The horrific abuse of female gymnasts

I hadn’t heard the terms ‘yips’ and ‘twisties’ until reading some of the many articles following Simone Biles’s withdrawal from her events at the Olympics. This article explains what the terms mean.

People who watch the types of sports that are broadcast on a regular basis are more familiar with the yips than the twisties because generally, we only gather to watch champion gymnasts compete every few years. However, people mainly associate the yips with uncharacteristically poor performance on fields or courts leading to errors and low scoring.

However the twisties, which involves a sudden loss of spatial awareness mid-air, can result in serious injury, possibly even death. Most of us heard about it for the first time after other athletes came forward to defend Biles from attacks accusing her of a weak mental fortitude, citing feats from past Olympic medalists as evidence that pushing through physical pain is what makes a champion a champion.

Some of the routines that gymnasts do involve all manner of gyrations while in the air and depend upon them orienting themselves the right way up before hitting the ground, somewhat like the way that cats seem to be always able to fall on their feet. To lose spatial awareness in mid-air, or to just fear losing it, has to be utterly terrifying since one can land on one’s head, resulting in serious injury, even paralysis and death. In this article, Biles what it feels like, that her “mind and body are simply not in sync” and that she still cannot tell up from down. The problem emerged after the qualifying round when she had to abort a more difficult move after getting confused in the air. To force athletes to continue while having that fear is utterly cruel.

The article on yips and twisties continues:

Like 2019’s “At the Heart of Gold,” “Athlete A” focuses on the decades-long pattern of predation by convicted and imprisoned sex offender Larry Nassar, the one-time USA Gymnastics doctor alleged to have sexually abused at least 265 women and girls, including United States national champions and Olympians such as Biles.

But the larger point it and other documentaries make about champion athletes is that uncompromising coaches such as Béla Károlyi and Márta Károlyi drill into them, and us, a mentality that getting hurt is part of the path to victory. Complaining is not allowed. Former Olympians speak about competing through fractured and broken bones.

The article describes what Americans celebrated as an incredible achievement but was actually an act of abuse that should never have happened. It was in 1996 when Kerri Strug hit her landing but immediately shifted to just one foot because her other ankle was injured because of a fall earlier.

As for Strug’s extraordinary feat, “She’d been competing on a severe injury,” says USA Gymnastics national champion Jennifer Sey, who watched the 1996 competition from her home. The archival footage shows Strug’s face contorted in pain as she crawls off the mat, and we hear the announcer expressing concern her injury . . . until the score comes in. Then his focus on Strug’s well-being dissolves into screams of glee at her gold medal victory for the United States.  

“Everybody’s cheering her on as this hero,” Sey continues, “and all I could think was, why are we celebrating this? Don’t pretend she had a choice. She was not going to do anything but go do that vault.”

Sey doesn’t present Strug’s choice as some spiritual mandate to boost America’s glory. She’s referring to how the Károlyis would have reacted if she refused, lending a sinister tone to Béla Károlyi flatly telling a dazed Strug to “wave to the people” as he carries her off the floor. (Biles has said that one of the reasons she feels safe and supported enough to prioritize her mental and physical well-being is that her new coaches, Cecile and Laurent Landi, encourage her to do so.)

Another article describes the film Athlete A (2020) and the sheer cruelty behind the Károlyis’ training program that produced so many young gymnast prodigies. After being subjected to tremendous pressure by their coaches, these young women were then the victims of the person who supposed to be taking care of their health, Dr. Larry Nasser.

How did former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar get away with it? How did one of the country’s worst sexual abusers, operating over a period spanning at least two decades, evade justice for so long? The answer, as the new Netflix documentary “Athlete A” hauntingly illuminates, is simple. He had help.

Abuse is such an isolating experience for the victims, and abuse thrives on that sense of isolation. “No one else is saying what you’re saying.” That’s what one of Nassar’s victims heard when she came forward to a coach. It took an entire system, carefully crafted to physically and psychologically break down young girls, for Nassar to thrive. It took an astonishing number of individuals willing to ignore their complaints, to overlook their suffering.

Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, who co-directed 2017’s “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” clearly already know their way around difficult material. There are moments in “Athlete A” — the court document name of Nassar survivor Maggie Nichols — that will make you gasp at the brazen brutality of Nassar’s crimes.

Using Nichols’s story as its central narrative, “Athlete A” delves directly into the storm of circumstances surrounding Nassar’s crimes. It meticulously explains the extreme culture of women’s gymnastics, created almost single-handedly by Béla and Márta Károlyi. The Romanian born coaches made a gold medalist of then 14 year-old Nadia Comăneci at the 1976 Olympics, then brought their Nicolae Ceaușescu-approved techniques to the US when they defected a few years after. Before long, America was cranking out its own supply of household name, superstar female gymnasts. As ex-gymnast Jennifer Sey explains in the film, after Nadia, “There was an aesthetic that was very very young. Childlike. It created a really dangerous environment [because] people really believed that for the more difficult skills you had to be tiny.” And, she notes, “There’s also the benefit of the coaches having more control when the girls are younger.”

