The Murky Path Forward for U.S. Olympic Gymnastics

Officials are trying a “nuclear option” to fix the culture of sexual assault within the elite sport. But can it actually work?

Aly Raisman (left) and Simone Biles at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio (Toshifumi Kitamura / AFP / Getty Images)

For almost a year, the U.S. Olympic Committee has been struggling with the question of what is to be done about USA Gymnastics, the Olympic subsidiary accused of covering up decades of sexual abuse perpetrated by the sports doctor Larry Nassar. During a week-long sentencing hearing in January, 169 young women testified against Nassar, describing their assaults in wrenching detail. He was sentenced to a maximum of 175 years in prison.

After the hearing, the Olympic Committee fired the entire USAG board. Then USOC leadership overhauled the organization’s bylaws to increase the board’s accountability. A few months after that, they forced out the new CEO they hired in the wake of the Nassar allegations, after she became embroiled in a series of scandals of her own.

But on Monday, the USOC finally resorted to what gymnastics insiders are calling “the nuclear option”: The Olympic Committee is moving to decertify USAG, the organization that has overseen and financially supported gymnastics, one of the most popular Olympic events in America, since 1963. (If the decertification process goes smoothly, USAG will continue to exist as an umbrella organization for gymnastics clubs across the country—but without Olympic affiliation or funding, multiple sources told me, those clubs will probably stop paying for membership, and the organization will soon go bankrupt.)

“We believe the challenges facing the organization are simply more than it is capable of overcoming in its current form,” Sarah Hirshland, CEO of the USOC, wrote in an open letter to the U.S. gymnastics community. Instead of taking further steps to correct the toxic culture within USAG, which allowed a predator such as Nassar to cycle through dozens of victims undetected, the USOC has decided to get rid of the organization altogether.

The #MeToo movement has sparked countless conversations about the culture of companies plagued by sexual harassment, particularly about how that atmosphere developed in the first place and how it can be fixed. Especially at the elite level, gymnastics creates an environment where it is easy for predators to take advantage of athletes, said Michelle Simpson Tuegel, the attorney representing several former gymnasts in a lawsuit against the USOC. Young girls practice, sometimes for weeks, at remote training facilities far away from their parents. And they are encouraged not to listen to their bodies, she told me, and are often praised for competing while injured.

Various leadership teams at corporations rife with sexual harassment have employed an array of strategies: Fire the alleged harassers, fire the CEO, hire a diversity and inclusion officer, and make commercials about the extent to which the culture has changed, then blast them across American TV networks. But the tactic that the USOC will likely employ—dissolve the problematic organization and make a new one—appears to be something of a new idea. And it’s not at all clear whether that tactic will work.

When the USOC announced its decision to decertify USAG, Nassar victims and other high-profile Olympic gymnasts praised the move. “THANK YOU,” tweeted Rachael Denhollander, one of the victims, after the announcement. “This is for every survivor.” The Olympic medalist Aly Raisman, who was also abused by Nassar, described the decertification as “a significant step forward that is necessary for the overall health and well-being of the sport and its athletes.”

Still, the dissolution of one organization, and the possible creation of another, might not be enough to permanently change a culture of abuse that victims claim has existed within American Olympic gymnastics for more than 30 years. “Decertification is not going to overhaul the cultural problems inherent to the sport,” Simpson Tuegel told me. “The Olympic Committee will just be stamping a different name on the same thing.”

She suggested that the move might have something to do with the pile of lawsuits pending against both USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee, filed by former gymnasts who say they were sexually assaulted while on the U.S. Olympic team. “It seems awfully convenient that the announcement comes now, right as these lawsuits are really starting to move,” Simpson Tuegel said. “It really appears that USOC is trying to distance themselves from USAG.” USAG, not the USOC, has borne the brunt of the criticism for its handling of the Nassar case, so establishing some distance between the two organizations, she told me, could work in the USOC’s favor.

The decertification announcement was noticeably lacking in detail. Hirshland said there might be a new organization—one that “lives up to the expectations of the athletes and those that support them”—but did not describe how that organization would function. The question of whom it will employ, Simpson Tuegel told me, is on everyone’s mind: “Will these be all new people?” The USOC has not made any public statements about who might work for the next manifestation of USA Gymnastics. But because there are relatively few professional sports administrators who specialize in gymnastics on the national level, multiple people with knowledge of the situation told me, it’s likely that at least some portion of former USAG employees will transfer over. So then the question becomes, How many firings are required to create a blank slate?

Even if the USOC fired every one of USAG’s employees and hired a completely new staff, the process still wouldn’t necessarily prompt a culture change, said Catherine Mattice Zundel, a professional workplace-culture consultant. When she helps companies combat a culture of widespread sexual harassment, she said, her first step is to determine what stopped people from speaking up in the first place. If an HR representative looks the other way after hearing an allegation, she said, that doesn’t necessarily mean that particular person is the problem. Firing that employee, who is likely acting out of fear of backlash from people at the top, she told me, probably wouldn’t have a tangible impact on company culture.

When building the leadership team at the new organization, Zundel said, the USOC would need to conduct extensive training with new employees and watch closely for what she called “sexual-harassment risk factors”: a lack of diversity, a bunch of men at the top, and obscure reporting mechanisms. “It’s not enough to say, ‘We’re going to start a new company,’” Zundel told me. “The new company has to do things differently.” In the world of gymnastics specifically, Simpson Tuegel said, the leadership has to put the health and well-being of its young female athletes above competitive success.

“What would have happened to Uber if they’d tried to rebrand?” Zundel mused as we wrapped up our interview. In 2017, almost 500 former and current employees filed a lawsuit against the ride-sharing company over incidents of harassment and workplace discrimination. The wave of complaints, prompted first by a viral essay written by an Uber alumna named Susan Fowler, was a PR nightmare. But if Uber had shirked its old name and identity for a second incarnation of itself—the path that the USOC has proposed for USAG—Zundel wonders whether the company could ever have actually transformed, as it seems to be trying to do. “There is a value to owning up to something that went wrong,” she told me, “as yourself, not as someone else.”