The U.S. women’s gymnastics team enters the world championships in Doha, Qatar, this month as the defending team champions. American women have dominated the top of the podium at the last three championships, and five-time Olympic medalist Simone Biles is competing for her fourth all-around individual world championship title. She also qualified in all six events at the championships, and if she earns gold in each of them, could become only the second female gymnast to sweep all of the titles at a single meet since the 1980s.
But USA Gymnastics, the national federation for gymnasts for which she competes, is mired in one of the worst sexual abuse scandals in sports history. And its response to the revelations that team doctor Larry Nassar abused hundreds of athletes, including Biles, has prompted many leading many gymnasts to call for the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) to decertify USA Gymnastics, or at least remove everyone associated with the organization during Nassar’s years of abuse, and start all over.
“Enough is enough,” Aly Raisman, who was among the first Olympic team members to reveal she was abused by Nassar, tells TIME. She says the board of USA Gymnastics has been making “mistakes over and over again. And I think we have given them enough time. We can’t wait any more. It’s not right.”
Those calls grew louder last week after Steve Penny, the organization’s former president, was arrested on vacation with his family following an indictment for tampering with evidence relating to the Nassar scandal. His attorney said Penny was not aware of the warrant and is confident that his actions were not criminal.
Then, Mary Bono, the second person appointed to replace Penny, resigned after less than a week when it was revealed that her law firm represented USA Gymnastics and reportedly helped to provide a cover story for explaining Nassar’s absence after initial reports of his abuse. She also faced criticism from athletes including Biles for a now-deleted tweet from September in which Bono covered a Nike logo on her golf shoes in response to Colin Kaepernick’s Nike ad.
“We immediately took steps to change the leadership and are currently conducting a comprehensive search to find the right CEO who can rebuild the organization and, most importantly, regain the trust of the gymnastics community,” Karen Golz, board chair of USA Gymnastics said in a written response to TIME.
USA Gymnastics has also not settled any of the numerous lawsuits it faces from gymnasts including Raisman and Olympic teammates McKayla Maroney, Kyla Ross and Jordyn Wieber, all of whom were abused by Nassar and say that the organization failed to protect them by allowing him to continue to serve as national team doctor, even after receiving reports of his abuse.
“I was always concerned about how this was handled by USA Gymnastics, but now I feel it’s really dangerous,” Raisman says. “USA Gymnastics has not been transparent at all. There have been so many resignations, and no answers. They won’t release anything, which is making me more nervous about what else they are hiding.”
It’s now clear that the U.S. women’s gymnastics team’s dominance at world and Olympic competitions in recent decades came at a price. The entire five-woman 2012 Olympic team and four of the five-member 2016 team have revealed that they were sexually abused by Nassar, an osteopathic doctor. Over a period of more than a decade, he abused more than three hundred athletes under the guise of medical treatments. According to his victims, the abuse occurred at his office at Michigan State University where he was on the faculty, in hotel rooms during competitions and at the national training center at the Karolyi Ranch in Texas. Nassar is currently serving up to 175 years in prison for his crimes.
The USOC currently recognizes national governing bodies for sports like gymnastics, and that means USA Gymnastics adheres to bylaws established by the Olympic Committee concerning proper conduct of athletes and coaches, and compliance with its policies, which include anti-doping rules. USA Gymnastics also receives funding from the USOC to support the elite competition teams that represent the U.S. at world and Olympic events. Perhaps most importantly, many international sports federations that put on competitions such as world championships and oversee participation at the Olympics require national federations like the USOC to sponsor teams from their respective countries.
For USA Gymnastics to be decertified, a complaint would have to be filed by the CEO of the USOC. Once a complaint is brought to the USOC board, a hearing would be held including, in this case, members of USA Gymnastics and the athletes’ advisory council. The panel would then make a recommendation about whether to revoke recognition as gymnastics’ governing body. If another organization were to come forward to be recognized by the USOC, it would need a different name and would have to adhere to the bylaws of the USOC and start to gain membership of local gyms. If an alternate organization is not available to take over for USA Gymnastics, then gymnasts would temporarily compete under the umbrella of the USOC. However, if the USOC decertifies USA Gymnastics, it’s not clear whether the Federation Internationale de Gymnastique (FIG) would recognize American gymnasts at international competitions.
While unusual, there is precedent for decertification. The national governing bodies for taekwondo and team handball were decertified, and new organizations were created to replace them. In taekwondo’s case, the prior organization failed to address financial problems after USOC audits, and in team handball’s situation, USOC felt the existing management was not fulfilling its obligation to grow and populate the sport adequately.
The USOC did threaten USA Gymnastics with decertification, after it learned that Penny had waited five weeks before reporting reports of sexual abuse by Nassar to law enforcement. That led to Penny’s resignation, as well as the resignation of three top board members. But many survivors, including Raisman, want transparency from USA Gymnastics, including an explanation for why Nassar was allowed to continue to abuse gymnasts even after complaints about him were provided to its leadership, as well as explanations for the recent series of resignations.
“This is bigger than one abuser,” Raisman says. “It’s the leadership at USA Gymnastics that is creating this disaster.”
Raisman isn’t sure if decertification is the best option, but says something must be done to fundamentally change USA Gymnastics.
Nassar is in prison for his crimes, Penny resigned and the top three members of the USA Gymnastics board also stepped down. But, Raisman says, not much has actually changed at the organization. It has not acknowledged the scandal nor taken responsibility for what happened to hundreds of gymnasts who trusted that the governing body would have their best interests in mind and keep them safe.
