Tw: sexual assault, abuse of minors
I have some further thoughts on the Larry Nassar and USAG situation that I would like to share and discuss, as it pertains to long term culture and the future of the sport.
I’ve long been an avid gym fan and wannabe, though never a serious gymnast. (My parents got me a few classes as various points in my life but they didn’t take me seriously enough to let me have at it and push me, the way they pushed me into other childhood activities which they thought more valuable and which had similarly intense culture.) It was in that context that I probably first became aware of body positivity, especially in the wake of Little Girls In Pretty Boxes being published in the 1990s. I’ve written before about how things in the sport have changed since then, and how that has made me feel more positive about my own body – to summarize, if you don’t want to click the link, I felt that the rise of the strong, power gymnast who competes alongside the ballerina sylphs makes me feel better about my own physical self. ()
However, in the same post, I also talked about how I felt that the remaining body negativity is from “a few bad apples.” I think I was wrong, or at least, those few bad apples still hold a very large stake of control in too many positions and too many gyms. For example, a gym owner and coach called John Geddert, who coached Jordyn Wieber to 2012, has only just been suspended by USAG. He employed Larry Nassar (at one point walking in on him molesting a minor and either not noticing or not caring) and has been accused of shoving gymnasts and their parents, stomping on their toes, pushing them off the balance beam, telling them they were lying or exaggerating injuries, berating them to tears, and making Jordyn too afraid to eat in front of him. The recently-named National Team Coordinator, Valeri Liukin, has been accused by two high level former elites of weighing them three times a day (see link later in the post re Katelyn Ohashi). The previous two NTCs, Martha and Bela Karolyi (incidentally, owners of the Karolyi Ranch national team training centre, which USAG has only just cut ties with), have had similar accusations made against them, most notably by Dominique Moceanu dating back well over ten years ago. Although the Karolyis are gone and Geddert has been temporarily suspended, I find it kind of difficult to believe that Valeri Liukin has truly changed his tune. I find it hard to believe that we could ever fully protect against another Nassar unless gymnasts themselves, however young, are empowered to have agency and to listen to their bodies and trust the adults around them.
So what HAS changed? Well, in spite of what we can definitively say is a bias toward the obedient, and suggest less definitively as a bias toward the skinny, at least Martha Karolyi was accepting and encouraging of gymnasts who are more outspoken and who don’t fit her preferred body shape (see re Simone Biles, Aly Raisman). Both have supportive and kindhearted coaches who seem to be invested in their personal success as well as their athletic success, and both have been incredibly successful – so at least there is an established model for healthier training. Structurally, the previous USAG president, Steve Penny, left last March, albeit with a $1 million parachute, and three members of the board resigned this weekend. (This is what Aly Raisman thinks of that… .) The mainstream media has picked up on this scandal, and is on the side of the victims and on the side of restructuring. The incredibly brave outspokenness of Simone Biles and Aly Raisman has resulted in the Karolyi Ranch being closed. We’re getting somewhere, although the personnel remaining are dug in and well-established; this is still an uphill battle.
So now I wonder where we’re going to end up with the change that’s happening. Where are the Karolyis now? There was a Tumblr post about them returning to Romania, though I kind of doubt that and the rumor hasn’t been substantiated. What did they know? Were they colluding in cover-ups, or simply complicit in the general atmosphere of abuse?
On that note, what about Valeri Liukin? His daughter, Nastia Liukin (2008 all-around gold medalist in Beijing) has stated that she is not a victim of Larry Nassar, and I would speculate that she was spared because her father was also her coach – so unlike the other national team survivors, she had a parent with her at these national training camps, and he would have been far more knowledgeable about appropriate therapeutic support than other parents may have been. However, as I mentioned above, he does have some fairly serious accusations to his name (some details here ), and he’s stated that he didn’t want to change the established Karolyi system much. It’s one thing to shift the Karolyis after their retirement and hopefully to make them face some financial consequences. It’s another thing entirely to make changes in the current staff, especially such a high position that’s been in the works for awhile and who has a strong historical reputation. (On top of this, he’s just offered up his gym properties to substitute as national training centres while USAG works out what to do long-term, now that they’ve dropped collaboration with the Karolyi Ranch.) So I do wonder whether he will maintain his position as is, or maintain it with some strong oversights, or be asked quietly to leave with an ass-covering excuse.
Which brings me back to his biggest supporter: his daughter, Nastia Liukin. When the Nassar news first broke, she posted some supportive Facebook messages, and when the two women accused her father, she suggested they were lying. She is now an NBC commentator (where she was asked live on air if she was a victim – yeesh) where she can make a real impact. So far, that impact has been to bolster USAG and her father, and not to support survivors until quite recently. Her real public support began with the Emmys, where she posted a #timesup photo that included more information about her dress, hair, and makeup than it did about survivors (link below). She followed up with a plug for an app she’s put out called Be Grander. Finally, this weekend just past, she posted this: http://nastialiukin.com/gymnasticscommunity/. I have to say that these posts, taken chronologically, feel like bandwagoning to me. To say that you and your powerful father support survivors, but to say that the survivors of his training are liars, smacks of Ivanka Trump. I believe that as long as she and her father are able to stay in their positions without oversight or SERIOUS structural changes around them, things won’t change as far as they really need to. Having said that, if she really is turned ally and can put aside her sort of “me me me me me” influencer instincts (I mean, fine, it’s a living… it’s just not appropriate in this context) she could be in a good position within NBC to do a lot of good, by reducing coaching hagiographies, acknowledging terrible histories on air, and dialing back the body commentary that is still prevalent.
So to wrap this up, here are the chief things I’m wondering about what will become of this. Will the Karolyis seem comeuppance? What will it be, and will be assist survivors in any way? (I’m thinking gigantic civil suit with all proceeds going to RAINN…) Will Valeri Liukin stay, and if so, what will be the outcome of his tenure as NTC? Will he face any consequences that we know about, or maybe just private ones from the USAG board that impress upon him the need to have a forward-thinking coaching and management style? Will Nastia be able to form a supportive allyship that helps foment a healthier culture? Does this chapter in women’s gymnastics yield a more supportive, empowering, body positive future*, where a predator like Nassar couldn’t last?
*I have ideas involving the open-ended code and the age of seniority in comparing women’s to men’s, but this post is already long enough and that discussion is a little more esoteric.