Until two years ago, there was no question over who controlled gymnastics in the United States. USA Gymnastics, the sport’s national governing body, had been in charge of administering the sport at every level, from novice all the way up through elite, since the early 1960s. Other organizations had and have a claim on the sport, such as the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) or United States Association of Independent Gymnastics Club (NAIGC), but USA Gymnastics is the largest and most influential by far. After all, it’s the organization that selects the athletes that will compete on behalf of the U.S. at the Olympic and in other major international competitions, and gymnastics is a sport whose popularity hinges on the Olympics. American gymnastics without USA Gymnastics just didn’t compute. It’s right there in the name.
Over the course of two terrible years, though, all that has changed, and the question of who controls gymnastics in the United States is no longer a hypothetical one. Last week, the USOC made the first move toward decertifying USA Gymnastics as the sport’s national governing body. The announcement came a couple of days after the conclusion of the 2018 world artistic gymnastics in Qatar, where Simone Biles and the U.S. women again dominated the competition. Waiting until after the competition to make such a destabilizing announcement seems compassionate only until you consider that the USOC dropped this bomb on the eve of the tumbling and trampoline world championships in St. Petersburg, Russia, where the U.S. had athletes competing. But the United States Olympic Committee’s concern for athletes is directly proportional to the media coverage that the athletes in question command. They did, at least, wait until Simone was done winning gold.
“USA Gymnastics is not gymnastics in America,” Tim Daggett, Olympic gold medalist and longtime NBC commentator, told the Houston Chronicle. “The YMCAs and community centers and clubs like mine, and all the gymnasts and coaches and volunteers—that is gymnastics in America. And that is not going away.”
Daggett’s comment drew a distinction between the institution and the grassroots that suggests the two are wholly distinct things. But while it would be nice if USA Gymnastics were a tumor that could be excised from the sport and leave it healthy and thriving, the procedure is not that simple and the damage not quite so localized. The problems in this sport are not solely situated in the behavior of the national governing body, and they are not new. There are decades of abusive practices up and down the ranks of coaches, from the lowest competitive levels all the way up to elite, and many of the administrators who ran the organization for decades were drawn from the ranks of coaches and former athletes. Ron Galimore, until his resignation this morning as the COO of USA Gymnastics, was one of the first black national champions in gymnastics. Former president Bob Colarossi, who initiated the training camp system with Bela Karolyi at the helm and Larry Nassar as team doctor, was a former gymnast and club owner. Others, like former CEO and president Steve Penny, who has been indicted on evidence tampering charges in connection to the Nassar case, came from outside of the sport. (Before coming to USA Gymnastics in the late ’90s, Penny was the marketing guru for USA Cycling who helped sell Lance Armstrong.) Even if USA Gymnastics is dissolved, its problems will still persist. USA Gymnastics may not be the totality of gymnastics in this country, but it is also a fairly accurate reflection of the current state of sport in the U.S. at the moment. Its problems are not its problems alone.
There is also the matter of the surgeon. The USOC, which is wielding the decertification scalpel in this case, is trying to save itself as much as the patient. It’s difficult to see the USOC’s move to decertify USAG as anything other an attempt at covering its own robustly exposed ass. The USOC is after all in the midst of its own Nassar-related litigation, while also being sued by athletes from other sports for its failure to effectively protect them from abuse. Scott Blackmun, the organization’s former head, was forced to resign in February after it was revealed that he had been told about Nassar’s abuse in 2015 and failed to act. It’s not just him. The USOC has consistently dragged its feet on this case, and it took until March 2017 for the organization to force the resignation of Penny, six months after the first allegations against Nassar became public. It wasn’t until January 2018, after Nassar’s sentencing in Michigan’s Ingham County made national and international headlines, that the USOC forced the entire board of USA Gymnastics to resign under threat of decertification. The board took the hint.
