At a press briefing last week with International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams, there was stern talk about a country of cheaters so shot through with a gold-at-all-costs mentality that they countenanced the systematic exploitation of Olympic athletes.
And when they weren’t talking about the United States, they talked some about Russia.
“I join everyone by saying how appalling this is and how appalled as a parent you can be when you read these things,” Adams said to reporters, referring to the Larry Nassar sexual abuse case that has consumed USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic Committee. Moments earlier, he had addressed a mild softening of the IOC’s ban on Russian athletes from the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, vamping about “democracy and liberty and freedom.”
It was a revealing moment, a pair of Olympic scandals meeting on the eve of the Winter Games, which began in earnest Friday. In Adams’ fluent institutionalese — his “guidelines” and “briefings” and “processes” and “agenda” — the grotesque particulars of the two cases fell away, and you could begin to see the essential similarities.
These were both scandals of entrenched abuse, born in one instance and deepened in the other out of a desire to win. Because of a wish for Olympic superiority, Russia’s Olympic Committee systematically drugged its athletes. Because of a wish for Olympic superiority, the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics failed to protect their athletes from the interweaving of emotional and sexual abuse.
So why not ban the United States? By what moral logic are the Russians any more deserving of punishment than Americans?
Part of the U.S.’s evasion of culpability here derives from how the country has structured its institutions. Americans have a well-established doping regime, too; it’s just privatized and corporatized, like America itself. By law, the USOC, which is said to have covered up more than 100 positive tests from 1988 to 2000, receives no public funding, and the job of exotic chemical experimentation on the athletes tends to fall to outfits like the Nike Oregon Project. The USOC itself operates according to a statutory federalism by which governing bodies oversee their own sports.
One result of such an arrangement is that the United States gets to distribute its guilt among its subsidiaries. No doping program could ever be “state-sponsored” here for the simple reason that the state doesn’t sponsor much of anything. Plausible deniability is America’s strongest Olympic event.
I hold the USOC directly accountable. I’ve been trying to alert them to this problem. Their legal defense, if you follow the court cases, is, ‘It’s not our problem.’ Former Olympic swimmer Nancy Hogshead-Makar
The Nassar cover-up, involving crimes vastly more heinous than doping, pierces our national impunity. It’s an even bigger affront to the preposterous ideal of “clean” and “pure” sport: a two-decade scheme, implicating Olympic officials and public officials alike, that allowed Nassar to continually sexually abuse and assault more than 250 female athletes ― including multiple gold medal-winning American gymnasts ― in his capacity as a team doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. A phrase comes to mind: state-sponsored.
Nassar, in fact, was so ingrained in America’s Olympic program and so relentless in preying on young athletes that he abused gymnast Aly Raisman during the 2012 Olympic Games in London. The USOC, meanwhile, turned a blind eye to Nassar’s abuse and ignored his victims, Raisman said in the victim statement she read in the courtroom during Nassar’s sentencing hearing in January.
“They say now they applaud those who have spoken out, but it’s easier to say that now,” Raisman said. “When the brave women who started speaking out back then, more than a year after the USOC says they knew about Nassar, they were dismissed. At the 2016 Olympic Games, the president of the USOC said that the USOC would not conduct an investigation and even defended USA Gymnastics as one of the leaders in developing policies to protect athletes. That’s the response a courageous woman gets when she speaks out? And when others joined those athletes and began speaking out with more stories of abuse, were they acknowledged? No. It is like being abused all over again.”
“I have represented the United States of America in two Olympics and have done so successfully, and both USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic Committee have been very quick to capitalize and celebrate my success,” she continued. “But did they reach out when I came forward? No. So, at this point, talk is worthless to me. We’re dealing with real lives in the future of our sport. We need to believe this won’t happen again.”
It wasn’t just that the USOC and USA Gymnastics didn’t listen. Certain members of the two organizations seem to have actively protected Nassar, while the policies the groups adopted continued to provide him the power and the platform to molest and abuse his victims.
Gymnasts for the national team were trained in the emotionally abusive environment of Karolyi Ranch in Texas, against which Nassar could pose as a kindly, sympathetic figure.
