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What Did the Karolyis Know About Gymnastics Abuse at Their Compound?

The gold medal winning 2016 US Olympics Gymnastics Team
The gold medal winning 2016 US Olympics Gymnastics Team
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The Karolyi Camp sits up in the Sam Houston National Forest. That's where legendary gymnastic coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi have been training gymnasts for many years, including the past several years, when the camp has been a home of the U.S. National Gymnastics team, including the 2012 and 2016 women's teams.

The Karolyis have long been known for their tough-love training methods. Dominique Moceanu, a gold medalist in 1996, has in years past called these methods physically and mentally abusive. And for her statements, Moceanu claims she has been blackballed and exiled from the gymnastics community. But as the years have passed, it is becoming more and more apparent that it's the Karolyis and not Moceanu who should have been excommunicated.

Over the past several months, the U.S. gymnastics world has been rocked by the revelations that a team doctor was sexually abusing many female U.S. gymnasts, including members of the various Olympic teams that were under the watch of either Bela or Martha Karolyi, and several of the women claim that various acts of sexual abuse were carried out at the Karolyis' camp.

The doctor at the heart of the allegations is Larry Nassar, also the team doctor for the Michigan State gymnastics team. He is currently in federal custody on charges of possessing child pornography. Michigan is also seeking to punish him, and prosecutors in that state have charged him with 15 counts of sexual conduct in the first degree. Two of his victims were younger than 13 years old, and authorities say that more than 80 women and girls have filed complaints. Multiple civil lawsuits have also been filed against Nassar, Michigan State, USA Gymnastics (the national body governing gymnastics in the United States and which assembles the Olympic team) and, in at least one suit, the Karolyis.

It was the atmosphere created by the Karolyis at the camp that allowed for the sexual abuse to take place, according to several of the women, especially the environment of physical abuse and depriving the girls and women of food. Those complaining that the Karolyis helped create an environment that was ripe for sexual abuse at their camp include Jeanette Antolin and 2000 U.S. Bronze medalist Jamie Dantzscher.

“I felt like we weren’t allowed to even smile in the gym,” Dantzscher told 60 Minutes. “So getting treatment [included Nassar] just joking around and talking about how horrible they [the coaches] were. It was kind of like a bright light, I guess you could say.”

While she was never sexually abused while a gymnast, Moceanu makes it clear that she was subjected to the same treatment from Bela Karolyi as those who were abused. And it was this mentally and physically abusive treatment that helped to make the victims susceptible to Nassar.

“I, personally, was not assaulted by Dr. Nassar,” Moceanu posted earlier this year. “However, after years of suffering other forms of physical and emotional abuse and neglect under the Karolyis, as well as being ostracized and overlooked by USAG when I did speak out, I have first-hand knowledge of how the culture set the stage for such atrocities to take place. Changes and improvements to the system — including a functioning set of checks and balances — are long overdue.”

The Karolyis have denied creating this toxic environment and knowing anything of Nassar's actions, stating they never heard any complaints from the gymnasts. But some of the women claimed the culture was such that they did not feel they could speak up. It is also likely that dissent was also stifled by the treatment that Moceanu received when she went public with her concerns.

“Most of them don’t want to talk about it because so many people are afraid of being shunned,” Moceanu told People magazine. “So many people are afraid of having the governing body blacklist them, so nobody wants to speak out.”

The Karolyis have received the support of other gymnasts who trained under them. And it is also true that they have not been accused of the same vile acts Nassar has. Yet all the same, what happened up in the woods of the Sam Houston National Forest should never happen to anyone, and it's a further shame that the adults taxed with protecting these young women failed in their duties and helped to make results even worse.

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