Ever since Kerri Strug and the Magnificent Seven won Olympic gold in 1996, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team has been a point of pride for many Americans. But over the past five years, athletes have been coming forward with allegations of widespread abuse in the sport. Former gymnasts say they were forced to train and compete with broken bones and that they were denied food. And dozens of women have testified that they were sexually assaulted by Larry Nassar, the former doctor who worked with the U.S. national team.
USA Gymnastics, the governing body for elite gymnastics in the United States, has said it’s working hard to change the sport’s culture, but many former gymnasts say it hasn’t done enough.
“We have coaches and institutions and organizations and a country, frankly, that prioritize money and medals over the bodies and souls of people,” says Rachael Denhollander, a former gymnast who was the first woman to come forward publicly with accusations against Nassar.
Now that we know the truth about how damaging elite gymnastics can be for young women and girls, should we change how we think about the sport? Denhollander says Simone Biles’s decision to withdraw from several Olympic events might change how athletes see their own worth.
“That’s going to entail a lot of hard conversations,” Denhollander says. “Do you have value and identity and worth outside of your gymnastics ability? If we really, truly understand that the answer to that is yes, that lays the foundation to be able to say, ‘I can’t sacrifice my value, identity, the rest of my life for this one thing.’”
This week on The Experiment: When national glory comes at the expense of young women’s bodies, can we still find a way to love the Olympics?
This episode’s guests include the Atlantic staff writer Emma Green and Rachael Denhollander, a lawyer and victims’ advocate.
Further reading: “The Gymnast Who Won’t Let Her Daughters Do Gymnastics”
Apply for The Experiment’s fall internship. Applications will be accepted through August 20, 2021.
Be part of The Experiment. Use the hashtag #TheExperimentPodcast, or write to us at [email protected].
This episode was produced by Tracie Hunte and reported by Emma Green. Editing by Katherine Wells and Jenny Lawton. Fact-check by William Brennan. Sound design by David Herman, with additional engineering by Joe Plourde.
Music by Keyboard (“The World Eating,” “Staying In,” “Ojima,” “Contractions,” and “My Atelier”), Ob (“Waif” and “Ghyll”), and Laundry (“Films” and “Phthalo Blue”), provided by Tasty Morsels and Nelson Nance. Additional audio from NBC Sports, NBC Nightly News, IndyStar, the Today show, The Ben Maller Show, and Dominique Moceanu.
A transcript of this episode is presented below:
(A quiet jumble of sounds in the distance—Kids playing on a playground? A sports game at a park?—slowly approaches over the light strains of a synthetic tremolo. As the noise gets nearer, it becomes clearer. This is a training session. Footsteps, then the spring of a gymnastics vault, sound loud and close. A large crowd erupts into applause and cheering.)
Julia Longoria: I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment. And this week, we hand over the show to correspondent Tracie Hunte.
(The ambient noise quiets.)
Tracie Hunte: So the Olympics are over, but I’m still thinking about the Olympics. And as with every Olympics, there are new records that were broken, and new stars are made. But the thing I can’t stop thinking about is the moment when Simone Biles pulled out of the team and all-around events in gymnastics.
(Soft but serious music plays gently, piano and mechanical noise. It dissipates as Hunte begins talking again.)
Hunte: She said she had been struggling with some mental-health issues, and she also didn’t feel she could safely do her routines. And this moment made me think about the human cost beneath the surface of these huge athletic spectacles. And so I called Emma Green, who’s been thinking about this too.
Emma Green: So I should say, right at the top, as a full disclaimer: I am the last person in the universe who has a sophisticated opinion about sports.
Hunte: Emma Green is a staff writer for The Atlantic.
Green: I am the definition of a regular human being who just loves the kind of pomp and circumstance and excitement and buildup of the Olympics. I always loved gymnastics. I always love the kind of peak artistry that we see gymnasts performing and the kind of drama around it, too, right? These young women and men who have worked all their lives towards this goal, and then, literally, everything depends on whether they can twist in the air the right number of times and land on their feet.
Hunte: Yeah! (Laughs.)
(A repetitive drumbeat plays up.)
