A comprehensive investigation by the Indianapolis Star has discovered that over a 20-year period more than 360 gymnasts have alleged they were sexually abused in some manner by a coach, a gym owner, or some other adult involved in their gymnastics career. According to one expert, that is likely a "pretty severe undercount." The victims include "casual" amateurs and Olympians alike. The numbers are staggering, but perhaps worse is that the sport's governing body, USA Gymnastics, seems unwilling—it claims it is unable—to do anything much about it.
The situation described by the Star has echoes of the Catholic Church's notorious sexual abuse scandal, in which priests got away with molesting children for years or even decades. Many of the coaches and others accused of abuse were quietly fired and allowed to find work elsewhere across the country, without anyone knowing. Some of this is because USAG allegedly worked behind the scenes to keep everything quiet, but some of it is because the organization can't (or won't) keep track of alleged offenders. USAG has more than 125,000 athletes and 25,000 professional members—which includes coaches—and has no way of monitoring where the coaches go or even finding out why one was fired.
Here are some more of the Star's findings:
• Gym owners have a conflict of interest when it comes to reporting abuse. Some fear harm to their business. When confronted with evidence of abuse, many quietly have fired the suspected abusers and failed to warn future employers. Some of those dangerous coaches continued to work with children.
• Some coaches are fired at gym after gym without being tracked or flagged by USA Gymnastics, or losing their membership with the organization. USA Gymnastics often has no idea when a coach is fired by a gym and no systematic way to keep track. Ray Adams was fired or forced to resign from six gyms in four states. Yet some gym owners hired Adams, believing his record was clean.
USAG repeatedly claimed that it could not monitor the gyms, specifically because they were private businesses. The best it could do, allegedly, was to offer guidelines against inappropriate behavior, with little in the way of consequences for violating those guidelines.
Former athletes don't buy USAG pleading helpless, and say they were often ignored and sometimes made to feel like they were being interrogated for asking for something to be done about abusive coaches. Specifically, the CEO of USAG, Steve Penny, came under fire for his treatment of victims' claims.
In 2009, former gymnast Charmaine Carnes and seven other gymnasts filed a complaint that claimed abuse by their coach Doug Boger, and she said that the way Penny treated the case was "demeaning."
Carnes described the investigative process by officials at USA Gymnastics as "long, arduous, painful," and at times so adversarial that the women felt as if they were being accused. It "seemed like he thought they were exaggerating," she said of Penny.
The women said they believed they weren't being taken seriously. As the investigation was underway, USA Gymnastics named Boger a national Coach of the Year and sent him with the U.S. team to the 2009 World Championships in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Many gymnasts feel that USAG has sold them out to further its status and competitive footing in the quest for medals and international acclaim. Rather than make the sport safe for athletes, USAG was hellbent on getting championships. Which you can't do, Carnes said, "if you're busting all your best coaches."