Gymnastics was among sports included in the very first edition of the modern Olympic Games in 1896. Since then it has become a major fixture with plenty of medals to be won. All sports, in their pursuit of excellence, have evolved talent search and training suited to their needs. A hallmark of gymnastics in this regard, has been the practice of grooming talent from a very young age.
As we increasingly surrender our life to competition, the greater is our tendency to create institutions and approaches so comprehensively dedicated to the theme that they offer scope for violations of other sorts, to be overlooked; even hidden. Worse in tune with such adages as “ no pain, no gain,’’ the violated believe that what they suffered was part of the process of learning to excel. Until somebody – a whistle-blower – declines to see the goings on in that paradigm, calls a spade a spade and opens up.
That’s how the sex abuse scandal linked to USA Gymnastics was first reported in the media in 2016 and investigations commenced into the conduct of their national team doctor Larry Nassar resulting in his eventual imprisonment and sentencing. Others, who were part of the institutional structure and whose actions delayed inquiry and justice, have also not been spared. Wikipedia’s page on Larry Nassar says that more than 150 federal and state lawsuits were filed against him, Michigan State University (MSU), USA Gymnastics, the US Olympic Committee and the Twistars Gymnastics Club. The entire board of USA Gymnastics resigned; the president of MSU and its director for athletics also resigned.
The aforementioned incident is the subject of the 2019 documentary film At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal. It is a comprehensive, sensitive account of the scandal. It focuses mostly on the cases surrounding Larry Nassar as that was the epicenter. The said offender and others like him could operate within a system where sport’s relentless pursuit of high performance and consequent traits like catch-them-young, meant the trainees were of an age when they lack the maturity to make informed judgements. That latter attribute – a social situation denying the young a say on what they feel – becomes in turn a shield in service of continuing the offence. Young gymnasts, who complained to officials concerned, saw their complaints ignored or treated cavalierly. As later depositions in court show, in some cases, even parents disbelieved their children. The mistrust caused strained relations between child and parent.
The film’s canvas includes the responsibility of major institutions and influential individuals within them, in prolonging the paradigm of abuse. It makes us think of the problem of institutional sensitivity tripped by focus on success and the perceived infallibility of those familiar for long to the system. The goal being chased and the experience (plus perhaps, the success) of those who went before, serve as prism trivializing the abuse that occurred. The all too often sold narrative is that success doesn’t come easy. What athlete experienced, suspected violation included, finds it tough getting past these walls and qualifying as complaint meriting serious attention. Slowly, what you overlooked gathers mass till one day you have a monster running amok and scars of damage all around. The cases that eventually tumbled out in the USA Gymnastics scandal spanned a couple of decades.
This is a relevant, insightful documentary. It is available on Disney-Hotstar.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)