“I always felt like I got in trouble,” 2000 Olympian Jamie Dantzscher told “60 Minutes” a year ago. “I wasn’t working hard enough. I was told to lose weight. At one point, I started making myself throw up.” Nassar, she said, “was like my buddy. He was on my side.” Getting medical treatment from him “was kind of like a bright light,” she said, even though it was under the guise of treatment that Nassar was also sexually abusing her.
The USOC and USA Gymnastics required that gymnasts go through Nassar’s treatments. If they refused, they jeopardized their place on the team. USA Gymnastics officials and coaches, like Nassar’s close friend and top gymnastics coach John Geddert, continued to leave Nassar alone with girls and young women (Geddert is now the subject of a criminal investigation). And the USOC and USA Gymnastics continued to do nothing, even after women began coming forward years ago.
After Nassar’s sentencing in January, the USOC sent a letter of apology to Nassar’s victims. But until then it had taken almost no responsibility for its role in the scandal, and even its apology contained hardly any internal reckoning over the fact that the most successful period in U.S. women’s gymnastics history ― a team gold in 1996 and two more in 2012 and 2016 ― occurred under the specter of sexual abuse with which the USOC and USA Gymnastics were complicit.
“I hold the USOC directly accountable,” Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a former Olympic swimmer who has spent years advocating for policy changes to protect female athletes, told HuffPost. “I’ve been working with the USOC for eight years, and trying to alert them to this problem. Their legal defense, if you follow the court cases, is, ‘It’s not our problem.’”
And even now, top USOC officials have refused to admit any culpability in Nassar’s crimes. CEO Scott Blackmun will keep his job, at least until the conclusion of an independent investigation, USOC Chairman Larry Probst said at a news conference in Pyeongchang on Friday, even though it’s unclear how independent that investigation really is.
“We are far from unscathed,” Probst said. “There’s been a tremendous amount of criticism about the USOC. We think that we did what we were supposed to do. Could we have done more? Of course, we could always do more.”
The entire board of directors for USA Gymnastics resigned in January. But before that, the organization asked a federal judge to dismiss a civil suit against it and said that information from Nassar’s accusers “did not provide reasonable suspicion that sexual abuse had occurred,” that it “never attempted to hide Nassar’s misconduct” and that, “while Nassar is liable to the plaintiffs, USAG is not.”
So far, beyond the courts, the only meaningful reckoning with the Nassar scandal is happening in Congress, of all places. The House passed a law in the wake of Nassar’s sentencing that will increase mandatory reporting requirements for officials at athletic federations, such as USA Gymnastics and the USOC. More congressional scrutiny could soon follow, especially given fresh awareness that similar problems exist in USA Swimming and across the U.S. Olympic program, too.
But Americans, brought up on the old impunity, loyal to their own flag, seem loath to see Nassar as evidence of the sort of far-reaching institutional rot they’re quick to ascribe to more centralized Olympic programs, such as Russia’s. Commenters almost universally cheered the banning of an entire federation over doping; not a soul has called for the banning of the United States over state-sponsored sexual assault. This gets things exactly backward.
Doping, like all crises surrounding drug use, is a moral panic. There’s little credible evidence that a ban like the one the IOC handed Russia will do anything to address the sort of illicit chemical enhancements that have always been the Olympics’ worst-kept secret. Prohibitionism hasn’t worked so far. Hard-line prohibitionism won’t work any better.
State-sponsored sexual assault, on the other hand, is a moral calamity — a failing that calls into question not just the integrity of the competition and of the organizations that engage in it, but their very existence. Nassar’s crimes were real crimes; our Olympics institutions enabled them and exacerbated them, and the rot spread beyond sports into the public realm.
A ban would make it clear, to Americans and to the world, that the people who run the USOC are complicit in the evil that happens on their watch, even if the structure of our Olympic project is explicitly designed to ensure their hands are always clean.
“Right now, you’re just an organization who allowed predators and abuse to happen,” 1996 gold medal-winning gymnast Dominique Moceanu said at a January news conference in Washington. She was talking about USA Gymnastics, but she might as well have been talking about the whole of the U.S. Olympics system. “You have to redefine, what are we moving forward? Let’s... have a fresh start, almost as if it’s a new organization.”
Some time away from Olympic competition might just help. Ban us.