USA Gymnastics - Winning at all cost

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USA Gymnastics abuse scandal

USA Gymnastics - Winning at all cost

Von Nick Butler und Hajo Seppelt

An independent report into the scandal surrounding USA Gymnastics and its former team doctor Larry Nassar has unveiled a horrifying scale of abuse enabled by officials who turned a blind eye. It also raises broader questions about a sports culture which ruthlessly promotes winning over everything else. Nick Butler and Hajo Seppelt explore.

“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well,” said modern Olympic founder Baron de Coubertin. This quote is still remembered and recited today.

It is also ignored. Sport has always been about winning and, at elite level, victory has never been more important.

The Nassar case provides a perfect example. The American doctor was sentenced to up to 175 years in state prison in January for abusing 350 girls and young women over a 13-year period under the guise of medical treatment. The report by Ropes & Gray published this week followed a 10-month investigation into how this was allowed to happen.

Larry Nassar

Sentenced to more than 175 years in prison: former team doctor of USA Gymnastics, Larry Nassar

It found that an obsession with winning justified budding gymnasts being locked away in a remote training camp, separated from families and any vestige of a normal teenage life as they focused on the single-minded pursuit of Olympic gold.

It was this obsession that made coaches, journalists, fans and even some parents of gymnasts to ignore suspicions about Nassar as it would threaten the golden dream.

And it was this obsession that persuaded the sporting establishment to close ranks to protect their own interests and, in the case of former United States Olympic Committee (USOC) chief executive, Scott Blackmun, seemingly doing nothing when confronted with concerns about Nassar.

Other values ignored

“Many athletes have expressed frustration, dismay and concern that USAG (USA Gymnastics) and the USOC are focused almost exclusively on winning, to the detriment of other values in sport, and that their individual welfare is subordinate to the organisations’ medal-count mission,” concluded the report.

“Under this system, the athletes functioned as a means to an end - winning medals - and were discarded if they deviated from the path laid out for them, demonstrated any weakness or failed to live up to their perceived potential,” it added.

Simone Biles

“Reigning world and Olympic champion Simone Biles is among athletes to have spoken of the sexual abuse she received by Larry Nassar

This culture is at the centre of most sporting scandals. Morals are sacrificed as athletes and teams dope to gain any advantage. This is privately justified on the grounds that rivals are doing it too and the only concern is whether they can get away with it. Others binge on painkillers and non-banned drugs. Many are forced to battle through career-threatening injuries for the greater good.

Athletes who have grown-up in this environment do not know any differently. Many of them later turn to coaching, so the same attitudes linger there. Administrators, even well-intentioned ones, are invariably hamstrung by the same cycle. Medals bring funding, sponsors and security and therefore must be prioritised over everything else.

The gymnastics report describes an “Eastern Bloc” mindset established since the 1980s by the US team’s Romanian-born husband and wife coaching team: Béla and Márta Károlyi. But, while not completely universal, a version of this culture is now the elite sporting norm. It is a factory where those who reveal any weakness are ruthlessly cast aside.

Top athletes are often no longer an embodiment of physical perfection. Many retire with battered and broken bodies and suffer health problems throughout later life.

No regulation of sporting bodies

The lack of external scrutiny in sport, such as the external regulators seen in other industries, is another problem.

In some ways, the Olympic sports are the worst as athletes do not receive the financial rewards enjoyed by many in equally competitive professional leagues. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) vaguely boast how 90 per cent of their revenues are returned to sport, but this does not stop most athletes being poorly funded.

The IOC, in their defence, rarely obsess with winning in the same way and do not publish an official medals table. Yet it is they who campaign so hard for sport to remain “autonomous” from outside interference and are currently resisting attempts by athletes in Germany and elsewhere to change the system. They have also done little to clamp down on sexual abuse in sport.

Of course, we cannot abandon the concept of winning. It is why virtually everyone watches sport and cheering on our team is a valuable distraction in challenging times. We journalists would be the first to complain if our country plummeted down the medals table.

But the gymnastics scandal shows us all the danger of taking this winning obsession too far.

Stand: 13.12.2018, 17:38

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