Gold medalist Dominique Moceanu warned us 10 years ago about abuse in USA Gymnastics

The World
Dominique Moceanu

In 1998, Dominique Moceanu broke the image of the happy, perky champion gymnast when she emancipated from her father, whom she described as violent and manipulative. A decade later, she publicly accused coaches Béla Károlyi and Márta Károlyi of emotional and physical abuse. USA Gymnastics dismissed her allegations. Today, Moceanu says she's proud of the women who came forward to testify against Larry Nassar, the former doctor for the USA Gymnastics team. But she's also disappointed that her contemporaries haven't stepped forward to support her, to this day.

Charles Platiau/Reuters

“I just signed your death warrant.”

That's what a Michigan judge said on Wednesday, when Larry Nassar, the former doctor for the USA Gymnastics team, was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing more than 160 girls and women over the past two decades, including a number of prominent Olympic athletes who came forward in recent months.

Amid a barrage of harrowing testimonies, the inevitable question was, how could this happen?

“Quit shaming and blaming the parents,” said Anne Swinehart to the court earlier this week. Swinehart’s daughter, Jillian Swinehart, is one of the gymnasts who accused Nassar of abuse. “Trust me, you would not have known. And you would not have done anything differently.” Sexual predators are extremely agile at manipulating their communities. Nassar hid behind the gymnasts’ successes. And he was able to do so with the blessing of USA Gymnastics. In 2014, USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny said Nassar’s “contributions over the years are immeasurable and will continue to be so.”

USA Gymnastics is now being called out for egregious negligence. The Indianapolis Star found that USA Gymnastics caught wind of Nassar’s behavior in June 2015, and it took them five weeks to contact the FBI. And when USA Gymnastics let Nassar go, in July of that year, they failed to contact Michigan State University or the training camp in Huntsville, Texas (run by legendary coaches Béla Károlyi and Márta Károlyi), where Nassar continued to see patients.

Athletes were pressured and coaxed to stay silent. Gymnast McKayla Maroney, who alleged sexual abuse by Nassar over the course of five years, signed a confidential $1.25 million settlement agreement with USA Gymnastics in the fall of 2016. In a scathing interview with ESPN last week, Olympian Aly Raisman said of USA Gymnastics, “Their biggest priority from the beginning and still today, is their reputation, the medals they win and the money they make off of us.”

The Nassar case has garnered national and international attention, in part because of the unbelievable scope of his abuses. But over a decade ago, there was another voice calling out abuse in the gymnastics world. At only 14, in 1996, Dominique Moceanu became the youngest US gymnast to win Olympic gold. She was admired by girls all over the country and hailed as an American hero.

In 1998, when she was 17, Moceanu broke the image of the happy, perky champion gymnast when she emancipated from her father, whom she described as violent and manipulative. A decade later, she publicly accused coaches Béla Károlyi and Márta Károlyi of emotional and physical abuse. USA Gymnastics dismissed her allegations. Márta Károlyi said the way Moceanu remembered things made her “sad.” And there was the constant implication — including from some fellow gymnasts, that Olympic training is just hard.

“For the last 10 years, I spoke up. I said something when I finally had the courage to, in 2008," Moceanu told The World. "I recognized how dangerous this culture was; it was headed down a very dark road.” Moceanu was shocked by the amount of pushback she got, including from the then-president of USA Gymnastics. “‘Do you know the long-term damage to these young ladies when they leave the sport? Have you thought about that?’ No. Because all they cared about was they were winning. So, nobody was asking questions.”

Moceanu says she's proud of the women who have come forward to testify against Nassar. But she's also disappointed that her contemporaries haven't stepped forward to support her, to this day.

With her coaches, she says, “it was verbal and emotional abuses running rampant. The adults around the sport should have spoken up more when they saw this toxic culture.” Moceanu says, “calling my father, to enforce physical punishment on me, was the scariest thing of it all. I was terrified every time I went to the gym — my coaches would threaten me, that if I didn’t perform well enough, to their liking, they would call my father … and Béla had that deep voice. And it scared the 'bejeebies' out of me.” Even up until her Olympic win, she was terrified. “At the Olympics, before I received my gold medal, I was crying. I was crying because I felt like a disappointment to Márta and Béla.” She says after winning the gold, she felt empty. “I felt like I was a disappointment, and I felt saddened. Because I felt like I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t perfect enough.”

Moceanu says that a culture that allowed such abuses to persist opened the door for someone like Nassar to prey on young women. Nassar, she says, “knew of the verbal, psychological, emotional abuses that the Károlyis were doing to the athletes. And he chose to exploit it for his personal pleasure.” 

But she says "change will happen, and it's starting to happen ... there are finally actions being taken." Sponsors including AT&T, Procter & Gamble, Hershey’s, Under Armour and Kellogg’s have pulled out their endorsements of the organization. USA Gymnastics' chairman and several board members have resigned. And Wednesday night, Michigan State University President Anna K. Simon announced she is stepping down.

Additionally, there's the issue of how gymnasts can protect themselves going forward. Professor Marc Edelman, who specializes in sports law, says gymnasts need to unionize. Speaking from his office at Baruch College in New York, he talked about how professional athletes in the four major American sports — baseball, football, basketball and hockey — are all unionized. The unions look after their salaries and also personal safety. The NFL union, for example, has advocated for further education, research and independent oversight of player concussions.  

Edelman has worked as an adviser for professional football teams, one of the roughest American sports. Which is why his stance is so striking: “My view has been that the women gymnasts and the women ice skaters in the United States are in the worst position for protecting themselves under the status quo. First, as compared to the athletes that compete in most other Olympic sports, or in professional sports around the United States, these young women are far younger. As young as 14, 15, 16 years old.”  

It’s a perfect scenario for a predator, he says — where young girls are told to do whatever their superiors tell them, to get to the top, not to question it.

Edelman says money plays a huge factor in how vulnerable the young women and their families are. In the NFL, the minimum salary is more than $400,000 a year. Players have bargaining power. Meanwhile, a gymnast makes next to nothing. The US Olympic committee gives $25,000 for a gold medal, and endorsements come in for the superstars.

“A reasonable union might try to impose some type of review of people who are providing services to the athletes,” says Edelman. “They might create internally a form of whistleblower protection to allow athletes to bring complaints directly to them. The union would have the duty to investigate these complaints as well as, perhaps, provide the athletes with the legal costs to seek attorneys, to seek psychological help and to make sure these individuals are removed.”

Ultimately, Edelman says if these systemic issues aren't addressed, there could be another tragedy. “We’ve seen this over and over again. We saw this with the molestation of hockey players in Canada in the late 1990s, where the coach was deemed to be evil but they didn’t look at the greater structure. We saw this with [Jerry] Sandusky at Penn State ...  What needs to be done is not just play pop-a-mole with these individual monsters, but rather putting an infrastructure in place. To make it a lot more likely that these monsters will be detected. That, as people have concerns, swift action is taken.”

One of the biggest hurdles gymnastics now faces is getting fans to love the sport again. This is something Dominique Moceanu herself had to face after the 1996 Olympics — how to fall back in love with a sport that hurt so much. “I always loved gymnastics. It wasn’t that the sport ever harmed me itself ... it was the adults that created it to be twisted and warped.” She says it is a beautiful sport that allowed her to jump and fly and twist in the air. But things need to change. “Honestly, in the courtroom, just a couple of days ago, when I sat and supported the brave women that have come forward, I felt more love and support than I ever have at any USA Gymnastics event in the last 10 years.”

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