After Olympic celebrations, USA Gymnastics still faces abuse claims

USA Gymnastics is facing allegations that the organization did not adequately respond to allegations of sexual abuse. A new center could help protect athletes – if it ever gets off the ground. 

Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY/File
Seen here in a January, 2015 file photo United States Olympic Committee chief executive officer Scott Blackmun has called for a Center for Safe Sport to help organizations prevent, report, and respond to abuse claims.

The USA women's gymnastics team captured minds, hearts, and four gold medal during the Rio Olympics this month – not to mention four silvers, a bronze, and the honor of having Final Five leader Simone Biles selected as Team USA's Closing Ceremony flag bearer. 

Yet as the women of the national gymnastics team bask in their hard-won glory, others are attempting to shine a light on USA gymnastics for a different reason: to bring attention to at least a decade of sexual abuse allegations in youth gymnastics and other sports.

On Monday, a Georgia judge ruled that files compiled by USA Gymnastics regarding allegations of sexual abuse against young gymnasts should be released to the public, in order to illustrate the need for athletics organizations to be more responsive. 

USA Gymnastics (USAG) plans to appeal the ruling, USA Today reports. The decision follows an investigation from The Indianapolis Star, part of USA Today's Network, which found that the organization had a history of not referring abuse allegations to police unless they were signed by an alleged victim or their guardian. The police allowed abuse to continue, many former gymnasts feel. 

Judge Ronald Thompson, who handed down the ruling in the gymnastics case, expressed concern for the privacy of the athletes named in some of the files, who will be redacted before release, currently planned before Sept. 30. But many who say they experienced abuse, or know those who did, say that it they are glad that their experiences are now getting legal attention.

"I don't think asking for transparency about who is coaching and who is allowed to be part of their organization is a witch hunt," former gymnast Kelly Cutright told USA Today, responding to USA Gymnastics' attorney's claims that reporters would "track down" those named in the files, and "dredge up I don't know what kind of memories."

"There's a level of trust that parents are putting in gyms and coaches when they allow their children to compete," said Ms. Cutright, who was allegedly abused by her coach as a teenager, according to USA Today.

Hearing athletes share their own experiences can help prompt change, some sports experts say. But while the Olympics focus a spotlight on the sports themselves, the games' positive spirit, and post-games glow, can be a hard time to come forward – particularly if they fear retribution. 

"The Olympics represent an opportunity to talk about a number of issues," Doug Gardner, a youth sports consultant, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview, 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."

"What needs to happen to draw attention to these problems," says Dr. Gardner, "is for the athletes to discuss them publicly. Social change will start with the athlete." In the wake of Olympics, however, athletes are often focused on enjoying their well-deserved success and furthering their own athletic careers, he says. 

But policies are also critical. For several years, the US Olympic Committee (USOC) has planned to create a Center for Safe Sport to help organizations prevent, report, and respond to abuse claims. 

"There is no national agency today that is responsible for the safety and well-being of young athletes and we're in position to lead this important effort," USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun said of project when its creation was first announced, after the board of directors unanimously approved it in June 2014. "The National Center for Safe Sport will help fill that vacuum by providing training and resources, promoting open dialogue and conducting investigations on a national level."

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.

"Any time a governing body brings attention to situations like this, that is a positive," says Gardner. "The question is, will they follow through?"

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