Unsurprisingly, getting rid of Blackmun didn’t solve USOC’s problems. New CEO Sarah Hirshland was quick to voice her concern about the leadership of USA Gymnastics after taking the job, which probably prompted the board to demand the resignation of Kerry Perry after just nine months as CEO/president, but Hirshland’s USOC has also been a party to at least one of USA Gymnastics’ recent blunders: the hiring of former Republican congresswoman Mary Bono as interim CEO/president last month. Bono lasted all of five days in the gig after the gymternet discovered that she had sent some off-the-rack reactionary anti-Nike/Colin Kaepernick tweets—Biles, a Nike-sponsored athlete and the most important person in the sport, signaled her disapproval—and that Bono had worked for the same law firm that had helped USA Gymnastics hide the real reasons for Nassar’s dismissal back in 2015. As the New York Times reported last weekend, it was the USOC itself that added Bono’s name to the shortlist of potential CEO candidates it sent to USA Gymnastics. That the organization vetted Bono and found her a suitable candidate suggests that both the USOC and USA Gymnastics have similar blind spots.
The first step towards decertification came shortly thereafter. The move was long overdue considering how horribly USA Gymnastics has handled this crisis from the moment they were first notified about Nassar’s abuse in 2015. But given the USOC’s own complicity and failures in that story, it was hard to feel encouraged by the words “The USOC is now in charge of things.”
Hirshland’s open letter to the gymnastics community doesn’t offer much in the way of details, and so doesn’t offer much in the way of reassurance. There’s nothing in there about what the process will look like, who it will impact, and what the desired outcome might be. The fact that the USOC failed even to describe the short-term plan is particularly galling, given that they’ve had ample time—that is, two years—to game out how this scenario might work. This fall cannot possibly have been the first time they’ve truly considered the possibility of decertifying an organization that has so obviously been in crisis for so long.
The only part of the letter that seems like an actual statement of purpose is this one: “We will ensure support for the Olympic hopefuls who may represent us in Tokyo in 2020.” Whatever the USOC does or does not have planned for USA Gymnastics, it is a certainty that it will do everything in its power to ensure that the United States sends strong teams to the upcoming Summer Olympics. This is not because they’re invested in the hopes and dreams of the gymnasts in their charge, but because winning Olympic medals is why the organization exists. Dionne Koller, a sports law professor at the University of Baltimore, wrote in a recent paper that “U.S. sport, at all levels, exists in an environment characterized by limited government regulation but a strong political and popular desire to win in international competition.”
Winning is what the USOC views as their core mission. This is why Congress gave them their charter. The rest, as Hillel the Sage once said, is commentary.
The 1960s were a chaotic period for gymnastics in the United States. At the beginning of the decade, the sport was under the jurisdiction of the AAU, which administered multiple Olympic sports. In 1962, coaches and others founded the United States Gymnastics Federation (USGF) out of a belief that the developing sport needed its own, more comprehensive governing organization. A history of USA Gymnastics written by Brian Schenk quotes coach Jim Farkas of the Milwaukee Turners, who wrote in 1962 about the shortcomings of the AAU. Farkas commended the AAU for selecting top-notch teams for the world championships and Olympics, “but,” he wrote, “while claiming jurisdiction over the entire sport, it … neglected real development programs [and] cared and planned only in terms of international competitors.”
Farkas and others wanted to see an organization that wasn’t just concerned with selecting the Olympic team and implementing international elite rules; they wanted a national governing body that would organize all aspects of gymnastics in the United States, from the lowest competitive levels all the way up through elite. “There are thousands of secondary schools, Turner Societies, Sokols, YMCA, and independent gymnastics clubs, representing many thousands of girls and boys between the ages of 6 and 60, who are all gymnasts in the true sense of the word,” Farkas wrote. “What about them?”
It’s telling that Farkas’s remarks sound a lot like Daggett’s. In Farkas’s day, the YMCAs were a bigger force in the sport than they are at present, but then as now the essence of the sport can be found at the grassroots level. In the 1980s, gymnastics migrated to private clubs and away from places like public schools and community centers, which has had the effect of reducing access to the sport for all but those who can afford to pay for it. But, even then, gymnastics was about the people who actually do it—the thousands of anonymous athletes tumbling in gyms at levels well below the elite.
The grassroots wasn’t enough for the nascent USGF, which also wanted to take control of the Olympic and world team selection from the AAU. Olympic gymnasts were, then as now, the crown jewels of the sport, and success at the Games drove growth of the sport at home. During the early years of the new federation, there were fierce battles over who would control the Olympic and world championships team. (AAU, it should be noted, was also struggling to maintain its control in other sports around this time, including basketball and track and field.) Both USGF and AAU held their own separate competitions, and AAU threatened some of the best gymnasts in the country that participating in USGF events would make them ineligible for world or Olympic competition, which was still their purview at the time. The USGF petitioned the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) three times to be seated as the official national governing body of the sport, and officially took over as Olympic and world championship team selector in 1970.
