Athletes Are Post-National Now

Decades of sex abuse turned American gymnasts away from their federation. Will other sports follow suit?

Simone Biles competes on the balance beam during the 2019 U.S. Gymnastics Championships in Kansas City, Missouri, on August 09, 2019.
Simone Biles competes on the balance beam during the 2019 U.S. Gymnastics Championships in Kansas City, Missouri, on August 09, 2019. Jamie Squire/Getty Images

In 2016, during the last Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, mention of USA Gymnastics conjured up little other than awe. And rightly so: American female gymnasts were on top of the world. Led by Simone Biles—who became the most decorated U.S. female gymnast of all time—the U.S. squad in the team event boasted a margin of victory over Russia so great that the ensuant medal ceremony felt less like the conclusion of a hard-fought competition than a coronation.

In 2016, during the last Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, mention of USA Gymnastics conjured up little other than awe. And rightly so: American female gymnasts were on top of the world. Led by Simone Biles—who became the most decorated U.S. female gymnast of all time—the U.S. squad in the team event boasted a margin of victory over Russia so great that the ensuant medal ceremony felt less like the conclusion of a hard-fought competition than a coronation.

Five years later, USA Gymnastics still wears the crown—and nothing suggests that it will shed it in Tokyo. But its name is soiled for perpetuity by the September 2016 revelations that many of the same U.S. gymnasts who charmed global audiences a month prior had been serially molested by the man who was also their doctor. Even more chilling was the discovery that USA Gymnastics not only ignored, but actively enabled, the sexual abuse of its athletes for decades.

The name Larry Nassar is now synonymous with crimes so appalling they earned him a January 2018 sentence of multiple lifetimes in prison. Before then, the erstwhile USA Gymnastics team doctor was almost stoically well-regarded, considered a “miracle worker” who welded—quite literally—the gilded era of American gymnastics. That carefully-curated image proved central to USA Gymnastics’ attempts to snub the allegations that, for over 20 years, Nassar sexually abused more than 500 women and girls, most of them gymnasts, at both USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University.

Nassar’s crimes—and their reach—are disturbing in their own right. But he is one predator. The truth is that Nassar’s perversion was empowered by the culture of USA Gymnastics. The Indianapolis Star journalists who broke the Nassar story discovered something gymnasts have known, at least tacitly, all along: Sexual abuse is the apex of a toxicity that engulfs competitive gymnastics. It is, in many ways, the natural conclusion of the relentless micro (and macro) aggressions normalized by the sport’s alluring fog of innocence, youth, obedience, and beauty.

So USA Gymnastics—the umbrella organization for the sport of gymnastics in the United States, that is—will arrive in Tokyo as a pariah. But the athletes it has selected for the U.S. Olympic Team? No matter what happens, they’ll be lauded as heroes—emblematic of an emerging fissure between athletes and the national federations they represent. Not long ago, USA Gymnastics ruled over its athletes with an iron grip. But the Nassar scandal stripped the organization of any and all credibility, creating a necessary opening for change. Buttressed by concurrent social movements, it has led to a new era of gymnastics one can only describe as post-national, and in Tokyo, Olympic gymnastics competition will be less a contest between countries than individual athletes, who have shed their national affiliation for something greater.

If gymnastics in 2021 can be said to be moving in a post-national direction, gymnastics in 1981 was its polar opposite: rooted in the most rigid form of the nation-state. A year after the United States boycotted the 1980 Olympics Games in Moscow over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, nothing—especially not sport—was immune from the polarizing frameworks of the Cold War.

1981 was also the year that a young couple from Romania named Bela and Marta Karolyi defected to the United States. They were a boon to the U.S. Cold War narrative. The Karolyis had been confidants of the brutal Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, running the country’s national gymnastics program (and spying on its athletes) at his behest. There, Bela had coached Nadia Comaneci, who at 14 years of age became the first gymnast to score a perfect 10 at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. That success came at a cost: under the Karolyis, Comaneci suffered intense physical and emotional abuse.

Stateside, the Karolyis quickly proved their coaching prowess, including by leading the U.S. women’s gymnastics team to its first-ever Olympic all-around and team titles in 1984 and 1996, respectively. In 1999, Bela was named head coordinator of the U.S. women’s national gymnastics team. Marta replaced him in 2001 until her retirement in late 2016.

But while the Wheaties boxes of victorious Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug depicted a glamorous new frontier in American gymnastics, the reality was sinister.

For almost 20 years, members of the U.S. women’s national gymnastics team were required to attend monthly training camps at the Karolyis’ ranch in rural Texas, which mimicked the insular Deva gymnastics center they established in Transylvania in 1977 and gave the Karolyis total control over their athletes. There was no cell service, and parents were not allowed on the premises. At the ranch, which the Karolyis leased to USA Gymnastics, Nassar was always present. It was when the gymnasts were completely isolated and alone that much of his abuse reportedly occurred.

