Larry Nassar, the doctor accused of molesting at least 30 female athletes, was charged with sexual assault on Wednesday.
Dr. Nassar, who specialized in treating female gymnasts at Michigan State University and through the USA Gymnastics organization, faces charges in two Michigan counties, including first-degree criminal sexual conduct in 2015 against a victim younger than 13 years old.
The high-profile allegations against Nassar, which he has denied, come at a time of renewed national debate over sexual abuse and gymnastics. An investigation published in August by the Indianapolis Star found that USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for the sport of gymnastics in the United States, for years ignored sexual abuse allegations against numerous coaches, routinely dismissing them as “hearsay unless they came directly from a victim or victim’s parents,” as the organization reportedly worried that false claims would ruin a coach’s reputation. Later that month, a Georgia judge ruled that files compiled by USA Gymnastics regarding allegations of sexual abuse against young gymnasts should be released to the public.
For several years, there has been talk of the US Olympic Committee creating a Center for Safe Sport to help organizations prevent, report, and respond to abuse claims. The project was first announced in 2014, as Christina Beck reported for The Christian Science Monitor over the summer:
The center could counter sexual abuse and hazing in youth sports by reviewing league policies, addressing athletes' and coaches' needs, and handling allegations from sports' governing organizations. Although the USOC's announcement was greeted with much fanfare, little has been done to bring the center to fruition, however.
One factor is financial. Different US athletics associations (soccer, gymnastics, basketball, etc.) were supposed to chip in funds to create the center, alongside external donors and the USOC itself. But donors appear unenthusiastic about the center, and fundraising efforts have not met their goal of more than $15 million.
The center would play a major role as a national governing body for athletics, helping to ensure that organizations do not encounter the same problems that USA Gymnastics has.
Athletes themselves can also be a powerful force in affecting change, experts say, especially when they are willing to share their stories with the public.
"What needs to happen to draw attention to these problems is for the athletes to discuss them publicly," Doug Gardner, a youth sports consultant, told the Monitor in August. "Social change will start with the athlete."
But in the intense, pressure-driven climate of elite gymnastics, for some, speaking out may be easier said than done.
"[I]n the microcosmic world of hyper-competitive athletics, a high-performance culture where winning trumps all, obvious moral choices become blurred," wrote former national champion gymnast Jennifer Sey in a 2011 article for Salon. "The sport, the team, a berth on the squad, a medal on the stand – that becomes the priority. The parents, coaches and teams put everything else aside in honor of the win."
The case of Nassar, who prosecutors say assaulted dozens of young girls, may provide one example of the oft-institutional nature of abuse in the gymnastics world. A civil lawsuit filed in October by an anonymous 24-year-old former gymnast alleged that famed Olympic coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi fostered an environment at their training camp that enabled Nassar to abuse young gymnasts there.
In a Facebook post this week, Dominique Moceanu, a member of the 1996 team that won gold in Atlanta, called for coaches and other authority figures to be held accountable for harmful behavior, arguing that the culture of the gymnastics world "set the stage for such atrocities to take place."
"Changes and improvements to the system – including a functioning set of checks and balances – are long overdue," she wrote. "Gymnastics is a beautiful sport, and its young athletes deserve to practice and perform their craft in a safe environment."