All this history is interesting—or, anyway, interesting to a gym obsessive like me—because it shows that even in the early days of the modern sport, governing bodies saw control of the highest levels of gymnastics as integral and fought hard to win the right to be in charge of that process. The grassroots and the elite, though miles apart in terms of skill and ambition, were still bound up with each other, but they were never anything like equals.
This is in keeping with how Congress and the USOC views the development process. “Congress conceived of the US Olympic Movement as a pyramid structure,” Koller wrote, “with so-called ‘grassroots’ youth sport opportunities at the base and elite, Olympic sport at the apex.” The USOC wants what the USGF had and the AAU had before that—ownership of the apex.
In a recent email sent to the United States Elite Coaches Association, U.S. women’s team high performance coordinator Tom Forster noted that he had spoken with Hirshland, and that she communicated to him that the USOC fears that USA Gymnastics’ legal troubles from the pending Nassar litigation will negatively impact the high performance teams, which is why it has moved to decertify the national governing body and take charge of those teams.
“I believe the USOC is not aware of the complexity of operating our HP [high performance] Teams,” he wrote. “Our coaches as well as many of our young gymnastics participate in both [Junior Olympic] competitions and elite competitions.” Forster notes that the USOC provides USA Gymnastics with two million dollars a year for the high performance program, which pays for training camps, competition travel, stipends, and other expenses. The organization does not, however, pay to host and market competitions like the national championships, the U.S. Classic, or a host of other events.
“There is more,” he wrote, “but the point is the USOC will struggle to manage what we have established over the past forty years.”
Some have been critical of the note’s boosterish tone—it seems to have been written with “rallying the troops” in mind, and with an eye on making the case to save USA Gymnastics because look at everything it does. He does urge parents, coaches, and athletes to reach out to the USA Gymnastics board of directors and tell them what they want—whether USAG should voluntarily relinquish control over the high performance program or fight it. Forster doesn’t explicitly tell people what to say but it’s clear what he wants them to defend the organization.
The obstacles that Forster mentioned are by no means insurmountable; after all, the USOC has far more cash on hand than USA Gymnastics does at the moment. If they wished to, they could certainly host these competitions and market them just as USA Gymnastics had in the past. This isn’t rocket science; if it was, it’s hard to believe that anyone at USA Gymnastics would have been able to pull it off.
And yet considering just how little the USOC actually does—my colleague Diana Moskovitz described the organization as a “strange, shell corporation-like setup that may not launder money but does, conveniently, dodge liability”—even taking over just the elite program of gymnastics for a short period of time looks like a tall order. As former USGF president Mike Jacki said, “The USOC does not train and develop athletes, train and develop coaches, train and create officials, run events...or really have any real influence on the ultimate success of our athletes in Olympic sport.” This is not to praise USA Gymnastics, which is effectively unpraisable. It’s more to point out how fucking useless the USOC is.
Taking over the the highest levels of gymnastics and the talent pipeline—even just until 2020—would require a dramatic shift from the USOC, which currently doesn’t take ownership over any athletes in any discipline. The organization’s communications director once sent Deadspin a request for a correction since we used the phrase “USOC athlete” in a blog post; the organization’s official position is that they don’t have any athletes.
This gambit could work, of course, but it’s hard to imagine that the USOC could manage it without bringing a number of current USA Gymnastics staffers into the fold to make it happen. That certainly won’t qualify as starting over from scratch, and as such is not the “clean break” or the “fresh start” that many hoped for after USA Gymnastics’ disastrous last two years.
And if the USOC fails not just in managing the high performance aspects of the sport and the talent pipeline, but in combating the problem of athlete abuse? Well, it’s hard to know what to expect, then. It’s not like there’s an institution above them that can impose a penalty like the one they imposed on USA Gymnastics. The only organization with sufficient power to discipline the USOC in the way it disciplined USAG is perhaps the only organization in the country less cut out to do the job right—Congress.