Hunte: When I was growing up, gymnastics was always my favorite event. I think the team that was, like, probably the most impactful for me as a young person was the Magnificent Seven, at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
Announcer 1: (Over the din of the crowd.) The Americans are nailing it, and the crowd loves it.
Announcer 2: This truly is a team of superstars. We’ve been reading …
Hunte: I definitely remember Dominique Dawes and Shannon Miller and, of course, Dominique Moceanu.
Announcer: Dominique Moceanu. And I will tell you that if she nails this, this place will come apart.
Green: I’ve been thinking about them a lot too. The 1996 Olympics were so iconic in terms of what they represented for America and American gymnasts, and those young women who the entire country was looking to to be these record-breakers.
Announcer: Double twisting, double somersault. [Getting excited.] Two flips, two twists! (The crowd erupts into cheers.)
(The music fades down.)
Hunte: It was all so exciting and beautiful—but there was a lot going on behind the scenes in 1996 that we didn’t know about: Dominique Moceanu was under extreme pressure. She has said she was emotionally abused and starved by her coaches, the Karolyis. The Karolyis have denied abusing gymnasts. But Moceanu wasn’t the only one. Many former gymnasts now say they were abused while competing in elite gymnastics.
Anchor: Disturbing news in the world of elite gymnastics: The former team doctor for USA Gymnastics …
Hunte: In 2016, the Indianapolis Star Tribune published a series of articles looking into USA Gymnastics, or USAG. As we all know now, the team doctor, Larry Nassar, had sexually assaulted dozens of young girls. And Simone Biles says she was one of his victims too—and USAG knew about it and turned a blind eye.
Reporter: Larry Nassar, the former head doctor for USA Gymnastics, who treated some of the most famous Olympic gymnasts in recent history, faced one of more than 60 women who have come forward in the last year …
(A wave of lo-fi synthesizer washes over and then under the narration.)
Hunte: Larry Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison, and USAG’s entire board of directors resigned. And it became clear that the problem wasn’t just a single abuser. It was a whole system that enabled it.
Green: And there’s one woman who’s been at the center of this, who was sort of the first domino. This is a woman named Rachael Denhollander.
Rachael Denhollander: Everybody who’s a gymnast knows who Nassar is. He’s—he’s not just a normal sports-med doc. He is extremely …
(The music plays out.)
Green: She is a lawyer; she’s a mom. And when she was growing up, she was a gymnast. Years later, she was the first person to go public with allegations against Nassar.
She ended up being this kind of leader for a group of almost a hundred women who later testified at his sentencing hearing, who stood up and talked about what had happened to them.
So, as I was watching everything that was unfolding over the last week, I just knew I wanted to talk to Rachael Denhollander, because she was the woman who kind of got it all started—who was brave enough to stand up and use her name and to really encourage other survivors to speak out.
(A twangy electric guitar and organ play, wavering in and out of pitch—a lonely and empty sound.)
Hunte: Every two years, American athletes compete—not just for their own personal glory, but the glory of our whole country. But what happens when our glory comes at the expense of young women’s bodies?
This week on The Experiment, Emma Green talks with the woman who started a whole reckoning in U.S. gymnastics, and we ask: What does it take to love a sport when the cost is so high?(Another moment with just music.)
Green: All right! So I have a recorder going on my end and … (Fades under.)
Hunte: Emma got in touch with Rachael while she was traveling.
Denhollander: Yeah! Yep. That sounds great.
Green: So I’m curious; do you remember the first Olympics you ever watched?
Denhollander: I do. I have vague memories of the ’92 Olympics. And I remember very clearly the ’96 Olympics, ’cause I was around 10 years old.
The perspective I had at that point in time was Look at how well these girls are cared for. I remember thinking, Look at the great relationships they have. Look at the team; look at the camaraderie; look at what they’ve accomplished together! Look at where their hard work got them! And just being in awe. And I—I remember very clearly thinking how well they looked like they were cared for.
And the community that the gymnastics had, and so looking back at how I watched that Olympics, and understanding what was actually going on behind the scenes, um, is just a horrifying reality now, as an adult.
