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Editorial: Behind gold medals, the ugliness of child sexual abuse

A gymnast on the balance beam. | Wikimedia photo

When we think of the Olympic movement in the U.S., we think of the American flag and young athletes who persevere through sheer love of sport and lifelong dedication. Of course, we also think about all those gold medals won by plucky, amazing Americans.

But there’s a disturbing aspect not to be denied. Child sexual abuse. It is every bit as ugly as those medals are shiny, which is why you don’t hear about it in those polished NBC broadcasts. Yet, it’s been there, tugging at the Olympic movement’s soul, in need of resolution, for more than 20 years.

It is beyond time for the U.S. Olympic Committee and other governing bodies  to lock out child molesters. No more halfhearted measures. Clamp down on this with 100 times the strength devoted to marketing and brand sponsorship that rake in big bucks.


The IndyStar and USA Today jointly reported Thursday that 368 gymnasts in the last 20 years have come forward with allegations of sexual abuse by coaches, gym owners and other adults working in gymnastics, a rate of one every 20 days.

Or, put another way, for every female gymnast who fulfilled a dream of making it to the Olympics in the last 20 years, 11 alleged they had been abused in USA Gymnastics’ member clubs spread across the U.S.

But no Olympic sport is immune. Swimming. Speed skating. Taekwondo. All have been rocked by allegations or criminal convictions of abuse.

In Britain, the wildly popular sport of soccer is coming to terms with sexual abuse of youth players. There, too, image-conscious clubs came up short in protecting athletes.

In the U.S., federations have weathered scandals over the years and gone on to shine bright at the Olympics. In women’s gymnastics, a USA gymnast has won the coveted all-around title in four consecutive Olympics.

“Nothing ever changes,” says Indianapolis-based lawyer Jonathan Little, who has represented  athletes in lawsuits against coaches, U.S. federations and the U.S. Olympic Committee over abuse.

Athletes age out of their sports as new, younger athletes sign up to be mentored by expert coaches, Little says. The cycles of abuse repeat.

Victims’ advocates say most abuse goes unreported. Kids as well as adults, including parents and leaders of governing bodies, don’t want to make waves for well-liked, successful coaches.

“My abuse happened in 1982, and we’re still having this conversation today,” former swimmer Katherine Starr told us. She founded Safe4Athletes in Santa Monica, California, to address abuse and harassment. Starr developed guidelines for coaches and sports administrators as well as resources for athletes regarding abuse.

Allegations in gymnastics included children as young as 6 being secretly photographed nude by coaches, children being touched inappropriately and a coach having sex with a 14-year-old.

In Illinois in early December, Joseph Hannon, 21, was arrested on charges of predatory criminal sexual contact with a 9-year-old at a USA member gym in Sycamore. Prosecutors say he may have inappropriately touched 25 to 30 kids in gyms in Sycamore and Genoa.

Such criminal conduct is the not the norm in a sport with 148,000 athletes registered in sanctioned competitive programs, but it is extremely troubling that USA Gymnastics had lax guidelines to address abuse in member gyms and failed to report several instances of abuse to the authorities, according to a previous report by the IndyStar and USA Today. They found four cases where USA Gymnastics received warnings of suspected abuse but did not initiate reports to authorities, and the coaches went on to abuse at least 14 girls.

Additionally, a former longtime team doctor with the federation, Larry Nassar, has been charged with first-degree criminal sexual conduct involving a child. That child is not a gymnast, authorities said. But gymnasts, including an unnamed Olympic medalist, have accused the doctor of sexual abuse.

All this sounds creepily familiar to the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic church that became public two decades ago but still haunts the church today because it chose to protect priests instead of exploited children.

What will it take for sports clubs and  governing bodies to put the athletes first?

Starr of Safe4Athletes sounds slightly optimistic about the launching of the Center for Safe Sport by the USOC. It will open in January in Denver. Starr was on the advisory board.

Every federation will be required to adhere to the center’s policies as a condition of membership in the USOC. Every allegation of abuse will be immediately reported to authorities.

We’ll have to wait and see if these measures have teeth. Meantime, all we see is vulnerable kids.

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