As the Harvey Weinstein sex scandal continues to unfold, a former Olympic gymnast took to Twitter on Wednesday to remind everyone that the reality of powerful men taking advantage of girls and women is also true outside of Hollywood.
It's old news at this point that former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar has been accused of abusing more than 100 women, including numerous members of the U.S. Olympic women's gymnastics teams when famed Romanian coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi were at the helm.
This week social media has been rife with people sharing their own stories of abuse, summed up with the hashtag "me, too." Early Wednesday morning, McKayla Maroney, a member of the gold medal-winning 2012 U.S. Olympic team who also took silver at the London Olympics for vaulting, recounted what happened to her.
Maroney said it started when she arrived for her first national team training camp, the monthly retreats held at the Karolyi Ranch, a training center created by the Karolyis near the Sam Houston National Forest located in Huntsville, about 30 miles north of Houston.
Nassar, described in court records as a shrewd operator who used his access and the vulnerability of the young, ambitious athletes in the highly stressful environment of the Karolyi training methods to befriend, manipulate and molest them, began abusing Maroney during that first stint at the ranch, Maroney states. She was just 13 years old.
As team doctor, Nassar was given remarkable leeway. He routinely examined the girls and young women on the team alone in their rooms, both at the ranch and at gymnastics competitions where he traveled with the team in case anyone required any treatment.
Under the guise of medical care he performed vaginal examinations — often without anyone else present in the room and without wearing gloves — and touched his victims' breasts, buttocks and vaginal areas, according to various lawsuits filed against him. (Nassar was also team doctor for Michigan State's gymnastics team and treated young athletes at a university clinic as well. So far at least 140 women have come forward accusing Nassar of sexual assault.)
Many former gymnasts have come out and filed reports and lawsuits against Nassar — who was fired in 2015 when the higher-ups at USA Gymnastics, the governing entity of the sport, reportedly learned he was abusing female national team members — since the story broke last fall, but this is the first time Maroney, now 21, has alleged that she too was a victim of Nassar's predatory tactics.
It went on for years.
"It seemed whenever and wherever this man could find the chance, I was 'treated,'" Maroney states.
In 2011 Maroney, then 15, had flown to Tokyo for the world championship. Nassar had given her a sleeping pill for the flight. She said she woke to find herself alone with Nassar in his Tokyo hotel room while he was in the middle of giving her "treatment."
"I thought I was going to die that night," she writes.
But what is most wrenching about her story is that she only ever fell into Nassar's grasp because she was chasing a dream. When Maroney was little she sat in front of her TV watching the 2004 Olympics imagining that one day she too would become a team member, jetting to national team training camps at the Karolyi Ranch on weekends and clad in a red, white and blue uniform competing for the United States at the Olympic Games.
Maroney got her wish, but it came with a price, she states.
Nassar, who got a plea deal in July on the child pornography charges while other charges of molestation and engaging in illicit sexual conduct in foreign places were dropped by federal authorities, isn't the only person to blame for the abuse of so many young athletes, as we've pointed out before.
“I, personally, was not assaulted by Dr. Nassar,” famed Olympic gymnast Dominique Moceanu, an open critic of the Karolyis and their methods, 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 stories circulating about how Weinstein, the film producer, used his power and how the system he worked in protected him and kept women he allegedly assaulted quiet underscore how frustratingly usual these incidents are.
The Weinstein scandal also makes the lack of real consequences for the Karolyis, the other USA Gymnastics top brass and the many people that somehow missed there was a serial predator in their midst, that much more troubling. Weinstein is being drummed out of Hollywood, and at this point, stranger things have happened, but it's looking like his career will never recover.
However, the system that allowed people like Weinstein to take advantage of those who were less powerful, who were vulnerable, is still in place. The same goes for the system that allowed Nassar to prey on young girls and women for more than 20 years without any repercussions.
The Karolyis, who have denied all allegations of any wrongdoing, are now retired. USA Gymnastics officials announced that the organization will not be purchasing the Karolyi Ranch as previously planned, and the head of the organization, Steve Penny, ended up stepping down when the revelations about abuse and cover-ups were at a high point earlier this year.
But the scandal is already — like the years of rumors of harsh training methods and the contentions of emotional abuse — being folded in as a footnote to stories about the legendary coaches and the ranch nestled in the woods north of Houston where the magic happened.
Bela and Martha Karolyi are still venerated for their years of training Olympic-winning gymnasts. A young gymnast invited to a national team training camp in Huntsville is still a big enough deal to merit stories in local newspapers across the country. The focus is still on the wins and the successes, not the many ways the coaches and the organization as a whole failed Maroney and the other gifted young female athletes who trusted them.
Maroney shared her story to remind people that these things don't just happen in Hollywood and that real changes need to be made across the board.
Now, it's a question of whether anyone — in Hollywood, the gymnastics world or the myriad other places where the vulnerable are exploited by the powerful — will take real steps to ensure that these systems are dismantled entirely.
It's good to be hopeful, but it's been more than a year since Nassar's first victims began coming forward and even in the more insular world of gymnastics, it doesn't seem like much of anything has changed.
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