Green: Yeah, I can only imagine. I’m wondering specifically about this moment that’s been on my mind over the past week or so—been thinking about that famous NBC broadcast of Kerri Strug.
Announcer 3: (The crowd is cheering and whistling and clapping.) So Kerri Strug, it is up to her. If she can score 9.493, then she will win the team gold
Green: She had hurt her ankle.
Announcer 3: Oh!
Announcer 4: This—this is scary!
Announcer 3: (Stumbling through words.) And she is limping.
Denhollander: Yeah. I remember that moment very clearly for a couple of reasons. I remember—I remember watching Bela and just hearing him say, over and over, “You can do it. You can do it. You can do it.”
Bela Karolyi: You can do it! You can do it! Don’t worry about!
Denhollander: And in my mind, as a 10 year old, I was watching a grown woman who had poured herself into this sport being encouraged by a coach who knew what she was capable of. And, then, to a 10-year-old, to me, it looked like this incredible coach who wanted his athlete to succeed, who wanted her to know what she was capable of doing. And it looked like a beautiful moment. It looked like incredible victory.
(A humming drone plays underneath.)
(Some grunts and then an immediate lift in volume and excitement from the crowd.)
Announcer: Kerri Strug is hurt. She is hurt badly. We have got to find out if she’s—a 9.712! She has done it! Kerri Strug has won the gold medal for the United States team.
Denhollander: And then I very distinctly remember Kerri being carried off by Marta and handed to Larry …
(The drone plays up for a moment as the noise of the crowd fades out.)
Denhollander: … and being so thankful that she was going to get good care, because of course our athletes got top care, right?
Of course she was going to be well cared for, looking at this team of people surrounding her, um, that—that were there for her to support her, to encourage her, and to take care of her. And that was my perspective as a 10-year-old. And that was the perspective I took with me as a gymnast. That was the perspective I took with me into Larry’s office.
If USAG trusts their athletes to Larry, he is the best of the best.
And again, looking back at that now—now, knowing everything we know—my interpretation and perspective of those events is wildly different, now that I have the context for it.
Green: I wonder, coming into these Olympics, how has it felt watching these young women compete?
(The music slowly fades out.)
Denhollander: There’s a lot of mixed emotions. It’s beautiful to watch, but when you know the backstory of what was actually going on at USAG, there’s a lot of concern, also, as you’re watching these athletes.
A lot of what I think are very legitimate questions. Are they being well cared for? Are they being fed? Uh, what is the coaching dynamic like? How much has really changed? Because, as we saw for decades, USAG is capable of putting on a very, very good show. And our U.S. coaches are capable of putting on a very, very good show to make it look like our athletes are cared for when, in reality, they’re being horrifically abused and systematically starved.
Green: So you’ve lost the ability to just watch the Olympics as something that’s fun or something that resonates with you as a fellow gymnast or something that makes you inspired about athleticism or about your country. You can’t watch it with that simple, single lens anymore.
Denhollander: No, absolutely not. And to be honest, I don’t think we should. I don’t think we should be watching it with an uncritical eye.
Green: Is it traumatic to watch the Olympics?
Denhollander: I wouldn’t say it is traumatic to watch the Olympics, because I’m able to focus on the athletes and their incredible accomplishments and some level of knowledge that—you know, Simone, for example, is in a really good gym. And she has bodily autonomy and the ability to say, “This is not safe for me right now.” But yes, there is always that very difficult and painful backdrop to those realities. And what we should be aiming for is to get to a point in our understanding and our perspective and our approach to athletics where we can celebrate the athlete and their accomplishments and yet not idolize it.
So that they can (a) not have to fight an abusive organization just to get where they are. The fact that these athletes have accomplished what they’ve accomplished with an organization that hasn’t cared for them—and that Simone has accomplished what she’s accomplished while fighting her own tormentors and abusers’ enablers at the same time is incredible, but it shouldn’t have to be that way.
Green: I’ve been thinking about that a lot—the individual burden that all the athletes who have been abused by USAG and Larry Nassar have had to carry, but specifically Simone Biles. She said this spring that one of the reasons she wanted to keep competing was because she felt like, if a survivor weren’t present, USAG would just brush aside everything that’s happened and try to pretend like it didn’t exist.
