Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Larry Nassar as an athletic trainer. He was the USA Gymnastics team doctor.
Simone Biles did not just go to Tokyo to compete. In an April interview with NBC, she said she’d decided to participate in her second Olympic Games, at 24, because she wanted to hold gymnastics leaders accountable.
Biles is the only victim of Larry Nassar still competing on the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team. If she didn’t attend the Games, she said, no one would be around to demand action from the athletic organizations that shielded Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics team doctor convicted of sexually assaulting numerous women. (USA Gymnastics did not do enough to protect its athletes and report instances of child sexual abuse, according to an independent 2017 report.)
“I just feel like everything that happened, I had to come back to the sport to be a voice, to have change happen,” Biles said in the April interview. “Because I feel like if there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would’ve just brushed it to the side.”
The first summer Games since #MeToo, the Tokyo Olympics could give female athletes a rare opportunity to speak up about sexual misconduct — and be heard. Athletes have significant followings on social media, and they are more equipped than ever to amplify their voices and experiences around the world, according to experts.
Biles withdrew Tuesday from the women’s gymnastics all-around final, one of the four events where she won a gold medal in 2016, citing a need to protect her mental health. But she remains one of the most visible athletes at this year’s Olympics, wielding an enormous international platform. Her former teammate, Aly Raisman, also spoke out about Nassar this week.
Athletes from other sports have used their Olympic moment to elevate issues of sexual misconduct. A group of six U.S. fencers, including two Olympians, lodged a complaint about U.S. fencing alternate Alen Hadzic, who has been accused of sexual misconduct at least three times. Considering that history, they said, Hadzic should not be allowed to compete. While the fencers weren’t able to bar Hadzic from the Games — USA Fencing instead implemented a “safety plan” to protect other athletes, which includes housing him in a separate hotel — their actions prompted a public outcry and a wave of support for female fencers. Michael Palma, Hadzic’s attorney, said his client “completely, fundamentally denies” the allegations being investigated.
“I think the Olympics is going to become an incubator to uplift sexual violence in a really important way,” said Indira Henard, executive director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, who has been watching closely as Biles and other athletes speak up about their abuse.
“This is a reckoning.”
Sexual misconduct has emerged as an issue among other Olympic teams in recent years, said Lauren Smith, a professor of sports media at Indiana University who specializes in gender. Last year, for example, six women filed lawsuits alleging that USA Swimming failed to protect them against sexually abusive coaches in the 1980s.
With many young athletes training and competing away from home, she said, the world of elite athletics is particularly prone to instances of sexual abuse. When medals are at stake, especially Olympic medals, athletic organizations may be inclined to look the other way, Smith said:
“When you keep winning, it’s real darn easy to turn your head and say, well, gold medals. It’s a terrible attitude but not an uncommon one in sports.”
Since the #MeToo movement, there has been more public support for athletes who come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct, according to Smith. The Nassar case, in particular, showcased the power that female athletes — especially those with large followings — can have when they speak up. While allegations against Nassar first surfaced publicly in the Indy Star a few weeks after the 2016 Olympics, Smith said, they garnered far more media attention through the winter of 2018 to 2019, after several Olympic athletes joined the other victims, including Raisman and Biles.
The Olympics are a unique moment of visibility for female athletes from a wide array of sports. While gymnastics has big-name stars, like Biles and Raisman, who attract media attention even when they’re not competing, other female athletes fly largely under the radar, Smith said. Women receive only 4 percent of sports media coverage, according to a 2014 study, even though they accounted for approximately 40 percent of athletes.
“Once the Olympics are over, we’re not going to hear about [women’s] sports like surfing, swimming, diving. They’re not prominently visible like men’s sports are,” Smith said. For these competitors, she added, the Olympics represents a “huge opening.”
Elizabeth Taylor, an associate professor at Temple University who specializes in gender and sexual violence in sports organizations, has seen a trend over the past several Olympic cycles: More female athletes are using their platforms to advocate for an array of issues, from pay equity and working conditions to sexual abuse and mental health.
“Part of the reason is because we’re seeing increased engagement of women’s sports,” Taylor said.
That has translated to greater star power, and more leverage to speak out on these issues either through traditional media outlets or on social media, where female athletes can sometimes see more engagement on their posts than their male peers, she said.
“Women are really finding their voice and they’re realizing that their experiences matter,” Taylor said.
There are still major ramifications for those who do choose to speak up. Taylor emphasized that Biles’s case is particularly exceptional: Governing bodies such as USA Gymnastics wield incredible power over an athlete’s ability to represent her country in international competition. (Some fans suspect that Maggie Nichols, the first gymnast to come out against Nassar, didn’t make the 2016 Olympic team for this reason).
“They can’t leave [Biles] off the team,” Taylor said. “But other athletes do have to be careful about the things they say if they want to continue to compete under the umbrella of Team USA.”
Li Li Leung, president and chief executive of USA Gymnastics, said in a statement: “We recognize how deeply we have broken the trust of our athletes and community, and are working hard to build that trust back. Everything we do now is aimed at creating a safe, inclusive, and positive culture for everyone who participates in our sport. And while we know that this kind of meaningful and lasting culture change does not happen overnight, we will keep working toward that goal until every member feels supported, included, safe and empowered.”
Louise Harder, a former elite gymnast, said the consequences of speaking out are both professional and personal for athletes who have experienced abuse.
Harder is the strategist and treasurer for Army of Survivors, an advocacy group founded by survivors of Nassar’s abuse. She noted that the insular, close-knit environments of elite competition, coupled with consistent messages about the importance of sacrifice and “pushing through” pain, make it challenging for athletes to speak up.
“It’s a very small world and people talk. Nobody wants to be blacklisted,” she said — particularly elite competitors whose lives are dominated by the sport.
Then there’s the personal toll speaking up can take.
“It takes a lot of courage to come forward. It’s one of the most difficult things for a survivor to do,” Harder said. Doing so helped kick-start Harder’s healing process, but she cautions that it’s different for everyone:
“Every survivor who continues to speak out is doing so at the cost of having to relive the experience.”
Taylor, the Temple professor, said governing bodies still aren’t holding themselves accountable — pushing athletes to take matters into their own hands.
“They really have to start from scratch and illustrate that they are willing to fire people, whatever positions they’re in, if they have engaged in problematic behavior,” Taylor said. “Until you communicate to the athletes that their safety and well-being is the most important thing to your organization, they’re not going to take it seriously.”
Taylor is struck by the emotional labor Biles has taken on, all to better the sport.
“I sometimes think about how [USA Gymnastics] doesn’t deserve her,” she said. “Despite everything that the organization has put her through, she still continues to think about the future. And she does so because she wants to make it a better place for young gymnasts.”
Harder noted that because of the lag time for when athletes come forward — it is not unusual for survivors, especially those who experienced abuse as children, to speak up many years later — it continues to be difficult to get an accurate snapshot of how prevalent sexual abuse and misconduct are in various sports.
She’s not sure that change will come from the top, which is why it’s important for survivor athletes and their allies to speak up. While Harder is grateful for Biles’s advocacy at the Olympics, which she calls “huge” and “unprecedented,” she emphasized that it needs to be a collective effort.
“It’s really going to be a grass-roots effort of athletes, parents, communities really banding together and demanding this change,” Harder said. “I hesitate to put all of that on her shoulders because that’s not on her.”