The turmoil and scandal that has gripped gymnastics following sexual abuse cases has finally made the future of its governing body USA Gymnastics untenable
Where does this leave the athletes?
by Chris Stafford
What do equestrian, football, gymnastics, hockey, judo, soccer, speedskating, swimming, and taekwondo have in common? They are all sports in which cases of sexual abuse have surfaced in recent months. There may be more that have not made the front pages yet but suffice to say 2018 has been a bad year for sport’s governing bodies from the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) down to the National Federations (NF) / National Governing Bodies (NGB). These organizations have the ultimate responsibility to foster and protect their membership, the athletes and officials. But those most fundamental principles and questionable systems are not only flawed but have failed the people they are charged to protect. To say that it’s been heartbreaking to watch scores of athletes step forward and testify, not only to the courts but to the world of public opinion, is an understatement. (We are mainly referring to girls and women here but let us not forget the boys and men who have also been victims.) As we watched those brave testimonies, we were also subconsciously witnessing the downfall of the very structures that form a critical framework in sport. And now with some inevitability the governing body that has been foremost among these scandals; USA Gymnastics (USAG), has finally been forced to succumb, its credibility vanishing as its ability to govern has dissolved before us.
Sadly it would have been no surprise to observers of this catastrophe that unfolded in the courts and in the gyms around the country. There was a sense of inevitability about this once their volcano erupted. The position and failure to perform their basic responsibility rapidly became untenable. And once that volcano erupted so others followed in the wake of the #metoo movement across the corporate and show biz worlds that was occupying the front pages. The sports pages had their stories to tell; first it was gymnastics, then swimming, then taekwondo and so on until these too were moving to the front pages. The credibility of so many sports was peeling off like the layers of an onion while making us weep for the sports we love, honor and respect.
When the U.S. Equestrian Federation (IUSEF)* was forced to get its house in order following the revelation that one of the sport’s most admired Olympians and successful team coaches, Anne Kursinski, had herself been a victim of sexual abuse when she was just a child by a well-known trainer, I personally was dumb founded and very sad. I have know Anne for some years. Equestrian sport was my life before I had to retire. I shed tears of sadness and despair when it hit home in my sport knowing a friend had been a victim and, just as tragically, been silenced all her adult life because she wanted to follow her dream of becoming an Olympian… which she did, not once but five times. Her story, like all the other ‘Annes’ has rocked the very foundations on which sporting dreams are built.
How can athletes respect a governing body and trust they will protect their interests to represent their country when they are suppressing or ignoring any sort of abuse of these athletes‽ Athletes who willingly give so much of themselves to be the best they can be, to pour their heart and soul into their sport. It’s truly heartbreaking when we see how monumentally they have been let down.
And now the infrastructure of USA Gymnastics has finally crumbled, their position untenable, their credibility finally evaporated. As news breaks that the USOC has begun the process with the USAG to revoke its governing body status, it leaves the sport, and the rest of the sports world, wondering if it can not only get its house in order but build a new one and be operational in its governance without impacting the qualification and participation of the gymnasts in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Where does this leave the athletes whose lives are devoted to their sport, their goals and making their country proud‽
And it begs the question that no doubt other NGBs must be wondering; if their volcano will also erupt to the point that they too will suffer the same demise.
*The author was USEF Communications Director from 1999-2002.
Below is the news story from Inside the Games:
The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) has taken steps to revoke the scandal-hit USA Gymnastics’ recognition as the member national governing body for the sport. It follows the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal which has rocked sport in the country.
In an open letter to athletes, USOC chief executive Sarah Hirshland [who was appointed in June 2018] said “the challenges facing the organization are simply more than it is capable of overcoming in its current form”. USOC has initiated a complaint against USA Gymnastics under section eight of its bylaws. A review panel will now be identified and a hearing will be held. This will lead to the issuing of a report and a recommendation will be made. The USOC board will then vote to continue to recognize USA Gymnastics, or revoke that status.
“This is a situation in which there are no perfect solutions,” said Hirshland. “Seeking to revoke recognition is not a conclusion that we have come to easily. In the short-term, we have to work to ensure that USA Gymnastics gymnasts have the support necessary to excel on and off the field of play. We are building plans to do just that. In the long-term, it will be the critically important responsibility of the recognized gymnastics national governing body, whether the existing organization or a new one, to lead gymnastics in the United States and build on the supportive community of athletes and clubs that can carry the sport forward for decades to come. We are prepared to identify and help build such an organization.”
Dozens of women, including Olympic athletes, accused Nassar, a former USA Gymnastics team doctor, of abuse. He carried out his attacks under the guise of medical treatment and is currently serving a jail term of up to 175 years. The crisis has led to fierce criticism of both USA Gymnastics and the USOC over what they knew and when and whether they could have prevented the abuse. A series of controversies have occurred in the aftermath.
In October, Mary Bono stepped down as USA Gymnastics’ interim President and chief executive just four days after taking up the role. A tweet she posted in September but has since deleted showed her blacking out the Nike logo on a pair of golf shoes before playing in a charity event, in an apparent dig at the sport giant’s support of American football player Colin Kaepernick, who prompted widespread debate by kneeling during the national anthem. Critics of Kaepernick said his actions were disrespectful to military personnel who have died for the country. But Kaepernick, who appeared in a Nike advert, said he was trying to highlight what he sees as institutionalised racism against African Americans.
