Sports

The Strength of Simone Biles

The gold medalist’s #MeToo statement calling out USA Gymnastics could be her greatest legacy.

US gymnast Simone Biles satnds during the women's floor event final of the Artistic Gymnastics at the Olympic Arena during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on August 16, 2016.
U.S. gymnast Simone Biles stands during the women’s floor event final of the Artistic Gymnastics at the Olympic Arena during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 16, 2016.
BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday afternoon, five-time Olympic medalist Simone Biles—widely considered the greatest gymnast of all time—tweeted out a statement gymnastics watchers have been simultaneously expecting and not expecting for months. Biles wrote that she, like so many others, is a survivor of the wrenching sexual abuse perpetrated by former national team doctor Larry Nassar. Nassar is currently serving 60 years in federal prison on child pornography charges and is awaiting further sentencing for seven of the more than 140 sexual assaults multiple generations of gymnasts have accused him of committing. As I am writing this, more than 80 of his former victims are offering wrenching victim testimony, one after the other, in a Lansing, Michigan, courtroom, as part of Nassar’s sentencing process.

“I am not afraid to tell my story anymore,” Biles’ statement reads in part. “I too am one of the many survivors that was sexually abused by Larry Nassar. Please believe me when I say that it was a lot harder to first speak those words out loud than it is now to put them on paper. There are many reasons I have been reluctant to share my story, but I know now it is not my fault.”

In her statement, which is embedded in full below, Biles also directly implicates the sport’s American governing body, USA Gymnastics, writing that she was “TOLD to trust” Nassar and that she will “not carry the guilt that belongs to Larry Nassar, USAG, and others.”

Multiple Olympic gymnasts have come forward in recent months to reveal that they too were victimized by the disgraced physician, who was given near-unlimited access to victims for more than two decades thanks to a spate of enablers and despite multiple inquiries over the years from, among others, concerned parents. Biles is not the first to publicly attack USA Gymnastics for abetting Nassar. Vaulting legend McKayla Maroney revealed that not only was she abused but that the governing body paid her hush money. (Maroney has now filed a lawsuit against USA Gymnastics.)

What makes Biles’ statement particularly extraordinary is that unlike her high-profile former teammates, who have all retired from international competition, she is still competing at the sport’s highest level. After a year off to celebrate her total domination in Rio de Janeiro, Biles is back in the gym and training hard with an eye on 2020. (Biles’ teammate Aly Raisman, who accused Nassar of sexually abusing her in her recent book, has not yet returned to training but has not officially retired.)*

This means she is currently under the purview of the very organization she just called out. As Dvora Meyers has chronicled in painful detail over at Deadspin, USA Gymnastics wields power over every aspect of the sport. Just a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable for the famously bubbly golden girl to break ranks with the sport’s authority figures. Even given Biles’ profile and power within the sport, this is a move that required tremendous guts.

There was never any doubt that Biles had contact with Nassar before his hasty “retirement” in the midst of a very belated investigation in 2015. Biles, who is 20, has been a senior elite gymnast since 2013 and a junior elite since 2011. She began attending the punishing elite training camps at the Karolyi Ranch while Nassar was still USA Gymnastics’ team doctor, giving him unchecked access to barely pubescent, highly sheltered, injury-prone young women who had long ago been taught to surrender their bodily autonomy for the promise of future greatness. “It is impossibly difficult to relive these experiences,” Biles writes in her statement. “It breaks my heart even more to think that as I work towards my dream of competing in 2020, I will have to continually return to the same training facility where I was abused.”

There is no question that Biles is referring here to the Karolyi Ranch in Texas, which remains the site of the U.S. National Team Training Center despite Martha Karolyi’s 2016 retirement and USA Gymnastics’ assurance that it plans to relocate to a new facility. As someone who has been seriously involved with gymnastics since childhood (I competed at Level 8 in the early 1990s), that last sentence sent a chill over my body. While it appears at first to be merely an honest depiction of Biles’ current inner turmoil regarding the sport she has essentially redefined, I believe it can also be read as a rebuke to the Karolyi regime that enabled Nassar for so many years.

Martha Karolyi’s tactics as national team coordinator have been described as power-blind and abusive. Several gymnasts, including the first Olympian Nassar accuser, Jamie Dantzscher, have also alleged that Martha and her husband, legendary coach Bela Karolyi, turned a “blind eye” to the sexual assaults taking place in their facility. For their part, the Karoylis have said they had no knowledge of Nassar’s bad acts nor of any complaints made against him. In a statement to People in February, they also denied allegations “that they physically abused gymnasts and deprived them of food.”

While there is no tangible proof that the Karolyis were aware of the allegations against Nassar, the culture of the Karolyis’ camps allowed him to flourish. It was the culture of extreme obedience the camps fostered that enabled Nassar to position himself as the good guy and confidante for scores of vulnerable girls and young women. This is why, I believe, Biles did not mince words in excoriating the “training facility” where Nassar’s abuse transpired.

Even today, any gymnast who wants to represent the United States in international competition still has to go to the ranch for a selection “camp,” an event during which—as Raisman details in her book—so much as a misplaced frown can mean being dropped from the roster. In the semicentralized system of American gymnastics, there is tremendous pressure to perform like a champion during these camps, whatever the cost. And so Biles knows full well that locking Nassar away isn’t going to change what’s really rotten in the state of USA Gymnastics.

This semicentralized system is widely credited for turning the United States women’s field into an unstoppable world dominator. It is now also being widely criticized for creating the conditions that enabled years of unthinkable abuse. For many months now, high-profile figures in the gymnastics world have been putting the sport’s leaders on blast, with little to show for it. Perhaps now that USA Gymnastics’ most famous and valuable member has spoken up, meaningful change is imminent. If it is, we have hundreds of brave gymnasts and former gymnasts to thank—especially Simone Biles.

*Correction, Jan. 16, 2018: This article originally implied Aly Raisman has retired from international gymnastics. She has not.

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