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No darkness should ever shadow the innocence of children at play

Tommy Conlon


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Tiffany Lopez delivers her victim impact statement to Larry Nassar: 'It became a compelling spectacle, the previously powerless growing in power as they spoke, the previously powerful visibly shrinking into powerlessness as he listened.' Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Tiffany Lopez delivers her victim impact statement to Larry Nassar: 'It became a compelling spectacle, the previously powerless growing in power as they spoke, the previously powerful visibly shrinking into powerlessness as he listened.' Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

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Tiffany Lopez delivers her victim impact statement to Larry Nassar: 'It became a compelling spectacle, the previously powerless growing in power as they spoke, the previously powerful visibly shrinking into powerlessness as he listened.' Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Eighteen months ago the most notorious paedophile in world sport was jailed for up to 175 years by a judge in Michigan, USA.

Before he was sentenced, Dr Larry Nassar was obliged to sit and listen as over 150 women delivered their victim impact statements on the record. Among them were Olympic medal winning gymnasts. His victims included superstars of the sport such as Simone Biles, Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas.

A new documentary film on Netflix called Athlete A contains further testimony about Nassar's crimes from a number of survivors. It also explains how the sport's long-standing culture of physical and emotional abuse helped pave the way for widespread sexual abuse too. In Britain the film has inspired former gymnasts to go public on the psychological and physical damage that was inflicted upon them also. A number of them told their stories on TV for the first time last week. On Tuesday British Gymnastics announced it was launching an independent review into the allegations.

The sport historically has a reputation for unremitting severity in its coaching philosophy. The standards demanded are punishing, quite literally so. And it is young girls in the main who have been subjected to this gruelling culture. Many of them train injured and hungry; some of them end up with eating disorders. Their innocence makes them compliant and vulnerable.

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Larry Nassar. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Larry Nassar. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Getty Images

Larry Nassar. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

"It's more important to protect the future generations right now," stated Becky Downie on Twitter last week. Downie, from Nottingham, won a silver medal at the world championships last year on the uneven bars. The next line in her tweet seemed to concede that the general regime in gymnastics has to be survived more than enjoyed. "Don't get me wrong this sport is HARD & there is a lot of bad stuff you kind of just have to deal with to make it to the top BUT . . . THERE IS A LINE & that line has been crossed way too many times!!"

Jennifer Sey was a top American gymnast in the 1980s. She is an authority on the "bad stuff". In 2008 she published a book about her experiences. "The standard methodology of coaching in elite gymnastics was cruelty," she says in Athlete A. "You could be as cruel as you needed to be to get what you needed to out of your athlete."

The trend for child-gymnasts competing at senior level rocketed after Nadia Comaneci became a global sensation at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. She was 14. Thereafter, the most talented children in the sport were subjected to training regimes more appropriate for mature young adults.

"And so it created a really dangerous environment," explains Sey, "because eating disorders became very prevalent, you know, delaying menstruation and delaying maturation . . . You had to be tiny." Inevitably, coaches had more power and control in this environment. "There were sexual predators everywhere," she says, "and we knew who they were. But more broadly, emotional and physical abuse was actually the norm and we were also beaten down by that."

Comaneci had been coached in communist Romania by the husband-and-wife team of Bela and Martha Karolyi. The couple defected to America in 1981 and proceeded to transform elite women's gymnastics there. They established a centre of excellence in Texas that became a factory for future World and Olympic medallists. Nassar as team doctor sexually assaulted numerous girls there over the next 25 years. He did likewise at his sports medicine practice on the campus of Michigan State University (MSU).

John Manly, a Californian lawyer, represents hundreds of survivors. The culture at the Karolyi camp, he says, "was one of fear, intimidation and silence."

The medic ingratiated himself with the gymnasts through gestures of empathy and compassion. "The only bright light at that place was Larry Nassar. He was kind, he was funny, he made them laugh. He snuck them snacks, he gave them food, he engendered trust in all these women."

On the treatment table he regularly abused them. The first complaints about him were reported as early as 1997. It wasn't until 2015 that the scandal became public in a series of stories by investigative journalists at The Indianapolis Star.

Rachael Denhollander, now a lawyer herself, was one of the first former gymnasts to break the silence. She had been molested several times at MSU, on one occasion with her mother in the room, Nassar deliberately blocking her view and chatting amiably while digitally violating her daughter.

With each successive story in the newspaper, a trickle of other victims came forward; eventually it became a flood. The reward for these early whistleblowers was vicious online attacks. Denhollander recounts her story with striking poise and calmness. "I lost every shred of privacy," she says, "and, I felt, every shred of dignity with what I had to disclose."

Nassar at the time of the first revelations was running for election to the board of education at his local high school, where he also had a sports medicine contract. Well known and still well regarded, he received 22 per cent of the votes, more than 2,000 votes in all.

In September 2016, police in Michigan raided his house. Coincidentally, on the day in question, his refuse bin had been left on the roadside kerb for collection. So the cops did what they call "a trash pull", says Detective Lieutenant Andrea Munford, the lead police investigator. A number of computer hard drives had been dumped in the bin. "And that's where the first images of child sexually abusive material, commonly referred to as child porn, were found. Thirty-seven thousand images."

Nassar's lawyers negotiated a plea bargain. The police and state prosecution teams have been widely praised for their victim-centred approach to the case. Lieutenant Munford and the lead prosecutor, Angela Povilaitis, insisted that as part of the deal, every person abused by Nassar should be allowed read their victim impact statement in court to him. One by one they took their turn and testified. Munford describes it as the "momentum of empowerment". The procession of survivors making their statements lasted for over a week in January 2018. It became a compelling spectacle, the previously powerless growing in power as they spoke, the previously powerful visibly shrinking into powerlessness as he listened.

In the same month, the Karolyi centre in Texas was permanently closed. USA Gymnastics, the sport's governing body, has been devastated by the scandal. In the long litany of institutions around the world which turned a blind eye to the abuse of children, this is deemed to be another. In June 2018 its former president, Steve Penny, was summoned to appear before a committee of the United States Senate. He refused to answer questions. Penny and USA Gymnastics are mired in multiple lawsuits from former gymnasts alleging abuse by Nassar.

While the stories told in Athlete A prompted further discussion last week about the culture in British gymnastics, the echoes from Ireland's horrific past can be heard in them too. As for the present and future, and knowing what we know now, there will always be a conflicting ambivalence for those adults willing to volunteer their time in children's sport. No darkness should ever shadow the fun and innocence of children at play, while the grown-ups looking after them can never afford to forget it.

Sunday Indo Sport