If you’ve been around sports as long as I have it’s tough to be shocked by anything that happens, but the sex-abuse story involving Larry Nassar, the osteopath who preyed on young female gymnasts, is appalling by any measure.
The amount of time covered by his crimes—24 years (from about 1992 until he was arrested in December, 2016)—strains credulity, as does his number of victims—265 girls and young women, by one estimate presented at his trial. Worse, he was able to do what he did under the noses of a well-known Michigan gymnastics club, Michigan State University (where he was a team physician and faculty member) and USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for the sport, all of which were responsible for looking out for the best interests of their athletes.
When serial sex abuse surfaces it’s always asked why the victims didn’t speak up sooner. In Nassar’s case they did. According to published reports gymnasts had complained about him to their parents, coaches or others as early as 1994, but their claims were disregarded. At least twice—in 2004 and 2014—charges were brought to the attention of police agencies, and investigations were launched, but nothing came of them. According to one account Nassar showed one group of police a power-point presentation showing that his predations had a legitimate medical purpose, and the cops backed off.
But while the Nassar case was horrific it was not surprising to anyone who’d followed youth sports in this country or abroad, or gymnastics in particular. Charges of sexual abuse against prominent gym coaches date from at least the 1980s involving such figures as Don Peters, coach of the 1984 U.S. silver-medal-winning women’s Olympic team, and are as recent as last week’s news, when John Geddert, coach of the 2016 U.S. women’s team, was implicated in the Nassar mess (he denies any involvement).
In 2016, before the Nassar story broke, the Indianapolis Star, which follows Olympic sports closely, looked at records dating back a dozen years and counted sex-abuse claims by 368 girl gymnasts against more than 50 coaches, gym owners or other adults involved in the sport. Many of the charges were reported to USA Gymnastics but only a few were sent on to the attention of police. Further, coaches against whom charges had been levied often hopped from job to job without the allegations being resolved or following them, much in the manner of Catholic priests who were transferred but not punished for such transgressions. One coach worked at six different clubs in four states before his past came to light.
Gymnastics isn’t the only sport in which children are abused, nor is the U.S. the only country. A piece in the New York Times in December of 2016 detailed investigations then current in England in which 83 possible suspects on 98 youth soccer teams were suspected of having assaulted as many as 350 victims, all boys. In the wake of the inquiries several English professional players came forward to assert they’d been victimized by coaches when they were younger. The charges have resulted in shakeups in the organization of youth programs run by several Premier League clubs.
What soccer and gymnastics, and some other sports, have in common is that their upper reaches are populated solely by athletes who have been dedicated to them since early childhood, to the expense of other activities (such as education) usually deemed essential to their development. In Europe and South America the recruitment and winnowing of soccer-playing boys begins at around age six and continues through the teens, with the best prospects typically enrolled in academies devoted exclusively to the sport. In women’s gymnastics, dominated by tiny, flexible teens, the process begins earlier, with kids as young as 10 shipped from home to work full time with coaches and trainers who, necessarily, also assume parental roles. The professionalization of childhood, one response to an increasingly competitive world, has no purer examples.
The gymnastics model is that of the East European nations that made success in Olympic sports an ad for their Communist systems beginning with the Cold War 1950s. Schools there were sifted for young talent that was then honed to shine for the Motherland, whatever the cost. In gymnastics the process’s epitome was Nadia Comaneci, the fairy-like Romanian whose victories in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, at age 14, captivated the world. Her coach since age 7 was Bela Karolyi.
Big, bluff Bela always had been a poor fit for Communist conformity, and after Comaneci repeated her Olympic triumph in 1980 he defected to the U.S., landing in his spiritual home of Texas. By 1984 he’d done in America what he did in Romania, grooming bouncy Mary Lou Retton for Olympic glory at age 16. What he couldn’t get from the government in his adopted land he got from ambitious American parents, who turned their daughters over to him for training. He was the sport’s dominant U.S. figure for almost 40 years, either from the stage or the wings.
Karolyi’s gym near Houston has been an Olympic training center for some years. Nassar practiced there and the place been closed as a result of the revelations about him. Karolyi says he knew nothing of those. I hope he’s right because I liked him. Gymnastics has been called “football for girls” because of the fearsome and sometimes lasting physical toll it exacts; Mary Lou Retton’s main public exposure now (she’s 50) is as a TV spokesperson for an arthritis-pain cream. Karolyi always acknowledged the sport’s dangers as well as his own, hard-driving coaching methods, but countered that they were necessary for victories in an exacting pursuit. He used to liken himself to a piano teacher working with elite young students; the pieces he taught were the toughest but they were the only path to Carnegie Hall, he’d say.
The rub, of course, is that the gym tots are sent off to battle before any reasonable age of consent by parents who put their children’s bodies and futures in the hands of others. It’s almost inevitable that a deranged few will betray that trust.