Famed US gymnastics team coaches knew of abuse, lawsuit claims

Bela and Marta Karolyi knew about molestations occurring at their training camp, says an anonymous 24-year-old former gymnast in a civil lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Thursday.

Gregory Bull/AP
Bela Karolyi (l.) and his wife Martha Karolyi talk on the arena floor before the start of the preliminary round of the women's Olympic gymnastics trials in San Jose, Calif., June 29, 2012.

Famed Olympic gymnastics coaches Bela and Marta Karolyi knew about molestations occurring at their training camp, says an anonymous 24-year-old former gymnast in a civil lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Thursday.

At least 30 female athletes have come forward with abuse allegations against Larry Nassar. Dr. Nassar treated the Michigan State University gymnastics team and was appointed as USA Gymnastics’ team physician in 1996, serving as the national team physician for four Olympic games. He has since been suspended from both positions.

The majority of the allegations against Nassar are similar in nature, but the latest lawsuit filed against the doctor cites wrong-doing by the famed husband-and-wife coaches.

Nassar worked at the Karolyi Ranch in Huntsville, Texas, a renowned training camp for the nation’s best gymnasts, where the unnamed plaintiff said he performed physical examinations without a third party present, often touching her inappropriately.

And the Karolyis "turned a blind-eye to the sexual abuse being perpetrated," by Nassar, and he, in turn, turned a blind-eye to the couple’s unorthodox, and often abusive, training methods, the lawsuit claims. "Jane Doe," as the gymnast is named in the lawsuit, says that the Karolyis hit, scratched, starved, and verbally abused their athletes.

"What we’re really saying is the ranch was a toxic environment for these kids and a perfect environment for a pedophile to flourish," John Manly, an attorney for two former US gymnasts suing Nassar, told ESPN. "[Bela and Marta Karolyi] had an obligation to make sure their environment was safe and they failed miserably. These were children and they were left alone with this man, who turned out to be a sexual predator."

The Karolyis have not yet commented on the allegations.

Before the 2016 Olympics began in Rio this summer, the Indianapolis Star Tribune published an investigation of USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for the sport, claiming that the organization routinely ignored athletes’ reports of sexual abuse for fear of ruining coaches’ reputations.

IndyStar reporters Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia, and Tim Evans linked a number of sexual abuse cases to a specific policy set by USA Gymnastics: allegations should be treated as hearsay unless a victim or a victim’s parent complained to the organization directly. Thus, any complaints filed by third parties, including other coaches or gymnasts, were filed away at USA Gymnastics’ Indianapolis headquarters.

"Some in the gymnastics community told IndyStar they question whether USA Gymnastics is too preoccupied with producing Olympic champions, winning sponsorships and growing the sport – or too conflicted about protecting its image – to ensure the safety of tens of thousands of children in gymnastics," wrote the three IndyStar reporters in August.

No doubt, US gymnasts have become some of the best in the world. At this year’s Olympics alone, Team USA won a record-setting nine medals.

But athletes’ success cannot overshadow their safety, say experts.

"The Olympics represent an opportunity to talk about a number of issues, [but] the problem is that the Olympics is so much about celebrating the success stories. It is hard to talk about problems like sexual abuse," Doug Gardner, a youth sports consultant, told the Monitor’s Christina Beck in August. "What needs to happen to draw attention to these problems is for athletes to discuss them publicly. Social change will start with the athlete."

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