Simone Biles and the Final Five have captured America's hearts, but a scandal has been brewing in gymnastics since the end of the Olympic Games. An Indianapolis Star investigation found that USA Gymnastics, the sport's national governing body, failed to report more than 50 cases of sexual abuse allegations to authorities. This month, two elite gymnasts filed a lawsuit against USA team physician Dr. Larry Nassar, alleging the doctor had sexually abused them and that USA Gymnastics had turned a blind eye to the abuse.
But alleged sexual abuse isn't just a problem in the world of gymnastics. A 2014 investigation found that sexual abuse and assault is also endemic in the world of American competitive swimming, with over 100 USA Swimming coaches banned for life for varying instances of abuse. From figure skating to tennis to basketball, stories of coaches abusing children and adult athletes alike are endemic in sports. A Canadian study found that 21.8 percent of elite athletes had sex with an authority figure in sports, with 8.6 percent reporting that they had been raped by someone within their sport.
Katherine Starr, a former Olympic swimmer, suffered years of sexual abuse at the hands of a coach. She only processed what had happened after she left elite swimming. "I had a well-paid job, but I couldn't participate in that without having a reconciliation of my past," she tells Broadly. She began her organization, Safe4Athletes, as an advocacy group to support athletes dealing with abuse. After noticing inaction and a lack of resources in the athletic community, they started creating policies that prevent abuse in amateur athletics.
"People sit and they gossip and complain, but they don't have a structure to take action," she says. "Women are losing their voice and their strength." Beyond providing public advocacy, the organization establishes guidelines for appropriate behavior between young people and coaches, creates model athlete welfare policies and abuse reporting strategies for sports clubs, and offers a place for young athletes to report abuse. It also helps connect them to legal assistance and therapy resources.
Starr finds that the more elite the young athlete, the more susceptible they are to inappropriate relationships with adults; at higher levels, competitors spend more time with coaches, and the relationships become more intense. "The more you're involved in your sport, the deeper the hooks [of abuse] get," she explains. "Relationships with a coach are the first relationships athletes have with an adult outside of their parents. This creates deeper pathways, and the hooks go deeper."
Competitive sports encourage athletes to push themselves to extremes, Starr notes, so they may accept the abuse—whether physical or sexual—as another challenge to endure.
It's when the boundaries are crossed in that environment, then you have vulnerability for the athlete.
In a sociological report, professors Celia Brackenridge and Sandra Kirby found that young people on the brink of success are often most vulnerable, writing, "Athletes may be more susceptible to the grooming process which precedes actual sexual abuse when they have most at stake in terms of their sporting careers, that is when they have reached a high standard of performance but are just below the elite level."
Athletes at what Breckenridge and Kirby call "the stage of imminent achievement" are aiming for scholarships, sponsorships, and hopes of Olympic glory, and many fear losing these dreams if they report a coach or sever an abusive relationship that creates winning results.
"Gymnastics was my whole world," one alleged childhood victim of assault recalled in the Indianapolis Star investigation. "He threatened to take all that away. That my teammates would lose everything, too. Everything would be my fault. He threatened his own life if I wouldn't, in his words, be his girlfriend… At that point I didn't really resist anymore."
Even as adults, athletes are still vulnerable to sexual abuse. A serious power imbalance exists in coach-athlete relationships at all ages. Coaches are still viewed as the arbiters of athletes' academic, financial, and/or professional success, throwing consent into question. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) warns, "Sexual relationships between coaches and student-athletes have become a serious problem."
After athletes escape relationships with their coaches, Starr says many abused female athletes find themselves in abusive romantic relationships. "If you've had an abusive coach, that's what you know about partnership," Starr says. "Because that's how you were formed as a young, impressionable person, you seek out the abuse and you end up in abusive personal relationships. You're re-injuring and re-hurting yourself."
Despite the recent rash of allegations regarding athlete abuse in the news, Starr believes awareness about sexual abuse in sports has improved. "Current day prevention is much better than it ever was in the past," she says. Safe4Athletes and other organizations are advocating for establishing clear boundaries between athletes and their coaches as the best prevention against sexual abuse. They also want to educate young people about what an inappropriate relationship between and athlete and coach looks like.
Starr remains unjaded about the power that athletics can have in young people's lives. "Sport is excellent," she says. "It's an excellent avenue. It's when the boundaries are crossed in that environment, then you have vulnerability for the athlete. I don't think it's possible for the issue to ever go away. There's always going to be work."