Among Simone Biles’s more impressive achievements in the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics has been her ability to compartmentalize — to focus on gymnastics while setting aside her anger and mistrust of USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee in the wake of the sport’s sexual abuse scandal.
On Saturday morning, while en route to Indianapolis for a mandatory U.S. women’s training camp, Biles revealed the toll it is taking, particularly in light of USA Gymnastics’ latest proposal for settling hundreds of lawsuits over its failure to protect athletes from sexual predator and former team doctor Larry Nassar.
The proposal would release U.S. Olympic officials, former USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny, former coaches Martha and Bela Karolyi and others from liability. Moreover, it includes no provision for disclosing who at USA Gymnastics was aware of and hid Nassar’s abuse — details that survivors have demanded from the outset.
Wrote Biles to her 1.1 million Twitter followers: “Ugh at the airport. Heading to team camp. Still want answers from USAG and USOPC. Wish they BOTH wanted an independent investigation as much as the survivors & I do. Anxiety high. Hard not to think about everything that I DON’T WANT TO THINK ABOUT!!!”
Biles immediately replied in a thread: “And don’t THEY also want to know HOW everything was allowed to happen and WHO let it happen so it NEVER HAPPENS AGAIN? Shouldn’t people be held accountable? Who do I ask??? I’m torn at this point....”
Within minutes, Biles received words of support from Rachael Denhollander, the former gymnast who first publicly accused Nassar of sexual abuse in August 2016, via an Indianapolis Star investigation that led to hundreds of victims coming forward in the sport and at Michigan State, where Nassar also worked.
“I’m with you Simone,” Denhollander tweeted. “Your character and courage is far above the leadership of either organization. Sponsors of these organizations need to know that the worst thing they can do for survivors, athletes and the next generation, is to keep these broken organizations alive.”
By midday, 2016 Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman weighed in, assailing what she called “a massive cover up.”
“The problem is USAG & USOC don’t want anyone to know. This is a massive cover up. The only way for anyone to know what really happened is if someone forces them to release ALL documents & data to investigate. HOW CAN WE MAKE THIS HAPPEN?” she tweeted.
Under Li Li Leung, its fourth chief executive in less than three years, and a new corporate board, USAG would love to resolve the Nassar lawsuits before the Tokyo Games. It does not want the specter of Nassar, litigation and hundreds of abused gymnasts overshadowing its prime opportunity to woo back corporate sponsors that defected in the wake of the scandal, among them AT&T, Procter & Gamble and Kellogg’s.
Yet with each revelation about the terms and amount of USAG’s proposed $215 million settlement for more than 500 litigants — less than half the $500 million Michigan State will pay 332 litigants victimized by Nassar while he was on its faculty — the prospect of a resolution looks increasingly remote.
USAG responded to a request for comment about the criticism from Biles with a statement: “We have fully cooperated with all investigative bodies, including by producing information that they have requested. Investigations have been led by Ropes & Gray [an independent law firm], several congressional committees, the Indiana Attorney General, and Walker County, Texas; and we will continue to cooperate. We are deeply committed to learning from these investigations, and finding ways to prevent abuse in the future. At the same time, we must respect the confidentiality and integrity of the mediation and SafeSport processes. We would welcome the opportunity to continue mediation and discussing how to best resolve the survivors’ claims.”
Former Olympic champion swimmer Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a lawyer and advocate for athlete safety, told The Washington Post in an email exchange: “Simon Biles’ exasperation is justified. As an Olympian and a fellow survivor, I urge Simone Biles not to compartmentalize her anxiety, but to use it for extraordinary performances on behalf of all athletes. I hope her righteous anger moves her to speak out even more boldly. Sexual abuse is just one symptom of athletes having no power, and the Olympic Movement executives still treat athletes like marketing opportunities for their own pocket.”
Perhaps no Olympic athlete has a more powerful voice than Biles, a five-world all-around champion, five-time Olympic medalist and six-time U.S. all-around champion who is expected to dominate the Tokyo Games. The 22-year-old has used her voice judiciously and to great effect regarding USAG and Nassar’s abuse, acknowledging in January 2018 that she, too, was a victim and expressing dread of having to return to the national team camp at Karolyi Ranch, where she had been abused, to prepare for the 2020 Olympics. Three days later, USAG severed ties with the Texas complex.
On the eve of the 2019 U.S. gymnastics championships in August, Biles wept while explaining the challenge of competing on behalf of an organization, USAG, that had failed its athletes so grievously, saying through tears: “You had one job. You literally had one job, and you couldn’t protect us!”
USAG filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in December 2018, stating it would expedite the settlement of athletes’ claims. The filing also halted discovery in the lawsuits and USOPC’s efforts to revoke its status as the sport’s national governing body.
On Jan. 30, USAG released its initial settlement offer of $215 million, to be divided among all claimants, explaining that it was the maximum its insurers could fund. The plan was swiftly rejected by John C. Manly, the attorney who represents roughly 200 of the more than 500 litigants, who said it showed “complete disregard for the athletes.” He estimated each victim would receive $250,000 to $300,000, which he called insufficient to compensate for emotional harm and therapy. He also faulted the plan’s failure to disclose documents and details about Nassar’s abuse.
Further details of USAG’s offer came to light Feb. 22 via reports by the Orange County Register and ESPN, which obtained a court filing enumerating a four-tiered compensation system based on victims’ level of gymnastics achievement and the setting where the abuse occurred. It ranged from $1.25 million (for gymnasts abused at the Olympics, world championships or national training camps and competitions) to $82,550.
Hogshead-Makar immediately faulted USAG and U.S. Olympic officials for continuing to “protect the brand” rather than taking necessary steps to protect vulnerable athletes.
Denhollander was appalled. “There have been a lot of incredibly painful and outright disgusting moments since I let my abuse become international news because these organizations made it the only way to stop Larry,” she tweeted. “But today might be the worst.”
Biles tweeted two days later, after absorbing the implications, “I wish I could say what’s actually on my mind.... but I’ll start with I can’t believe this.”
On Thursday, Raisman added her voice, noting via a lengthy Twitter post that it had been five years since she reported her abuse to USAG officials, yet the organization and the USOPC still sought to obstruct survivors’ search for full disclosure.
“So many of us have suffered because these organizations put their interests ahead of our safety and welfare,” Raisman wrote. “So long as their self-preservation takes precedence over the truth, the problem will continue, as will our suffering.”
On Saturday morning, Biles said what was on her mind. Then she boarded a plane and went to work.