’ stories have been treated with skepticism by USA Gymnastics officials, gym owners, coaches and parents. Former gymnasts Charmaine Carnes and Jennifer Sey said they felt pressured by Penny not to pursue allegations of abuse by prominent coaches Don Peters and Boger. Carnes said she thought Penny tried to keep the claims about Boger quiet for as long as possible to protect the sport’s image and win championships, a characterization that USA Gymnastics disputes.

Women’s gymnastics have made tremendous strides, winning team gold at the 2012 London Olympics as well as the 2016 Rio Olympics. But I’m curious – I’ve seen or read no reaction from the coaches and athletes at the apex of the USA Gymnastics pyramid: the Karolyis, the members of the women’s Olympic gymnastics team, and their parents. Their silence may be the result of counsel provided to them by the advisors that surround them. But at some point, they need to lead in this pivotal moment, this crisis of confidence in women’s gymnastics.

The Silent Shame Part 1: USA Gymnastics Ignored Sexual Abuse Allegations

The Silent Shame Part 2: Why Would / How Could Leaders of USA Gymnastics Stay Silent in the Face of Sexual Abuse Allegations?

sexual-abuse-of-underaged

Thanks to The Indianapolis Star, we now know that leaders in USA Gymnastics, the governing body for gymnastics in America, were aware of coaches who sexually abused female gymnasts over the past two decades at least, many of whom were under-aged. We also know that USA Gymnastics did little to prevent further abuse unless a parent or the police pushed them to act.

According to The Indianapolis Star, USA Gymnastics have detailed and sometimes voluminous documentation on coaches accused of sexual abuse, but those documents have not yet been disclosed by USA Gymnastics. We know about these cases today primarily because the journalists of the Indy Star went through police and court records, uncovering details of the cases. They also learned about a so-called policy that provided the rationale for USA Gymnastics officials not to take any action despite knowledge of the abuse.

Current USA Gymnastics president, Steve Penny, in a court deposition said “to the best of my knowledge, there’s no duty to report if you are…if you are a third party to some allegation.” Penny’s predecessor, Robert Colarossi, stated that a reason not to report abuse to the police was “concern about potential damage to a coach’s reputation if an allegation proved false,” and that he “inherited an executive policy of dismissing complaints as ‘hearsay’ unless they were signed by a victim or victim’s parent – a policy that experts said could deter people from reporting abuse. It’s not clear exactly when that policy was created or by whom.”

child-abuse-stats

The Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence is a nonprofit organization that focuses on scientifically research-based explanations for mental health issues. In one of their articles, entitled “Eight Common Myths About Child Sexual Abuse“, the Leadership Council gives insight into why many of us allow sexual abuse to continue.

Few people are aware of the true state of the science on child abuse. Instead, most people’s beliefs have been shaped by common misconceptions and popular myths about this hidden crime. Societal acceptance of these myths assists sex offenders by silencing victims and encouraging public denial about the true nature of sexual assaults against children. The Leadership Council prepared this analysis because we believe that society as a whole benefits when the public has access to accurate information regarding child abuse and other forms of interpersonal violence.

Here is the list of myths:

  • Myth 1:  Normal-appearing, well educated, middle-class people don’t molest children.
  • Myth 2:  People are too quick to believe an abuser is guilty, even if there is no supporting evidence.
  • Myth 3:  Child molesters molest indiscriminately.
  • Myth 4:  Children who are being abused would immediately tell their parents.
  • Myth 5:  Children who are being abused will show physical evidence of abuse.
  • Myth 6:  Hundreds of innocent men and women have been falsely accused and sent to prison for molesting children.
  • Myth 7:  If asked about abuse, children tend to exaggerate and are prone to making false accusations.
  • Myth 8:  By using repeated interviews, therapists or police can easily implant false memories and cause false accusations among children of any age.

I could only presume, but if we consider the leaders of USA Gymnastics to be of normal mental health, then they too accept many of the myths above as fact. In many cases, I’m sure they took the word of the coach’s over the children.

  • “Where’s the proof?”
  • “These are normal-appearing, well-educated men. Can’t be true.”
  • “If a child was really being abused, she would definitely have told her parents.”
  • “And what would happen if we falsely accused a coach? Oh, the shame.”

Yes. Oh, the shame.

 

For facts and more myths on child abuse in America, see The National Child Traumatic Stress Network Fact sheet.

The Silent Shame Part 1: USA Gymnastics Ignored Sexual Abuse Allegations

The Silent Shame Part 3: New Sexual Abuse Allegations for USA Gymnastics

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We were shocked to learn in 2002 of the cases of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, and that Church leaders dealt with the situation by rotating abusers to new parishes without explanation.

Many were outraged in 2011 by the fact that the president, the athletic director as well the football head coach at Penn State University were aware of allegations that the football team’s assistant head coach was molesting children, and did nothing.

And in 2016, we are again aghast about news that USA Gymnastics simply kept quiet despite case after case of sexual abuse allegations against coaches in its organization.

It is inconceivable to most parents that their child would be abused by people they know, and in whose care they entrust their child’s well-being. And yet, in the afterglow of the Rio Olympics, when the Final Five, the young American female gymnasts, dominated in the women’s gymnastics competition to easily take glory and gold in the team competition, we find USA Gymnastics in retreat.

The Indianapolis Star investigated these allegations and compiled over 50 accounts of sexual abuse of children under the care of USA Gymnastics’ coaches. And two lawsuits have been filed by ex-athletes against former USA Gymnastics team doctor, Larry Nassar, who is being accused of sexual abuse in over 20 cases since 1999. In one of the lawsuits, Bela and Martha Karolyi, team coordinators for the national team of USA Gymnastics, are cited as leaders who created a toxic culture of abuse and cover up.

According to The Indianapolis Star, officials of USA Gymnastics were aware of sexual abuse of female gymnasts, including pre-teens, for years, often doing nothing or acting only if asked.

  • USA Gymnastics were given a detailed complaint in 2011 about 2010 national Women’s Coach of the Year, Marvin Sharp, but only reported him to the police after a second allegation of abuse of a 12 year old, four years later.
  • USA Gymnastics apparently has a large dossier of complaints against a coach named Mark Shiefelbein, but the parents of a 10 year old abused by Shiefelbein, who went to the police, was surprised to learn that USA Gymnastics knew he was a serial sexual abuser and did nothing.
  • USA Gymnastics knew about a coach named James Bell and his cases of sexual abuse at least 5 years before being arrested for molesting three gymnasts in 2003.
  • USA Gymnastics was told by a gym owner in 1998 that a coach named William McCabe “should be locked in a cage before someone is raped”. Despite knowing of at least four complaints against McCabe, USA Gymnastics allowed him to coach for seven more years.

Kaylin Maddox Brietzke was a gymnast under the guidance of James Bell, and many years later in this interview, eloquently expresses the emotion of that vulnerability of her childhood and that betrayal by adults and authority she naturally trusted.

Any corporation that puts their reputation above safety, honestly is not something I want to be a part of at all. And I was a part of USA Gymnastics for a very long time. It doesn’t matter who you are protecting. It doesn’t matter that they are a part of your organization and you want to save face. How about saving me.

 

The Silent Shame Part 2: Why Would / How Could Leaders of USA Gymnastics Stay Silent in the Face of Sexual Abuse Allegations?

The Silent Shame Part 3: New Sexual Abuse Allegations for USA Gymnastics