The challenge of Olympic reform in the age of #MeToo

The challenge of Olympic reform in the age of #MeToo
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This week, hundreds of talented young athletes will depart from sports training facilities in the United States to compete for gold in the Winter Olympic Games. For most, this is the culmination of a lifetime of hard work: years of practice, often spent apart from their families, with adolescent freedoms sacrificed in pursuit of making the Olympic team.

But a harrowing year of women speaking out on male sexual abuse forces us to ask how Olympic authorities identify and deal with sexual predators. This winter, parents and sports fans alike were shaken by the testimony of abused female athletes, during the trial and sentencing of Dr. Larry Nassar. The longtime sports physician who molested hundreds of young female gymnasts under his care often did so in the guise of medical treatment, even with gymnasts’ parents in the room; now we are left with the revelation that many Olympic gymnasts endured years of sexual violation by their team doctor while winning medals for the national and club teams.


The scandal raises predictable questions: How could this happen? Did the parents know? Do we ever believe children who report abuse?


To grapple with this horror story, we have to look at history. We’re celebrating the 45th anniversary year of Title IX law, part of the Education Acts of 1972; in the 1970s opportunities for women and girls to compete and train at an elite level increased exponentially. The United States began to catch up with socialist rivals that long had offered better training facilities (and expectations) for their female athletes.

Lacking a comparable state sports system that hand-picks youths for Olympic training, American girls were bested again and again by East German, Chinese, Soviet and Romanian competitors. (Those record-setting achievements owed much to abusive doping and unethical medical experimentation on girls’ developing bodies, especially in East Germany, as the documentary Doping For Gold revealed.)

After 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci scored a perfect 10 at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, the complicated performance sport of gymnastics abandoned adult bodies for teen flexibility: who would become the next Nadia? Recruiting younger and smaller girls became a hallmark of global gymnastics training; in the United States, private coaching with limited structural boundaries put hopeful, willing-to-please minors in the hands of authority figures who wielded considerable personal power — with almost no oversight.

Mothers desperate to live through their daughters, families relying on the cash payoff of a young star’s career after much financial investment, and other reasons made it difficult for a dependent child to quit; to say no to further participation in the regimen everyone hoped would yield gold. These problems were exposed long ago in Joan Ryan’s 1995 book, “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes,” a work including similar issues in the individual-perfection worlds of ballet and Olympic ice skating. Performance sports reward appearance and willingness to please — themes brutally explored in the recent film “I, Tonya.

Beyond the stage-parent syndrome, the unregulated realm of personal coaching, and a culture tolerating sexual harassment of working professional women, we find one more element in a perfect storm. Sports, unlike engineering or crafts, feature the human body as product. Coaches, trainers and medics are expected to grab, move, pat, yank, mold and critique arms and legs, hip turnout, torso angles. Being touched in an uncomfortable but supposedly reparative way thus can be built into the daily routine of aspiring to perfection.

Talking back to those in power isn’t a skill our society has cultivated in young girls — including young athletes. Title IX notwithstanding, basic sexism in Olympic coverage favors passive cuteness over the tough, outspoken female. Consider NBC reporter Dennis Murphy’s 2006 comment on Olympic snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis: “What’s a cute Goldilocks like this doing in a cutthroat event like that?” (Answer: Winning a silver medal.)  

The mixed messages for U.S. women are baffling: Olympic ski jump and ice hockey once were off-limits because girls could get hurt, but young gymnast Kerri Strug landing on an injured ankle and being carried off in the paternal arms of coach Bela Karolyi symbolized effort and sacrifice. That ability to endure the unendurable and continue showing up for love of the game came at a high price for other gymnasts.   

How badly do we want kids to win? Enough to accept the probability of abuse? We know this likely is the tip of the iceberg, with shake-ups in other sports to come. For conditions to change, organizations from the IOC to USA Gymnastics have to reform, and indeed the resignations and public shaming grow apace. It’s hard to know what a foolproof system would look like.

Moreover, embarrassment about the female body stifles debate where organizations require greater transparency. The recent Super Bowl game, with its endless commercials, might have been the perfect time to produce a public service ad: “Abused as an athlete? Need to report abuse? Call us. We’re listening.” Unfortunately, no one is sure whom to trust. No one was listening, before.

Bonnie J. Morris is a women's history professor emerita at George Washington University and lecturer at University of California at Berkeley. The author of 15 books, her research areas include women's sports representation and American feminist history.