Children around the country have spent the past week watching American gymnasts perform dazzling feats at the Tokyo Olympics. They also watched Simone Biles step back from the team finals and all-around competition, citing concerns about her ability to participate safely. What those kids are watching is a sport, and a culture, going through a reckoning over what it takes to achieve athletic greatness, and who is considered disposable along the way.
Rachael Denhollander is one of many people who can no longer watch the Olympics with casual enjoyment. In 2016, she was the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics (USAG) team physician, of sexually assaulting her during physical-therapy sessions. A year and a half later, she stood in a Michigan courtroom at Nassar’s sentencing hearing and told her story along with nearly a hundred other women. Shortly before the hearing, Biles, who has been called the greatest gymnast of all time, wrote on social media that she, too, had been abused by Nassar.
This year’s Olympics are a celebration of athletic achievement, but they’re also a reminder of how the twisted reality of elite gymnastics came to be. Allegations go beyond sexual abuse: Béla and Márta Károlyi, the longtime coaches of the U.S. women’s national gymnastics team, have been accused of physically and verbally abusing athletes, including denying them food. Top officials at USAG tried to cover up stories of abuse. And yet, some evidence of the sport’s brutal culture has long been out in the open, and even celebrated: Kerri Strug was hailed as a national hero when she knowingly vaulted on an injured ankle at the 1996 Olympics, causing her so much pain that Béla Károlyi had to carry her to the podium to claim her gold medal.
My conversation with Denhollander has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Emma Green: Do you remember the first Olympics you ever watched?
Denhollander: I do. I have vague memories of the ’92 Olympics. But I remember clearly the ’96 Olympics. I was around 10 years old.
Green: Do you remember how it felt to watch those Olympic games?
Denhollander: Oh, it was incredible. These are larger-than-life figures, especially Béla and the coaches. I remember thinking, Look at the great relationships they have. Look at the team; look at the comradery; look at what they’ve accomplished together. Look at where their hard work got them. I was in awe—not just of the medal they won but the history they made and what appeared to be this incredible dynamic between these coaches and these athletes. I remember very clearly thinking how well they looked like they were cared for.
Green: One specific moment from Olympic history has been on my mind this week: Kerri Strug at the ’96 Olympics, vaulting again after she hurt her ankle and sticking her landing. She had this expression on her face of being really happy—and of being in terrible pain.
Do you remember watching that in real time? Do you remember how you interpreted what was happening?
Denhollander: Yes. I remember that moment very clearly. I remember watching Béla and just hearing him say over and over, “You can do it.” 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. To 10-year-old me, it looked like this incredible coach who wanted his athlete to succeed. It looked like an incredible victory.
I distinctly remember Kerri being carried off by Márta and handed to Larry and being so thankful that she was going to get good care—because of course our athletes got top care, right? 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.
Looking back at that now, knowing everything we know, my interpretation of those events is wildly different.
Green: Coming into these Olympics, how have you felt watching these young women?
Denhollander: There’s a lot of mixed emotions. On the one hand, the life skills that you are able to learn from athletics are really important. The accomplishments of these athletes are incredible. Their dedication, their physical skill—all of it is amazing.
On the other hand, a lot of very difficult anniversaries come with the Olympics for all of us. This is the anniversary of the first IndyStar article [investigating USAG] coming out. Elite athletes started to realize they had been lied to. They hadn’t been cared for. They had been horrifically abused.
When you know the backstory of what was actually going on at USAG, there’s a lot of concern as you’re watching these athletes. Are they being well cared for? Are they being fed? What is the coaching dynamic? How much has really changed? As we saw for decades, USAG 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 for fun, or for inspiration as a fellow gymnast, or to admire the athleticism and the achievements of your country. You can’t watch it through a simple lens anymore.
Denhollander: No, absolutely not. And to be honest, I don’t think we should, because the reality is that in most sports, there’s some level of this dynamic. It’s prevalent right down to the lowest-level athletes in all of our sports disciplines. I don’t think we should be watching it with an uncritical eye.
Green: Simone Biles said this spring that one of the reasons she wanted to keep competing was because she felt like if a survivor wasn’t present, USAG would just brush aside everything that’s happened and try to pretend like it hadn’t happened. That’s an incredible burden for a single person to take on. It’s saying: “I feel a responsibility to remain visible as a living symbol of abuse that’s been done to me and my fellow athletes.”
I have no ability to conceptualize how that feels. I wonder if you feel like you have some shred of understanding of what that must be like, as someone who has had to maintain a visible role as a sexual-abuse survivor in the context of U.S. gymnastics for such a long time.
Denhollander: We can talk in principle about what that’s like. I want to make sure I don’t speak for her, though. Simone occupies a completely unique place in all of this.
But, in general, yes: Having your abuse play out as an international headline is horrific. It’s like being sexually assaulted with the world watching. The pressure to protect those who come after you and to feel like you’re not getting anywhere is an incredibly heavy burden to bear. To have that trauma from the abuse and the mental-health struggles playing out in front of an international audience feels like you have no shred of privacy or dignity.
