Just as millions were planning to watch the dazzling performances of the U.S. women gymnasts at the Rio Olympics, the sport’s national governing organization, USA Gymnastics, was slammed with a report that found it had routinely dismissed claims of widespread sexual abuse by coaches.
An investigation, published in early August by the Indianapolis Star, found that USA Gymnastics ignored multiple warnings about famous coaches who had allegedly been allowed to molest girls—some as young as 7—for years.
Now, two former gymnasts have accused USA Gymnastics’ most prominent physician, Larry G. Nassar, of fondling their genitals and breasts during examinations. The Indianapolis Star reported the allegations on Monday.
Nassar served as USA Gymnastics’ team physician during four Olympics, and left his position a year ago. Matthew Borgula, his attorney, says Nassar “emphatically” denies any allegations of wrongdoing.
One gymnast, an Olympic medalist, filed a lawsuit in a California state court that was made public on Monday. The other gymnast, Rachael Denhollander, filed a police complaint with Michigan State University police in August. Nassar is a faculty member there.
According to the California suit, the unnamed medalist, “Jane JD Doe,” claims that USA Gymnastics allowed Nassar to examine her in complete privacy, in clear violation of the organization’s standard of conduct. The other woman, Rachael Denhollander, spoke on the record to the newspaper, and appears in a lengthy video.
In it, Denhollander says that she sought treatment for back and wrist injuries from Nassar when she was a 15-year-old club-level gymnast in 2000, and claims that he became increasingly abusive during each session. In Denhollander’s account, Nassar unhooked her bra and fondled her breasts, and began “massaging internally,” penetrating her vagina and anus with his finger and thumb, she said. “He never wore gloves,” Denhollander said in the video.
Disturbingly, Denhollander’s mother was in the examination room with her that time, but Denhollander claims the doctor positioned himself in such a way that her mother could not witness the “treatments.”
“I was very embarrassed and very confused, trying to reconcile what was happening with the person he was supposed to be,” Denhollander told the Star.
Denhollander described Nassar as personable and gregarious. “He makes you want to trust him,” Denhollander said.
When he allegedly began abusing her sexually, Denhollander was confused, since her mother was present.
“I didn’t realize that she couldn’t see so that was also part of the dynamic that kept me quiet,” she said. “I thought that if there was something wrong, surely my mom would speak up. But Mom couldn’t see what he was doing.”
Denhollander, who described herself as feeling like “damaged goods” for years, read about what she believed to be predatory coaches and decided to speak out publicly about Nassar’s alleged abuses. “He has everything he needs to be an incredible leader. He has the personality, the skill, the knowledge, and he’s using that to prey on people,” she said. “What a waste.”
In the lawsuit, the medalist claims that Nassar began abusing her in the mid-1990s, when she was only 12 or 13. The suit says that Nassar fondled her breasts, buttocks, and genitals during treatments, and continued repeated abuses until she was 18.
Borgula, Nassar’s attorney, told the IndyStar that his client “adamantly denies misconduct at this time.” Borgula did not immediately return a call to The Daily Beast requesting comment.
In a statement, USA Gymnastics said that it had become aware of concerns about Nassar’s alleged conduct in the summer of 2015, and notified legal authorities.
“We also relieved Dr. Nassar of his duties, and he ceased to be affiliated with USA Gymnastics,” the statement said. “We are grateful to the athletes for coming forward to share their concerns when they did.”
In a statement published in the IndyStar on Tuesday, Borgula denied that Nassar had been fired. “Dr. Nassar was never ‘relieved’ of his volunteer position at USA Gymnastics. He considered retirement in 2013, long before the current allegations came to light, but was asked to stay on by the coaches and athletes because they relied on his expertise to care for the gymnasts that represent our country. He later retired in 2015 after 29 years of service.”
It went on: “His decision was not influenced by the current allegations because he was unaware of those allegations until yesterday. Instead, he retired because it was a voluntary position and he wished to pursue other interests outside of USA Gymnastics. During his retirement, Dr. Nassar continues to support USA Gymnastics and has been called upon by coaches and staff many times since his retirement to assist the athletes with various health issues.”
The accusations underscore a crisis in the big-money world of elite gymnastics. The August investigation detailed how USA Gymnastics ignored complaints about the sexual abuses of multiple coaches, including William McCabe, a Georgia coach who was allowed to molest vulnerable girls and young women for years. (He is now serving a 30-year sentence for the sexual exploitation of children.)
Another coach, Marvin Sharp, was named the national Women’s Coach of the Year in 2010, despite lengthy accusations against him. (Those allegations included the touching of one adolescent girl’s vagina and of shaving her pubic hair with an electric eyebrow razor. He also allegedly arranged for connecting hotel rooms during travel meets, and insisted on keeping the door open.) He was arrested in 2015, and killed himself in jail.
Robert Malina, a retired professor of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas at Austin, who has studied the growth of gymnasts and other young athletes for decades, said he was disgusted, but not surprised, by Monday’s news.
“Just horrible,” Malina said. “It just reinforces the notion of the blind trust we place in the system,” he said. “We are not looking at the details of where and how these youngsters are training. Organized sport, especially at the elite level, is an adult-organized program. With whom are we entrusting our sons and daughters?” he asked.
Competitive gymnastics is a big business, and is fueled by the popularity of U.S. Olympians, who dominated the sport in Rio. USA Gymnastics’ aim is to develop the U.S. Olympic team and advance the sport nationwide, and it has certainly achieved that. Popularity has surged in recent years, and the group now has more than 121,000 athletes as members, as well as 3,000 gyms around the country. Training is demanding and often unmonitored by other adults; it also sometimes exceeds 30 hours a week at the top levels.
There have long been concerns about its demands and abuses. A 1995 book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters, explored the physical and psychological abuse girls endure in order to pursue Olympic glory. The book begins with the story of a girl who broke her neck, and details emotional cruelty, starvation diets, and the tyranny of former U.S. coach Bela Karolyi, whose wife Marta assumed his position and is soon stepping down.
But some doubt that the lurid news reports will change much within the organization—especially after the women’s U.S. team vaulted its way from one stunning performance to the next in Rio.
“USA Gymnastics,” Malina said, “is laughing all the way to bank.”