Tuesday 20 March 2018

Oliver Brown: Lessons still not learned as USA Gymnastics abuse scandal leaves a trail of victims

Simone Biles. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Simone Biles. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Oliver Brown

In the annals of searing courtroom drama, one young woman's televised excoriation this week of Larry Nassar, the disgraced USA Gymnastics doctor who has pleaded guilty to 10 counts of criminal sexual conduct with minors, deserves saving for posterity.

Until now, she had been known only as 'Victim Z.A', portrayed with long hair and teenage braces in faded family photographs. But this time, shredding the veil of anonymity, she stepped forward as Kyle Stephens, reading a statement that in its unsparing detail tore through not just Nassar but the system that shielded him for the best part of 20 years.

"You used my body for six years for your own sexual gratification," she said to Nassar's face. "Now, as the only non-medical victim to come forward, I testify to let the world know that you are a repulsive liar.

"Little girls don't stay little forever. Sexual abuse is so much more than a disturbing physical act. It changes the trajectory of a victim's life."

The shadow cast by Nassar's crimes envelops an entire generation of female gymnasts and their families. Stephens disclosed how her father committed suicide in 2016, arguing that he felt consumed by shame and self-loathing over the revelations of what the doctor had done to her.

Then there was the testimony by Donna Markham, whose daughter Chelsea had described how Nassar had molested her even while her mother was in the room. Chelsea was subsequently drawn into a spiral of depression and drug abuse, taking her own life at the age of 23.

Over the coming days, inside the sterile walls of a small courthouse in Lansing, Michigan, at least 98 victim statements are expected to be read out, documenting the scale of evil that can be unleashed when one man's depravity is combined with an institutional code of silence.

Olivia Cowan, abused for 10 years under the guise of medical treatment at Michigan State University (MSU), where Nassar practised, said: "It is horrifying that MSU and USA Gymnastics [USAG] are not stepping up to the plate to admit their wrongdoing.

"MSU knew what was being done to these athletes and decided to turn a blind eye, to keep their reputation strong and their pockets full."

What is unfolding is nothing less than one of the worst abuse scandals in sports history, and yet it has moved the needle in America barely a fraction compared to events at Penn State in 2011, when assistant gridiron coach Jerry Sandusky's serial molestation of boys brought national condemnation. It drew a €50 million fine and even the removal of a statue of Joe Paterno, Sandusky's superior and until then the most celebrated coach in the land.

The horrors in gymnastics, whether through the sport's more limited exposure or its grim record of exploitation of vulnerable prepubescent girls by all-powerful coaches, have barely registered on the public radar.

An intervention by Simone Biles could change all that. Biles is among the few athletes to transcend her sport, thanks to a stunning sequence of four gold medals at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, with performances so close to perfection that she invited parallels with Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci. Now she, too, has claimed to have been violated by Nassar.

"The more I try to shut off the voice in my head, the more it screams," she said. "It is impossibly difficult to relieve these experiences."

As Biles also suggested, one vivid sign that USAG still had not learned from the crimes perpetrated under its watch was that - until yesterday - athletes like her were still compelled to visit the Karolyi ranch in Texas, where Nassar carried out many of his monstrous acts. USAG president Kerry Perry announced last night that it was severing all ties with the facility.

In a previous statement, the organisation said: "We are our athletes' advocates. We will create a culture of empowerment with a relentless focus on athlete safety every single day." Platitudinous hogwash, all of it. The governing body has already failed its gymnasts in the most fundamental way, even allegedly telling Aly Raisman, a three-time gold medallist, to keep quiet when she conveyed her experiences at Nassar's hands.

Rather than offering her therapy, USAG did not so much as inform Michigan State, Nassar's employer, about the concerns over his behaviour during medical exams. Instead, he continued to treat patients until his firing in September 2016. Another gymnast, McKayla Maroney, alleges that she was paid to keep her mouth shut and has since sued the federation, accusing them of an "immoral and illegal attempt to silence a victim of child sexual abuse".

In both word and deed, USAG, an organisation with 174,000 members and in recent years an irresistible medal-winning machine, has shown that it has learnt nothing. When a congressional hearing about sexual abuse was held last month, not a single USAG representative turned up.

Even when it came the resignation of Steve Penny, the former chief executive lambasted for a bungled response to the scandal, there was still a €800,000 pay-off - money that could have been far better spent on supporting the athletes affected.

For the sake of sport more widely, the entire organisation needs rebuilding from the bottom up. If the story of Nassar and his heinous abuses teaches us anything, it is that the worst outrages are compounded by numbly standing by. (© Daily Telegraph, London)


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