Four-time Olympic champion Simone Biles was among the critics of Bono who was also revealed to have worked for law firm Faegre Baker Daniels, which represented USA Gymnastics and Nassar. Bono replaced Kerry Perry who also resigned over criticism of her handling of the Nassar case. In September, Mary Lee Tracy was appointed as elite development coordinator for the women’s programme but soon left after claims she had “supported Larry Nassar and victim-shamed survivors”.
Former USA Gymnastics President and chief executive Steve Penny has also pleaded not guilty to interfering with evidence relating to theLarry Nassar sexual abuse scandal, with proceedings ongoing.
Source: Inside the Games
Open Letter from Sarah Hirshland, USAG Executive Director
November 5, 2018
To all USAG gymnasts and the gymnastics community in the United States: You began your journey in the sport of gymnastics for dozens of different reasons, but all of them trace back to gymnastics, and sport, being a positive influence in your life. It is supposed to be fun, to challenge you, and to teach you lessons about dedication, teamwork, excellence and overcoming adversity.
And while each of you has overcome adversity in different ways, some facing unimaginably terrible situations, everyone now faces the difficult reality of belonging to a national organization that continues to struggle to change its culture, to rebuild its leadership and to effectively serve its membership.
You deserve better.
So today I’m writing to let you know that the United States Olympic Committee has taken the first steps to revoke USA Gymnastics’ recognition as the National Governing Body for gymnastics in the United States and offered USA Gymnastics the option of surrendering its recognition voluntarily.
You might be asking why now? The short answer is that we believe the challenges facing the organization are simply more than it is capable of overcoming in its current form. We have worked closely with the new USAG board over recent months to support them, but despite diligent effort, the NGB continues to struggle. And that’s not fair to gymnasts around the country. Even weeks ago, I hoped there was a different way forward. But we now believe that is no longer possible.
You should know that revocation is subject to a process clearly outlined in the USOC Bylaws, and that process does not guarantee a particular outcome.
You’re no doubt wondering what this means for you and the gymnastics community. Until the process is completed and a final determination on USAG’s status is made, we will work to ensure that gymnastics training and competitions will continue as usual. I do not know how long the process will take, and we will make every effort to proceed quickly.
So I don’t have a perfect answer today. This is a situation in which there are no perfect solutions. Seeking to revoke recognition is not a decision that we have come to easily, but I believe it is the right action. In the short-term, we will work to ensure that America’s gymnasts have the support necessary to excel on and off the field of play. We are building plans to do just that no matter the outcome of the revocation process.
In the long-term, it will be the critically important responsibility of the recognized Gymnastics NGB, whether the existing organization or a new one, to lead gymnastics in the United States and rebuild a supportive community of athletes and clubs that can carry the sport forward for decades to come. We are prepared to identify and help build such an organization.
So, what’s next?
Strictly speaking, there is a process that must be followed based on the USOC Bylaws that lay out how we recognize, and revoke recognition, for an NGB. We have filed a complaint. A review panel will be identified, a hearing will be held, a report will be issued and a recommendation will be made. Then the USOC board will vote to continue to recognize USAG, or to revoke that status.
But that doesn’t really answer the meat of the question. You need to know what happens to gymnasts and your clubs if USA Gymnastics’ membership is revoked by the USOC. We are developing both a short- and longer-term plan and will communicate it as soon as we can.
The clearest answer I can provide is that gymnastics as a sport will remain a bedrock for the Olympic community in the United States. Young people will continue to participate, refine their techniques and have fun. Our Team USA athletes will continue to inspire us through their incredible accomplishments. We will ensure support for the Olympic hopefuls who may represent us in Tokyo in 2020.
And, over time, gymnastics clubs around the country may become members of a new organization that lives up to the expectations of the athletes and those that support them, their parents included. This would take time and a lot of hard work from many of us, and many of you. I know that collectively, we are up to the task should that assignment be given at the outcome of this process.
Today is only the beginning of an important process for gymnastics in the United States. The path is not crystal clear, but our motives are. So, we move forward, committed to ensuring the type of organization each gymnast and the coaches, trainers and club owners who support them, deserves.
Thank you for your support, and your contributions, as we collectively chart our path forward. And please don’t hesitate to contact me directly with your ideas and suggestions. I have set up an email address where you can reach me and my team. It is email@example.com.
Chief Executive Officer
About the author
Chris Stafford is the President & CEO of WiSP Sports Corp. which was formed in 2015. Chris is a veteran sport’s broadcaster and journalist with more than forty years experience covering international sports and has reported at Olympic Games, World Equestrian Games, European Championships and World Cups. Having established her career in print and photography she switched to broadcast and was Vice President of Production at HorseTV in Los Angeles. Chris’ previous career was in equestrian sport as a rider and trainer, which took her around the world working with high performance riders and coaches. Chris graduated from the University of Westminster with a Masters in Journalism majoring in broadcast. She also graduated from the London School of Public Relations. In 2006, Chris produced daily TV coverage of the World Equestrian Games, and in 2010 hosted daily WebTV coverage of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Chris hosted a 5-hour live broadcast from downtown Lexington, KY to mark the 100-day countdown to the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in 2009, which was broadcast worldwide. She has provided voice-overs for video and TV and narrated a number of audio books. Chris has been published extensively in several languages, is the author of three books and edited several other sporting titles. Chris was also a sport’s and travel photographer for numerous magazines and books and has held exhibitions in the USA. In 2009, Chris began producing and hosting radio podcasts and established her own network in 2011.