Simone Biles: (Over inspirational, upbeat music.) I had to come back to the sport to be a voice, to have change happen, because I feel like, if there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would have just brushed it to the side …
Green: And I keep thinking about that because that’s just an incredible burden for a single person to take on. And I have no ability to even conceptualize how that feels. I wonder if you feel like you have some micro-understanding of what that must feel like, being someone who has been involved in this and has gotten to know other women who are involved in this case.
Denhollander: Yeah, I think to a degree we can absolutely talk in principles about what that’s like. I want to make sure, of course, that I don’t—I don’t speak for Simone, because you’re right, she occupies a completely unique place in this timeline and in this process. But in general, yes, having your abuse play out as an international headline is horrific.
It’s like being sexually assaulted with literally the world watching. And to have the—the trauma from the abuse and the mental-health struggles and all of those things that come with it playing out in front of an international audience, you know, it feels like you have no shred of privacy or dignity left.
It feels like you’re just on display—for the entire world. And then, on top of that, you’re carrying the weight of trying to protect the entire world, trying to force this kind of change. And I’ll be honest, I think Simone has done that incredibly well. I have so much respect for how she has used her voice and her power and her authority to push for those changes and to be somebody that survivors can look to and know that struggling with your mental health and with trauma doesn’t mean you’re crazy. And it doesn’t mean you’re weak. At the same time, it should have never been placed on her shoulders that way. It’s a very unfair burden for her to carry.
Green: When you heard about her decision to step back from team finals and from the all-around, what did you think?
Denhollander: It’s a really wide range of emotions. I mean, I’m absolutely heartbroken and devastated for her because she has poured herself in and hung in that extra year and has just done an incredible job shouldering this weight. And it was something she wanted so desperately. So I—I can’t imagine the pain of having to step back from that.
At the same time, I am just so incredibly proud of her and thankful for her because her ability to do that—to exercise bodily autonomy, to be able to recognize and have the freedom to say, “This is not safe for me right now”—that’s choice and agency that the gymnasts who came before her didn’t have.
And that’s so much of what she’s worked for. That stand alone is going to have massive impact on the safety of the gymnasts who come after her.
(Pipe-organ notes puff up and down. A ringing music plays. It’s soft, airy, a whole space of sound.)
Hunte: USAG hasn’t responded to our requests for comment.
In July, USAG president Li Li Leung said in a statement to ABC News: “We recognize how deeply we have broken the trust of our athletes and community, and we are working hard to build that trust back. We know that this kind of meaningful and lasting culture change does not happen overnight.”
The win-at-all-costs culture of gymnastics is right now undergoing a reckoning. But where does that leave us as viewers? That’s after the break.
(The music plays on its own for a while, slowly winding down to silence. Then, the break.)
(A swirling sound, like water rewinding, plays for a flourish before going out with a resounding ring.)
Hunte: You’re listening to The Experiment. I’m Tracie Hunte. And now, back to a conversation between lawyer and victim advocate Rachael Denhollander and Atlantic writer Emma Green.
Green: You know, I’ve been struck by the amount of opinions flying back and forth on her decision.
Ben Maller: We know a quitter when we see one. And right now the biggest quitter in sports is Simone Biles.
Charlie Kirk: She’s also very selfish, she’s immature, and she is a shame to the country.
Green: Where is that coming from in the culture?
Denhollander: I think it comes from a lot of things: (a) it comes from a complete lack of understanding of trauma and mental health. I also do think, in athletics—particularly with female athletes—we have a commoditization of women and women’s bodies.
Denhollander: You know, the number of people that have come out—even high-profile people—saying, “She let us down! She let her country down.”
Excuse me? What exactly did you do to pour into Simone’s training routine? Did you—did you financially sponsor her? Did you pay her medical bills? How exactly did you pour into Simone to create a situation where she owes you? You know, and what that really shows is not patriotism, not a pride in country and athletes; it shows an entitlement mentality that says, “I own you. You are here for my benefit. You are here for my pleasure. You are an object for my gratification.” That’s what’s actually being said. And that demonstrates a much more flawed mindset, a wicked mindset that exists in our country: that other people exist for our benefit.