As Jennifer Sey, a member of the U.S. women’s national gymnastics team during the mid-1980s, details in the 2020 Netflix documentary Athlete A, the Karolyis single-handedly transformed women’s gymnastics from an adult to a predominantly youth sport. Their athletes’ successes seemed a vindicating signal to USA Gymnastics—and then the world—that the future of gymnastics lay with girls, not women. Sey stresses that this shift not only enabled nimbler tricks and tumbles, but it also lent coaches and authorities a level of control, influence, and coercion they would have never been able to exert over adults.

USA Gymnastics’ current president, Li Li Leung, who was installed after the Nassar scandal, admitted in May 2020 that the organization has “rewarded” physical and emotional abuse in the past—though she claims that is a bygone era. In accordance with new federal guidelines, USA Gymnastics in 2017 founded a “Safe Sport Policy” to prevent abuse. A growing number of celebrated gymnasts aren’t sure that a fresh face—and legal jargon—can root out the dysfunction of the past half-century.

Three-time Olympian Dominique Dawes, who opened her own gymnastics gym in Maryland this year, has chosen not to affiliate the facility with USA Gymnastics. “My kids will NEVER be associated with USAG, an organization that has admitted to rewarding coaches for abusing their athletes,” Dawes wrote on Facebook in June 2020.

The lack of a USA Gymnastics affiliation means that Dawes’s gymnasts will be precluded from most competition. USA Gymnastics is the national governing body for women’s and men’s artistic gymnastics, trampoline and tumbling, rhythmic gymnastics, and group gymnastics. (There is little else in the way of organized gymnastics in the United States besides seasonal high school leagues and college gymnastics, which has become an increasingly popular rehabilitative destination for burned-out elite gymnasts.) But reaching the heights of international competition isn’t important to Dawes, who is content to focus instead on health, balance, and joy.

“If it means I won’t have Olympians produced in this gym, so be it,” Dawes told NBC Washington in February.

From the #MeToo movement to the United States’ racial reckoning, sports activism has changed fundamentally since the 2016 Olympics. Though he is now a household name, former National Football League (NFL) player Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the national anthem in protest against police brutality on Sept. 1, 2016. Kaepernick’s ensuant years-long spat with the NFL—which ultimately led to his own dismissal but made him a cultural icon in the process—provided a mold for other athletes to take on their respective federations in pursuit of justice, largely with the help of social media. Gymnastics is no exception.

On Twitter, Biles boasts 1.2 million followers to USA Gymnastics’ 267,000. On Instagram, the ratio is 4.4 million to 821,000. The numbers are similar for many of Biles’s current and former teammates. Social media doesn’t just guarantee that these gymnasts will be heard: It ensures that whatever they say will take on outsized cultural influence compared to the press releases of USA Gymnastics.

Take the Karolyi Ranch. Ahead of Marta’s planned retirement after the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, USA Gymnastics announced plans to buy the ranch for $3 million and continue to use it as a national team training center. But in January 2018, ahead of her return to competitive gymnastics, Biles was able to derail the whole operation with a single tweet.

In March 2020, when USA Gymnastics tweeted birthday greetings for Biles—saying “we know you will only continue to amaze us”—Biles responded with a tweet that read, “how about you amaze me and do the right thing… have an independent investigation.” Her caustic reply was embarrassing for USA Gymnastics, and it also pointed at a shift in sports governance: USA Gymnastics no longer controlled her. She controlled USA Gymnastics.

In the wake of the Nassar scandal in the United States, gymnasts in other countries have similarly used the internet to challenge their national federations. In 2020, British gymnasts launched the hashtag #GymnastAlliance—a search of which on Twitter or Instagram now yields scores of stories of abuse from around the world. As a result of the action, the national gymnastics federations of Australia, Belgium, Britain, the Netherlands, and Switzerland conducted investigations into allegations of abuse, while Greece’s federation in April vowed to launch a probe into allegations that gymnasts were subject to abuse “bordering on torture.”

Germany's Sarah Voss wears a full bodysuit while competing in the women's beam qualifications during European Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Basel, on April 21.

Germany’s Sarah Voss wears a full bodysuit while competing in the women’s beam qualifications during the European Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Basel on April 21. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

On the competition floor, too, athletes have taken unprecedented initiative to rupture the norms of the sport. None are more visible than the efforts of the German women’s national gymnastics team to reimagine the leotard itself.

