The U.S. women gymnasts — nicknamed the Final Five — deserve to be celebrated. The team’s performance so far in Rio de Janeiro has been the stuff of legend. After all, the team’s victory margin on Tuesday was the biggest since the USSR’s gold medal performance in 1960. Lots of credit for that victory should go to national team coordinator, Martha Karolyi, who has been bringing the ladies to her training center north of Houston for five or six days a month for several years.
Martha and her husband Bela are legends of the gymnastics world, having coached Romania’s Nadia Comaneci to Olympic perfection in 1976, then defecting to the U.S. in 1981, then playing key roles in the careers of Mary Lou Retton, Julianne McNamara, Phoebe Mills, Betty Okino, Kerri Strug, Kim Zmeskal, Kristie Phillips and Dominque Moceanu. Bela Karolyi retired from coaching in 1996, and Martha has said she is retiring after this Olympics.
But the Karolyis have not always been the most popular of coaches or team coordinators. They’ve feuded with USA Gymnastics (the sport’s governing body in the States) and with various coaches throughout the country. Many of the gymnasts who have trained under them, most prominently Moceanu have accused the Karolyis of mental and physical abuse, of forcing the athletes to train despite serious injuries.
Other coaches have been the subject of sexual abuse allegations, which critics argue USA Gymnastics has failed to properly investigate. Also troubling is the fact that USA Gymnastics knew of many of the sexual abuse allegations, but chose to not follow up on any allegations that weren’t signed by a victim or by a victim’s parents despite the laws in most states, including Indiana, where the group is headquartered, requiring people to report suspected abuse.
“Top executives at one of America’s most prominent Olympic organizations failed to alert authorities to many allegations of sexual abuse by coaches — relying on a policy that enabled predators to abuse gymnasts long after USA Gymnastics had received warnings,” is the lead of a story from the Indianapolis Star last week.
From 1996 through 2006, the Star reports, USA Gymnastics assembled sexual misconduct files on 54 different coaches. And though they could not gain access to many of those files, the Star reporters were able to obtain details on some of those files. The reporters then outlined the excuses provided by the organization for jeopardizing the young women it should have been protecting.
Bruce McCabe was one such coach with a file. He was reported to USA Gymnastics by a gym owner in 1996, and then two years later he was reported by another gym owner, who fired McCabe over the sexual abuse allegations. But USA Gymnastics did nothing because no complaint was filed by a gymnast or a parent. McCabe continued coaching as a member of USA Gymnastics because the allegations were considered to be hearsay. He continued coaching until 2006, when he began serving a 30-year jail sentence for sexually abusing one of his underage gymnasts.
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“I know there’s always going to be little girls and people who have bad things happen to them, but this did not have to go on,” Lisa Ganser, the mother of one of McCabe’s victims said. “It did not have to happen. Bill McCabe could have been stopped close to 10 years before he got these girls. He should’ve been stopped before he ever got to our town.”
The series of stories that make up the Star report aren’t pretty. And they make a pretty damning case that USA Gymnastics, despite statements, didn’t care about the athletes.
“USA Gymnastics is not a law enforcement agency, but we try to obtain information about alleged misconduct received from other sources,” the organization told the Star. “In the process of investigating a grievance, our investigators will seek information from other sources, but the formal steps that can be taken are limited.”
So let’s celebrate the work being done by these young ladies at the Olympics. What they’re doing on the world stage, under a huge spotlight, is remarkable. But they’re the lucky ones. There are no public reports — as far as we know — that any of them have been abused in any fashion. They all appear to be healthy and well-adjusted. But there are a lot of others who weren’t so well-treated. And those responsible for that poor treatment include the adults they should have been able to rely on.