“Some of the same leaders who were there [while Nassar was the team doctor] are still there. The old influence, the bad influence that created the problem, is still there,” she says. “They didn’t listen to anything we said; they never did and still are not doing it.”
In its statement announcing Bono’s departure, USA Gymnastics said it “remain[s] steadfast in our efforts to fundamentally transform the organization at all levels to ensure athlete safety and well-being is at the heart of everything we do…While we have made progress, we have much more work to do. This board is determined to take the necessary steps to support a safe, inclusive and competitive environment where all our athletes and members can grow, have fun and achieve their goals.”
Since the survivors came forward en masse to provide victim impact statements at Nassar’s sentencing hearing in January, Kerry Perry, who was the first president appointed to succeed Penny, was called before Congress to explain how Nassar was allowed to abuse gymnasts for years, despite reports to the organization that he was a sexual predator. Rather than providing an explanation, however, she redirected the focus to her intention to “make sure we’re focusing our organization on athlete safety.” Perry resigned in September after nine months leading USA Gymnastics.
The board then appointed Mary Lee Tracy as development coordinator to oversee training for gymnasts working toward making the elite world and Olympic teams. In December 2016, Tracy had defended Nassar, calling him “amazing” although he had been charged with child sexual abuse and indicted on federal child pornography charges days before. Tracy defended her description, saying she was only referring to her own experience with Nassar and that her comments had “absolutely nothing to do with … the survivors.” When Raisman tweeted that Tracy’s appointment was a “disappointment,” Tracy attempted to reach out to the Olympian and was asked by USA Gymnastics to resign three days into the job.
“I wonder how many more times does somebody have to do something harmful that hurts, actually hurts children and affects them in potentially life-threatening ways before somebody does something?” says Jessica Howard, a rhythmic gymnast who was abused by Nassar. “It hurts me as a victim; it’s a gut punch every single time.”
Howard says that the constant poor leadership decisions and resignations, and the arrest of Penny, are only perpetuating the pain and frustration for survivors. The message from USA Gymnastics, Howard says, is that athletes’ interests are still not the top priority for the organization. “I thought, this can’t be real,” says Howard when she read about the board’s decision to appoint Bono as interim president and CEO. “Maybe I’m having a dream — I actually thought that maybe I was having a dream. They cannot be this oblivious. It’s like screaming fire and nobody comes, and there are people in the building.”
Part of the problem, say many survivors, is that the organization has failed to take responsibility for the scandal and in doing so, damaged its reputation. “No one with any integrity is willing to take the position of leadership at USA Gymnastics,” says Rachel Denhollander, who was the first to identify herself as a victim of Nassar. “For two and a half years [USA Gymnastics] has consistently demonstrated that they have no desire to do the right thing.”
For one, she and others point to the fact that Ron Galimore continues in his position as chief operating officer at USA Gymnastics. According to email exchanges in the summer of 2015 that were obtained by the Indianapolis Star, an attorney from Bono’s firm suggested that Galimore be tasked with telling the USA Gymnastics’ medical team that Nassar was absent from competitions because he wasn’t feeling well – rather than informing them that Nassar was under investigation for sexual misconduct. When asked about Galimore’s apparent involvement in the Nassar scandal, Golz said “Ron Galimore is an employee of USA Gymnastics. USA Gymnastics does not discuss personnel matters.”
“What people need to understand is that this is not a Larry problem — Larry is a symptom of a USA Gymnastics problem,” says Denhollander. “And they have not taken care of the root problem; they have only taken care of one of the symptoms.”
USA Gymnastics cites its adoption of SafeSport policies, created by the USOC’s U.S. Center for SafeSport. It’s meant to be an independent body that can investigate allegations of sexual misconduct, but many athletes feel that isn’t enough. Raisman, for one, advocates creating an entirely independent body — not affiliated with the USOC or its various sports governing bodies — to which athletes can turn for support and safety. She is working with Darkness to Light, a non-profit that provides education to adults to help them recognize signs of childhood sexual abuse, and wants to come up with other potential solutions for keeping athletes safe not just in gymnastics but all sports. “I never imagined it would get this bad,” she says.
Denhollander is hoping that Congress, which passed the Amateur Sports Act that created the USOC oversees the national governing bodies for the various sports, will hold the USOC accountable in a more stringent way. “Congress has to act to make a difference,” she says. “There is no way forward otherwise with this organization. Until all of those people who participated in the abusive culture that led to the worst scandal in recorded or Olympic history are gone, things are not going to be done differently. That’s the reason the current board is continually making the wrong choices. It’s not an accident.”
In the absence of more positive action from USA Gymnastics, the USOC, or Congress, Raisman feels an urgency to become an advocate for change herself, especially with the next Olympic Games only two years away. “I think about them a lot,” says Raisman of the gymnasts competing at the world championships in Doha, who are aiming to make the Olympic team in two years. “When I was training for the Olympics and realized what was happening [with the way complaints against Nassar were handled] was wrong, it was hard to work for an organization that I knew was very corrupt. And now with everything that has come out, it’s way worse than I ever imagined it would be. But it’s not the survivors’ fault. It’s the organization’s fault. The moment they realized something was wrong, if they had handled it the right way, and reported it, this wouldn’t be a problem right now. I’m trying to brainstorm ideas,” she says. “We owe it to the sport. The sport deserves much better.”