PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Larry Nassar and his enablers made it back to the Olympics, sadly. The sickening residue of the USA Gymnastics scandal lingers into these Winter Games, even though the unscrupulous doctor is spending the rest of his predatory life in prison and U.S. Olympic Committee leaders are hiding from responsibility for allowing his evil to spread.
With shame still fresh, horror still nauseating, the current Team USA is attached to the fallout. These athletes haven’t shared any stories of sexual abuse and systemic betrayal, but they represent a country mired in a sporting atrocity. For Nassar’s victims — an appalling 265 have asserted abuse thus far — the healing may never end. Nassar has been sentenced three times, most recently Monday, for his vast sins against girls and young women. But punishment won’t stop the pain, and the thirst for justice extends beyond the molester to those guilty of negligence.
The baggage that Team USA brought to South Korea comes in the form of two questions: When will the USOC truly admit its failings and clean house? How can the entire Olympic coalition work together to create an environment in which silent suffering isn’t considered the price for athletic aspiration?
The Olympics are often as messy as they are inspirational, and this time, the United States has the most hideous cloud over its head. The Russia doping saga has garnered the most attention, especially with the International Olympic Committee looking clueless again about how to govern. IOC members are barking at each other. It is classic Olympic drama — cheating and inconsistent consequences — a never-ending story. The scandal is more troubling because of how diabolical Russia’s state-sponsored doping program seems. But in general, that is a familiar disease, at least.
Speaking of diseases, the PyeongChang Games may be on the verge of a major norovirus outbreak. And it’s so cold here that the local organizing committee president is demonstrating how to wear hats and blankets. And it feels like the forced unity between North and South Korea — the athletes will march together during the Opening Ceremonies under a unified flag, and the women’s hockey team is integrated — is a bad and naive idea, no matter how powerful the moment may seem Friday night.
Still, out of all the messiness, the U.S.’s problem is the worst and most stigmatizing. The crisis also offers the most potential to learn, grow and change, even if it figures to be a slow process that lacks enough immediate punitive action against Nassar enablers to satisfy public outrage.
But here’s the current good rising out of a horrible situation: It’s no longer taboo to challenge authoritative predators. The #MeToo reckoning is obliterating much of the silence. The past four months have been both remarkable and depressing. It’s wonderful to see women stand up and reclaim a level of respect that should have been a given. It’s also disturbing to realize the depth of the problem. It’s clear that we haven’t yet reached the bottom. Maybe there isn’t a bottom.
But there’s awareness now. It’s one of the most important steps toward progress and reformation. For the first time, the Olympics will have trauma units for athletes. Local organizers have set up four counseling centers throughout the region here to provide medical and psychological help for athletes who have been harassed or abused.
The PyeongChang Organizing Committee followed a recommendation by Susan Greinig, the IOC safeguarding officer. This is the second Olympics in which Greinig has had that role; she first provided support during the Rio Games two years ago. Now, having had one Olympics to figure it out, Greinig has good resources to help. She’s working with about 20 medical professionals. She hopes to create a safe haven for athletes.
Of course, four counseling centers don’t ensure that sexual predators will stay away, but lines of communication are open. Avenues to report a crime and be protected are available. You can’t change a disgusting culture easily, but the belief that an Olympic athlete — particularly a precocious girl — has to shut up and do what she’s told, no matter how questionable, uncomfortable or abusive the method, is changing.
In the future, those counseling centers should expand their services to include the ability to report abusive coaching and not just sexual misconduct. It would be even better if the IOC used its influence to encourage strongly that all national teams have well-funded and effective sexual and physical abuse support. Greinig says collaboration is key to making a difference. Only so much can be accomplished during the Olympics. This has to be a priority for individual nations, not the IOC.
“Everything that happened with the gymnastics team is really horrible,” U.S. luger Summer Britcher said. “But I think maybe it’s a bit of a silver lining. Those women having the strength and the bravery to come forward has resulted in having these avenues and outlets available for women in the future. I think that’s maybe a small positive to take away. Hopefully, in the future, things like this are prevented beforehand.”
Erin Hamlin is a 31-year-old luger participating in her fourth Olympics. Four years ago, she earned a bronze and became the first American luger to win a medal in singles competition. When she thinks about the Nassar scandal, she no longer takes for granted how different her experience has been.
“I’ve never been in a position where I have felt like I would need to utilize something like that,” Hamlin said of the counseling centers. “I have also never felt like I have had proper — I don’t know if proper’s the right word — avenues where if I feel like I need to talk to someone, I never felt like I needed to keep anything to myself, if I felt threatened, if I felt abused or if I felt anything. I always felt like I have had a constant line of communication to anybody that can help me. Knowing now a lot of the things that other female athletes have gone through, I am very thankful.”
When the Games begin this weekend, the focus will be on the U.S. medal haul. The search for the American face of these Olympics will begin. The names to watch will include Mikaela Shiffrin and Chloe Kim, both young and female and full of hope.
We now know, in creepy detail, what Nassar did to so many gymnasts, including some of the most beloved and successful in the sport’s history. If there are more Nassars lurking, burdening the Olympic experience and complicating our American pride, they must be stopped.
The long, slow process of reform starts here, with Team USA trying to make the cloud go away. It won’t happen anytime soon. There will be American glory during these Games, for sure. There will be moments that distract us. But the cloud needs to stay. It’s a reminder that even the thrills can’t mask all of the ugly. We need to stay aware of the ugly.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.
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