Generations of young gymnasts have trained with expectation not just of hard effort and regular injury, but what Sey calls “cruelty,” a cruelty ingrained in them when they were too young to recognize it as such. As one gymnast recalls, “Every time I’d get an injury I wasn’t believed. Back then I didn’t think of it as abuse. I almost still feel bad for telling the truth.” And into that environment, where girls were routinely taught not to complain, not even to believe what their bodies were experiencing, came Dr. Larry Nassar.

Nassar, distinguishing himself from the tough coaches, presented as the “nice adult” in the room, the one who would care for the girls’ injuries and sneak them sweets. He won their trust, violated them — sometimes while their parents were in the same room — and made them question their own reality. It’s no surprise his survivors recall feeling like there was something wrong with them, and being ashamed for even thinking that was happening to them was happening. A few spoke up and were ignored. Most just withstood the abuse in silence.

You only have to look at the staggering number of Catholic Church sexual abuse investigations, or the Jerry Sandusky story, or the Jeffrey Epstein one, or the R. Kelly one, to see clear and dispiriting patterns. To see kids being abused by individuals they trusted and even believed they cared for because their abusers and the institutions they represented were considered too valuable to lose. The abusers were protected, systematically, by the adult beneficiaries of the money and power those abusers could provide. Again and again and again.

Let’s be perfectly clear. It was not just Nasser and the Károlyis who were the perpetrators of this massive abuse. They were enabled and protected by the official USA Gymnastics body, all for the sake of winning medals.

We are familiar with the aphorism that it takes a village to raise a child. Sadly, it seems like the village can also abuse them.


  1. says

    It’s not just gymnasts in danger from the “twisties”.

    Some may remember Sergei Chalibashvili at the 1983 World University Games in Edmonton. He was doing a very complex “twisty” dive when he hit his head on the 10 metre concrete platform. He was unconscious before he hit the water, and died a few days later in hospital.

    Ironically, the winner was Greg Lougainis who did the exact same dive. Lougainis would hit his own head on the 1 metre (flexible) board at the 1988 olympics, bleeding into the pool. Lougainis was known to be HIV positive at the time.

  2. garnetstar says

    One of the gymnasts who spoke at Nassar’s trial mentioned that USA gymnastics and US Olympic committee, the coaches, kept Nassar on because he’d OK them to medically compete even when they had broken bones, torn ligaments, etc. She said that, in keeping Nassar, “They got what they wanted, and he got what he wanted.” Different abusers helping each other to predate on the same girls.

    The sad thing is that a quite-popular book, “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes”, was published in 1995 that outlined exactly the same abuse. All names of athletes and coaches were named, and specific acts of abuse were described. Sexual abuse was mentioned, though without names.

    It changed nothing. US Gymnastics, USOC, and the coaches named, carried right on, and the same abuse continued right up to now. It’s been public knowledge that female gymnasts were abused in those ways and by those same people since at least 1995.

  3. mnb0 says

    It’s not only the USA either. Many Dutch ex-gymnasts (remarkably only women) have complained last several years. Two of them, Simone Heitinga and Stasja Köhler, published a book about it in 2013.

    “Jarenlang werden de twee meisjes vernederd, uitgescholden, bespuugd en afgebeuld.”
    “For years the two girls were humiliated, scolded, spit on and exhausted” (by their coaches).
    One ex-gymnast was dragged through the exercise hall at her ponytail.

  4. says

    I wasn’t even good enough to win local prizes, but I participated in a diving team just as something to do. I liked swimming and diving as a kid. I ended up in the ER **twice** for hitting my head on the diving board (fortunately the 1m springboard in each case, and only one required stitches). For me it wasn’t so much a disorder that caused me to lose track of where I was (and how I was oriented) in the air as just a lack of practice so I never knew where I was in the first place.

    I can only imagine the feeling of jumping into the air as Simone Biles and arriving at the top of your jump as Crip Dyke.

  5. anat says

    … and let’s not forget pushing girl gymnasts into eating disorders in attempt to keep them short enough and flexible enough for best performance.

  6. garnetstar says

    mnbo @3, that’s right, and glad to hear that the Dutch gymnasts are speaking up. Last week there was a wave of articles about female British gymnasts speaking out about, guess what? The exact same abuse.

    Why are you surprised that it’s only female gymnasts? Did you not read the comments left by me (in response to your comment) and by Allison on Mano’s post about the pressure on athletes? Allison’s explanation of this resulting from pervasive sexism was very apt and clear.

    anat @5, that’s right, too. There’s a whole chapter in the 1995 book about that. And the story of how, when one gymnast’s anorexia became noticable, the coach kicked her out of gymnastics. She died a couple years later, weighing 52 pounds at her death.

    The male gymnastics teams felt so sorry for the starvation that the women were put through (some coaches restricted their athletes to 800 calories/day, when 900/day is a starvation diet) that at competitions the men would pack a sports bag full of fruit and protein bars and the like, and leave it at a dead drop for the women to pick up and eat in their hotel rooms. That’s about as blatant as can be, and has been public knowledge since 1995, and no one did a thing about it.

    Women athletes are expendable. Cannon fodder, really.

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