At the 2021 European Gymnastics Championships in April, three members of the German squad donned bodysuits in competition. In a tweet, the German Gymnastics Federation said that its athletes wore the new uniforms to fight “against sexualization in gymnastics.” Gymnast Elisabeth Seitz wrote that “every gymnast should be able to decide in what sort of uniform they feel most comfortable.”

The bodysuits were not a one-off stunt. Though German gymnasts have since competed and trained in traditional leotards as well, the bodysuit has been equally present—and was even worn by some at Germany’s Olympic trials. Whether the squad wears them at the Olympic games themselves is anyone’s guess.

Members of the U.S. women's gymnastics team pose for a photo ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo on July 22.

Members of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team pose for a photo ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo on July 22. Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has meant that virtually everything about the Tokyo Olympics will be abnormal. Gymnastics competition was already bound to that fate well before March 2020.

In Tokyo, only four gymnasts will compete for Team USA. Since 2000, the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) has undertaken a never-ending crusade to enliven competition by shrinking the size of a gymnastics squad, which has traditionally had five to seven members. This year, the United States’ lucky quartet is comprised of Biles and three Olympic newcomers: Jordan Chiles, Suni Lee, and Grace McCallum.

To compensate for the smaller numbers, the FIG developed a new route to the Olympics for some individual athletes, who may qualify through a complex process at designated FIG “World Cup” events. In practice, it means that up to two individual gymnasts per country can compete in Tokyo—but not as a part of their national teams. Gymnasts Jade Carey and MyKayla Skinner have snagged the United States’ spots. They will participate in individual events—and if they win, the “Star-Spangled Banner” will play. But they will not be considered an official part of the U.S. gymnastics team; even their leotards must be different.

The FIG’s reforms privilege strong all-around gymnasts—like Biles—who can plausibly earn high scores on each event. Collectively, they have moved the sport’s focus from a whole-of-team dynamic to one centered around individuals. Add this peculiarity to the fact that Russian athletes are competing under a neutral flag as punishment for a 2015 doping scandal, and we may well see an individual Olympic gymnastics final of athletes entirely divorced from their national federations.

Though most codified and rigid in the sport of gymnastics, a similar drift toward individuality is playing out across other—mostly women’s—sports. Naomi Osaka’s recent withdrawal from the 2021 French Open due to mental health struggles—which she says were exacerbated by the requirement that tennis players engage with the press at Grand Slam tournaments—demonstrated her leverage over the sport’s institutions.

Like Biles, Osaka’s social capital is derived largely from her internet presence: On both Twitter and Instagram, her follower count eclipses that of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). Osaka has 1.1 million followers on Twitter, while the WTA can claim only 870,700. On Instagram, the contrast is even starker: Osaka’s follower count tallies 2.5 million compared to the WTA’s 922,000. Both Biles and Osaka’s profiles will likely only gain further prominence during the Tokyo Olympics. Biles recently launched a docuseries on Facebook Watch, while Osaka is the subject of a new Netflix miniseries. Projects like these extend a direct line from athletes to global audiences, circumventing the national federations that once served as the only sure-fire route to fame, fortune, and influence.

Meanwhile, the U.S. women’s national soccer team remains embroiled in a lawsuit against its own federation, U.S. Soccer, for equal pay. Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of the post-national era of sport than the irony that rooting for female U.S. soccer players has often meant rooting against U.S. Soccer. The battle between the two entities is likely to intensify in and after Tokyo, as plaintiffs launch an appeal against a federal judge’s May 2020 dismissal of their case.

In gymnastics, the fight for justice is also far from over.

On July 14—the same day that the U.S. gymnastics squad departed for Tokyo—the U.S. Justice Department’s inspector general admitted that the FBI made “fundamental errors” in investigating the Nassar case, confirming that FBI officials lied to his office. If U.S. gymnasts already knew that they could not trust their national federation, they now had confirmation that they could not trust their government, either.

Barring any surprises (one U.S. gymnastics alternate has already tested positive for COVID-19), the United States will reign supreme in women’s gymnastics at the Tokyo Olympics. And Biles will almost certainly earn a second consecutive individual all-around title on track to become the most decorated Olympic gymnast of all time.

Paradoxically, Biles’s unshakeable dominance points to the most critical consequence of the post-national sporting era: The realization that competition is relative. Since 2013, Biles has hardly ever not won a competition. For much of that time, the hardware she gathered did not prevent her—or her teammates’—sexual, verbal, and emotional abuse. If anything, the national acclaim afforded by the United States’ many titles may have provided legitimacy to USA Gymnastics and the culture it created. Today, Biles openly states that she competes only against herself and, in many ways, even before this year’s Olympics competition begins, she has already won.

Allison Meakem is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @allisonmeakem

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