If Simone Biles, the world’s great star, had a daughter who wanted to train on the artistic gymnastics team in the United States, she would be banned. The most awarded gymnast in history argued two weeks ago on the program 60 minutes (CBS) that she does not feel comfortable enough with her country’s federation “because they have not taken responsibility for their actions.” “And they have not assured us that it will never happen again,” added the Olympic champion and five-time world champion in connection with the biggest scandal in American sports, that of the sexual abuse of doctor Larry Nassar. That hostile climate deepened this week when John Geddert, coach of the London 2012 Olympic team, was charged with human trafficking and sexually assaulting a teenage girl, and a few hours later, he committed suicide.
It is complex to determine when the debacle of the American Gymnastics Federation (USAG) begins. It may be at the end of 2016, when the newspaper Indianapolis Star dropped the bomb that at least 368 girl gymnasts suffered sexual abuse in the last two decades by coaches and that the federation had ignored dozens of complaints. Or the day after the publication, when Rachael Denhollander called a reporter to tell him that she was not the victim of a coach when she was a minor, but of the doctor of the federation’s Olympic team, Larry Nassar.
The former doctor is serving a de facto life sentence after pleading guilty to possession of child pornography and sexual abuse of at least 265 minors and young women. Among his victims are Biles, but also Jordyn Wieber (Geddert’s best gymnast, world champion in 2011 and team gold in London 2012), Aly Raisman (member of that Olympic squad and Olympic runner-up four years later in Rio 2016) and so many others.
The American federation has had four presidents in less than four years. The last long-winded one was Steve Penny, charged in October 2018 with falsifying and destroying evidence in the Nassar case. As soon as the scandal was uncovered with the Star report, the then executive director affirmed: “As a father, there is nothing that matters more to me than the health and protection of the little ones.” In June 2015 Maggie Nichols, one of the best gymnasts in the country, had told her coach that Nassar had abused her. She forwarded the complaint to Penny, who instead of immediately alerting authorities, as required by law, took five weeks to report it to the FBI. John Manly, a lawyer for several victims, maintained that more than 50 girls were abused during that time by Nassar, who also committed the crimes at his work at the University of Michigan.
Almost two and a half years have passed since the scandal broke, and the responsibilities of those who allowed a culture of abuse to develop are limited to a shower of resignations from senior officials and the conviction of Nassar. The Justice Department has yet to release any findings from the investigations into the Gymnastics Federation and the FBI’s handling of the case. Investigators interviewed the athletes and their parents between August and October 2018. Merrick Garland, appointed by President Joe Biden as attorney general, assured the Senate on Monday that, if confirmed, he will advocate for the result of the investigation.
A 2019 congressional report concluded that the USAG, the University of Michigan, the US Olympic Committee and the FBI were slow to react, allowing Nassar to continue to see patients while they investigated. In May 2018 the university reached an agreement for 414 million euros to compensate 332 victims of Nassar. For its part, the federation faces lawsuits filed by more than 300 survivors accusing it of failing to protect them from Nassar, including Olympians, who last year rejected a $ 178 million deal. “It is not only unworkable, it is inconceivable,” attorney John Manly said at the time. The USAG filed for bankruptcy in 2018.
The case, and the documentaries that were inspired by it, have encouraged gymnasts from other countries to denounce physical and mental abuse and an unhealthy and harmful work culture for athletes who in many cases are minors. In the UK, a group of retired gymnasts has announced that they are considering suing their country’s federation.
Geddert had been charged by the Michigan District Attorney with 24 crimes related to human trafficking, forced labor and sexual assault. The 63-year-old former coach was scheduled to turn himself in at 2:15 p.m. last Thursday to Eaton County (Michigan) authorities to be processed that same afternoon in court. However, at 3:24 p.m. police found his lifeless body in a rest area on the Clinton County interstate highway.
“Without Geddert there would not have been a Nassar,” said attorney Sarah Klein, a survivor of both. “John was a horrible verbal and physical abuser, he broke our spirits, our minds, and Larry rearmed us. It was the perfect combination, “he told Mid Michigan-NOW after hearing the news of the suicide.
“The bravery of Geddert’s many victims will forever remain blazing in contrast to their cowardice,” Klein said. Geddert’s death left an army of women thirsty for justice that continues to fight the ghosts of abuse. Meanwhile, the authorities, once again, are slow. And they no longer dream of being gymnasts, but that their daughters do not want to be.