Green: I’ve been so struck, too, by the gymnasts who have stepped out—not to say something against Simone, but to support her, and even to express that they wish they had had the option to take that route. Dominique Moceanu, for example, tweeted out a video of a fall that she took when she competed in the Olympics—
Announcer: Oh! She is so fortunate she wasn’t seriously hurt.
Green: —where she was on a stress fracture and then took a fall and never got a spinal examination or medical attention.
Announcer: What a hard fighter! I don’t know how she got herself back up there.
Green: And then, minutes later, competed again and said that she never felt like she would have been able to make the choice that Simone made. It’s so stunning that that culture exists. And yet it’s the backbone of elite gymnastics.
Why has that been the culture—maybe until Simone—where a young woman would feel like she doesn’t have the option to say, “I have a stress fracture and just fell at a high speed. I can’t compete.”
Denhollander: You know, we have coaches and institutions and organizations and a country—frankly—that prioritizes money and medals over the bodies and souls of people.
I think what’s most astonishing in that video, when you see that video of Dominique, is that she’s clearly hurt. And when you fall right on your head at that level and that speed, the risk of a spinal-cord injury or cervical fracture is very high, and then you go out and compete again. The added trauma to a cervical fracture or a concussion can be literally life-altering. It can be life-and-death.
Nobody cared. She was an object. She was a means to an end. That’s commoditization. That’s also the foundation of rape culture: Women are objects. They’re means to a sexual end.
It’s that same mindset of “I own you. You exist to benefit me.” And that’s exactly what we’re seeing in these responses to Simone: “You let me down. I own you. You exist to benefit me.”
Green: I want to push you on this a little bit, because it strikes me that, on the one hand, of course, some of these extreme examples where it’s very clear that an athlete [who] had suffered what is potentially a really catastrophic injury was nonetheless pushed to keep competing. But it also seems like it’s hard to completely separate out the brutal toll on athletes’ bodies from the sport itself.
The things that people like Suni Lee are doing press the imagination. They are so incredibly difficult. And that difficulty comes with both a risk of injury and, in some cases, a kind of need to push your body beyond its physical limits. So I guess I just—I want to press you on that, which is: Is it possible to have elite gymnastics at the level that we have and not have some culture of young women athletes pushing their bodies beyond the physical limits of what’s actually good for them in the long term?
Denhollander: I think it is technically possible. Absolutely. Whether or not we’re ever going to get there remains to be seen. And that’s going to entail a lot of hard conversations about our identity and our value. You know, do you have value and identity, and worth outside of your gymnastics ability? If we really truly understand that the answer to that is yes, that lays the foundation to be able to say, “I can’t sacrifice my value, identity, the rest of my life for this one thing. I am a multifaceted person.”
Green: Do you think it would be worth it for gymnasts and their coaches and the sport generally to set the bar a little bit lower in terms of the routines that gymnasts are pursuing and the heights that they’re trying to achieve of unprecedented moves in their routines? Do you think it would be a good thing to say, “No, it’s okay to just not try to break the limit and add one more thing that could add one more layer of risk”?
Denhollander: You know, it sounds good in theory, but I think the way we’ve seen that play out with Simone is that it penalizes somebody who is genuinely just a phenomenal gymnast. You know, Simone’s abilities have been penalized by the IRPC and everybody who’s setting the code of points, and that’s the rationale that they’re giving. But then that penalizes her for her greatness.
I think we need to start having other conversations potentially about the minimum age limits. Should we be raising the minimum age limits so that we’re dealing with adult women who have hopefully been raised in a system that has helped them grow into fully formed adults who are able to say, “Hey, this is not right for me right now,” and to have agency on autonomy over their own bodies and their own decisions?
Green: You have daughters, right?
Denhollander: I do. Three of them.
Green: Have you been watching the Olympics this year with your daughters?
Denhollander: We have been, but we have a lot of very open conversat