Five-ring Circus

USA Gymnastics Tried to Muscle Through Its Reckoning

It’s finally time for the organization to take the fall it’s barely avoided.

Biles wearing her warmup suit and a black mask hugs Sunisa Lee wearing a competition leotard
Sunisa Lee and Simone Biles in Tokyo on July 27. Marijan Murat/picture alliance via Getty Images

The uneven bars began, like all of women’s gymnastics, as a balance event, meant to showcase some flexibility and a lot of ladylike panache. In the subsequent century, however, it grew closer to its distant male cousin, the high bar, evolving into a poetry of nonstop motion: those breathtaking release moves, yes, but even more importantly, swing.

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When we talk about a gymnast (such as Suni Lee) who excels on this apparatus, we say: She can swing bars. Thus, the only thing about as bad as missing a release and crashing onto the mat is a break in motion while swinging. And because gymnastics is difficult, this happens all the time.

In practice, when a bar skill goes awry, the gymnast pops off the apparatus and regroups. In competition, however, that pop-off will cost an entire point. And that’s where muscling through comes in. (In some situations, especially with handstands, it’s called muscling up.) Of the all-time greatest uneven-bars saves, many are muscle-throughs: The gymnast avoids falling not through the rhythm of her swing (i.e., how it’s supposed to go), but through the sheer power of her arms, her core, and—most importantly—her will. And sure, while muscling through often saves a gymnast the 1-point dock of a fall, the deduction is still substantial and the routine rarely recovers.

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After the Rio Olympics, USA Gymnastics—the sport’s scandal-plagued American governing body (more on that in a second)—did its best to muscle through its own catastrophic errors. However, the unpleasant surprises we witnessed at these Games—including Simone Biles’ inopportune case of the twisties, which laid bare the team composition’s total reliance on her for the win that everyone had so blithely expected—were the consequences.

Make no mistake: Silver is a resplendent color, and the gymnasts performed remarkably under extraordinary circumstances. But those circumstances didn’t begin with Biles’ withdrawal or even with the pandemic that upended everyone’s training regimens. USAG was already off course; in the interim, the national team program failed to properly atone for burning down its own house and made insufficient overtures at reconstructing something more livable for the survivors. The Tokyo Games put the ashes from that fire back on display, and before USAG begins preparing for 2024, it had best acknowledge every element of that conflagration.

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To understand what I mean, let’s go back to 2016. If that year were a bar routine, USAG—which administers and certifies every single gym with a competitive program in the country, a jurisdiction comprising hundreds of thousands of athletes, coaches, and judges—was flying as high as the double-double dismount of its superstar, Simone Biles, who had just brought five medals home from Rio. The national team coordinator, Marta Karolyi, was retiring a legend; the torch was passed to another legend, Valeri Liukin, co-owner of a gym that produced back-to-back Olympic champions. Everything was swinging along brilliantly.

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Except, we soon learned, it wasn’t. Shortly after the Olympics mayhem died down, the Indianapolis Star broke a horrific story: USAG’s longtime physician, Larry Nassar, was being accused of multiple accounts of heinous sexual abuse of the minors in his care. In the next few years, those multiple accounts would turn into multiple hundreds, including several of the very Olympians who had just brought the organization gold and glory—and the series of horrific discoveries would, seemingly, be thwarted at every turn by an organization closing ranks.

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You probably know how this chapter ended: with the ouster and then arrest of former USAG CEO Steve Penny; with Nassar having to listen as his brave accusers testified about their trauma, and then being sentenced to more years in prison than he will live; with USAG being sued for hundreds of millions of dollars and declaring Chapter 11; with the hire of a new CEO charged with redeeming an irredeemable brand; with Karolyi’s job discontinued and a new one (“high performance director”) invented; with USAG’s biggest star cursing its existence on live television.

Amid all this, there remained a nagging problem: The organization that was taking such pains to make things right (sort of) also had a national elite program to run, an Olympics to prepare for. It was only after Biles called out USAG that the organization shuttered the Karolyi ranch—the erstwhile Texas location of the training camps to which the best elite gymnasts are invited several times per year in the hopes of international assignments on behalf of the U.S. national team—and relocated to a neutral Indianapolis gym. Only after gymnasts spoke out about Karolyi’s history of verbal and psychological abuse did USAG give her successor, Liukin, the boot and replace him with Tom Forster, the squeaky-cleanest elite coach in the business.

