Reading the many outraged responses to the sex-abuse scandal in elite women’s gymnastics was a gratifying experience at first. Charles P. Pierce, a virtuoso of excoriation unexcelled since H.L. Mencken, set the tone with his bracing essay for Sports Illustrated titled: “Burn It All Down: It’s Time for Every Coward Who Enabled Larry Nassar to Pay for Their Sins.”
“No punishment is too harsh,” Pierce inveighed, “for the inhabitants of this universe of ghouls and gargoyles to which these brave young women were condemned.”
Yet, as the days have passed since the monstrous team doctor from USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University was sentenced to die in prison, as the judge put it, for the sexual abuse of more than 100 athletes, I haven’t been able to shake the uncomfortable feeling that an awful lot of sinners, including many of us in the pews (and in the pulpit for that matter), stand convicted by Brother Pierce and company.
I mean, how many of us can honestly say that, until now, we had the utmost confidence in the adults at the top of U.S. gymnastics? I keep thinking of the moment in 1996, when coach Bela Karolyi urged Olympian Kerri Strug to ignore her injured ankle long enough to execute a final vault for the team gold medal. As the bearish coach carried the tiny heroine to the medal stand, I was as appalled by him as I was inspired by her.
Having witnessed the casual way in which Strug’s caretakers sent the injured teen to stick another landing — a feat of tremendous skill and beauty that ends with roughly the same violent impact as being thrown from the roof of a garage — the whole world was on notice. Certain values guided the thinking of these people, and safety of the athletes was not high among them.
So it came as no great surprise when stories cropped up from time to time of psychological abuse inside the training camp run by Karolyi and his wife, Marta. What else would we expect from a regimen honed in the horror show that was Ceausescu’s Romania? And it was just more of the same when, in 2004, journalist Scott Reid of the Orange County Register let us know that gymnasts training for Team USA were subjected to near-starvation diets — 900 calories per day to fuel a world-class athlete. The purpose of this, as a study in the International Journal of Sports Medicine made clear in 2000, was to delay the onset of puberty, when the natural development of a woman’s body makes her less adapted to acrobatic tumbling.
“Intensive physical training of elite female gymnasts combined with inadequate nutritional intake can alter the normal pattern of pubertal development,” a team of scientists wrote. “In female gymnasts the onset of menarche can be influenced by keeping the amount of fat mass low.”
Now we arrive at the “Casablanca” moment. Given all that we knew or could easily have known, we pronounce ourselves shocked — shocked! — that Nassar groomed his victims by smuggling food to them. Or that the adults in his skeevy orbit cared more about whether his “patients” won medals than whether the doctor was assaulting them.
Talent alone does not ensure athletic greatness. Most elite athletes also cultivate self-discipline, ambition, self-sacrifice and endurance: admirable qualities, but ones that make young athletes highly vulnerable to exploitive coaches, trainers and assorted hangers-on. I have no doubt Strug would have vaulted on two injured ankles and a fractured wrist if it meant the difference between gold and silver.
The job of protecting them falls first on parents. I’ve seen how that looks up close. One of my sisters was a nationally ranked sprinter, with a coveted slot on an elite track team coached by one of the most charismatic and innovative figures in the sport.
In my family, coaches spoke gospel. Until the day team parents learned their children’s coach was romantically involved with his star middle-distance runner, a teenager half his age. My sister and I remember hiding on the stairs to eavesdrop as the coach was fired in our living room. Some things are more important than a trophy — or even a gold medal.
But families can’t fight these battles alone. We fans have a responsibility, too. By valuing our entertainment more highly than we value the safety of athletes, we create the conditions for injury and abuse, not only in gymnastics but also in sports from football to figure skating.
Ours is not the first civilization to condone the torture of talented children because they delight us. For centuries, certain choirboys were castrated to preserve their sweet, high voices. As recently as the 1800s, “castrati” were among the most popular singers in Europe.
Think of that during the next Olympics as you ask yourself whether our gymnasts are being fed. If the answer is no, change the channel.
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