I have incredible respect for Simone and what she has accomplished, not just with her athletics but with raising her voice against these institutions. That should have never been placed on her shoulders. It’s a very unfair burden for her to carry. If the people in authority had just a fraction of the strength and conviction and integrity that Simone has demonstrated over and over again, the amount of change that we would see in abuse and abusive dynamics would be earth-shattering.
Green: When you heard about her decision to step back from the competition, what did you think?
Denhollander: It’s a really wide range of emotions. I’m absolutely heartbroken and devastated for her, because she has poured herself into this, and she hung in that extra year. This was something she wanted so desperately. I can’t imagine the pain of having to step back.
At the same time, I am so incredibly proud of her and thankful for her, because of her ability to exercise bodily autonomy—to recognize and have the freedom to say, “This is not safe for me right now.” That’s a choice and sense of agency that the gymnasts who came before her didn’t have. Simone is going to have massive impact on the safety of the gymnasts who come after her.
Green: So many people instantly had opinions about Biles’s decision—people who aren’t her trainer or her family or even elite gymnasts who know what it takes to do what she does. Why do you think people feel entitled to shame her for stepping back? Where does that come from in the culture?
Denhollander: I think it comes from a complete lack of understanding. There’s a very arrogant perspective that if someone struggles with mental health or has trauma, they’re being weak. In reality, they survived. That just adds to the strength they have.
In athletics, particularly with female athletes, we also have a commoditization of women and women’s bodies. So many people have come out saying, “She let us down. She let her country down.” Excuse me. What exactly did you do to pour into her training routine? Did you financially sponsor her? Did you pay her medical bills? How exactly did you create a situation where she owes you? It shows an entitlement mentality that says, I own you. You are here for my benefit. That’s a flawed mindset—a wicked mindset—that exists in our country.
Green: Other gymnasts have gone out of their way to support her. Dominique Moceanu, for example, tweeted out a video of a fall she took at the ’96 Olympics after sustaining a stress fracture. She hit her head, hard, on the balance beam, but she never got a spinal exam or a medical evaluation, and she competed again just a few minutes later.
She wrote that she never felt like she had a choice to step back when she could have been in physical danger. Why has the culture of elite gymnastics been that way for so long?
Denhollander: It goes back to that mindset of I own you. You exist for my benefit. Our coaches and institutions and our country, frankly, prioritize money and medals over the bodies and souls of people.
What’s most astonishing in that video is that she’s clearly hurt. When you fall right on your head at that speed, the risk of a spinal-cord injury or a cervical fracture is fairly high. If 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. Her coach did not care. The doctors did not care. She was not a person to them. 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.
Green: I want to push you on this a little bit. Of course, some of these examples of injury and abuse are extreme and explicit. But it seems hard to completely separate out the brutal toll on athletes’ bodies from the sport itself. The moves that gymnasts like Suni Lee are doing are unimaginable. She won gold—and she has struggled with an ankle injury. High levels of difficulty come with a risk of injury.
Is it possible to have elite gymnastics without a culture of young women getting hurt and pushing themselves beyond the point of what will actually be good for them in the long run?
Denhollander: I think it is technically possible. Whether or not we’re ever going to get there remains to be seen. That’s going to entail a lot of hard conversations about our values. Do we raise our girls to understand that, if we reach a point like Simone did, where it is no longer safe for them to participate in the sport, they say, “I’m not going to. I can’t sacrifice my value, my identity, and the rest of my life for this one thing”?
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 conversation when we do. My girls will often watch and say, “Mommy, is that one safe? Does this one have a good coach? Is that coach hugging his girl? Is he really a good coach?” They know to ask those questions now, and I’m glad that they do. I’ve talked to them about how Simone stepped out because she realized it was more important for her to be safe than to pursue an Olympic gold medal. She’s worth more than that.
Green: Do you tell them things you loved about gymnastics when you were little?
Denhollander: Yes. The sport is beautiful. You can learn so much from it. There’s so much that I’m grateful for from the gymnastics that I did. I love the fact that gymnastics is one of those sports where it takes a long time to gain a skill. When I was a coach, that’s what I loved the most about working with these very little girls. It helped them see the long-term benefit of working hard for something rather than having constant immediate gratification. You can fall down and get back up, knowing that you’re not stupid or bad or weak because you didn’t get it right away. That’s a really important life skill.
Green: If your daughters wanted to compete in gymnastics, would you let them?
Denhollander: Not right now. Right now, we have an organization that’s looking at all of the abuse that’s taken place for decades and saying, “It doesn’t matter. We don’t have any duty to protect you.” I can’t in good conscience put my girls under an organization that’s going to look at them and say, “I have no duty to keep you safe.”
Green: It seems like you’re in an impossible place where you love gymnastics and it’s a big part of who you are and you want to share it with your daughters, but you just don’t feel like the world of gymnastics makes it possible for your girls to experience your love of the sport.
Denhollander: Yeah, I think that’s accurate. It’s really disappointing. And it’s not fair to them.