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It was Forster who was suddenly put in charge of catching a program mid-freefall and somehow—while the court cases were still being litigated—piecing together the smallest Olympic team in modern history. The training location was new, and so was he—but the rest of it? Eerily familiar. Those stressful centralized camps, where every gymnast’s every move was under scrutiny? Still a thing. Forster’s hawk eye the most important silent presence at every high-profile meet? Still a thing. Each gymnast repeatedly wondering, “Is Tom mad?” Still a thing. (He never appeared so, at least on the outside, so that’s something different from the Karolyi regime.)

So yes, even though USA Gymnastics’ proverbial routine had gone wildly, tragically, and very publicly wrong, the organization spent the 2017–20 quadrennium deciding that the best course of action was, effectively, to muscle through. And just as a muscling-up athlete relies overly on her strength to foist her into that handstand position, so, too, did Forster and company rely on the immense skill of a single athlete, whose perceived advantage over the competition was so substantial that he came damn close to saying aloud that it didn’t matter who else he put on the team with her.

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Again, you probably know how that chapter ended, too. With Biles out, the five other members of the U.S. delegation—three on the official team, plus two individuals—did an incredible job, but not without balking a little at the pressure to carry the team, which had until that week been heaped onto Biles alone. Before, Grace McCallum’s and Jordan Chiles’ errors on floor exercise would have been absorbed by the massive advantage the GOAT curried through her difficulty value. And before, the fact that the team competition roster boasted exactly zero top-tier vaults besides Biles’ went largely unnoticed outside the world of gym nerds. Suddenly, however, it was incumbent upon those imperfect (by top elite standards) floor routines and pedestrian double-twisting Yurchenkos to carry an entire team. Forster clearly hadn’t accounted for the possibility that if he leaned too hard on his program’s pillar, that pillar might fall over. This makes sense, because his organization has proved itself quite adept at failing to see obvious problems.

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Still, the U.S. women did extremely well at these Olympics. Every single female artistic gymnast returned stateside to rapturous praise, laden with hardware—even the one who didn’t initially qualify for any finals and the one who had an inner-ear crisis spring up at the worst possible moment and noped out of all but one competition. One might say (and one might be correct in saying) that USAG did not deserve, per se, a team that banded together through shocking adversity and beasted these Games out. But we are all blessed with bounties of which we are unworthy, and we should not let the questionable organization take away the remarkable accomplishments of Biles, Lee, Carey, Chiles, McCallum, and MyKayla Skinner.

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One might also argue that one can’t really fault USAG for trying to muscle through its past half-decade. What else, after all, could the organization have done? Just left the most talented U.S. field in history in chaos? That wouldn’t have been fair to the athletes either. And if the gymnasts performed so well under such trying circumstances, didn’t USAG do just fine?

Hard no. Because that adversity was created, if not at minimum exacerbated, by blunders the program tried to power through. And now these Godforsaken Olympics are over, so it’s time to try something else. It’s time for USAG to take that full-point deduction fall it’s been trying to avoid for five years—the fall it deserves. That means at last allowing what USAG has shirked for this entire time: a rigorous, thorough, independent investigation into exactly who knew what when—and to own up to and account for whatever that investigation finds, even if that means the (temporary) end of the U.S. national team program as we know it. It’s time for USAG to never put medals over humans again. To never, for example, reinstate the membership of temporarily suspended abusers, such as 2016 gold and silver medalist Laurie Hernandez’s former coach, Maggie Haney.

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It’s time to pause those Indianapolis training camps until USAG can find a way to make them even less disruptive and even less harrowing, and it’s time to amplify the minimal corrective measures from the past five years, reforms largely made possible by the fact that Biles could, and did, wield the power of her voice for good. Allow these athletes to eat enough, to have fun, and to speak up. Do not overtrain them to injury, do not make them train injured, and do not valorize competing that way, even if that means revising the narrative of the 1996 Olympics with clear eyes. If this means that the 2024 team earns silver again or (gasp) bronze or, God forbid, finishes off the podium—but it also results in a healthy program when the Games return to our homeland in 2028—then so be it. Take the fall.

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To be fair, I don’t think that a medal-less Paris Olympics is likely, whatever the U.S. program does. It continues to have a formidable amount of depth; the alternate Tokyo squad probably could have won bronze at these Games, possibly even silver as well. But even if the program stalls, the answer is not for USAG to continue to muscle through, spending another quadrennium placing way too much pressure on the shoulders of the athletes the organization failed to protect. No, just like any experienced gymnast knows when swinging goes awry, here’s what needs to happen: USA Gymnastics needs to recognize an exercise gone wrong and pop off the apparatus. It’s time for USAG to stop and take a breath and walk around the metaphorical gym until it figures out how to really, truly make this right.

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