Ever since Kerri Strug and the Magnificent Seven won Olympic gold in 1996, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team has been a point of pride for many Americans. But over the past five years, athletes have been coming forward with allegations of widespread abuse in the sport. Former gymnasts say they were forced to train and compete with broken bones and that they were denied food. And dozens of women have testified that they were sexually assaulted by Larry Nassar, the former doctor who worked with the U.S. national team.
USA Gymnastics, the governing body for elite gymnastics in the United States, has said it’s working hard to change the sport’s culture, but many former gymnasts say it hasn’t done enough.
“We have coaches and institutions and organizations and a country, frankly, that prioritize money and medals over the bodies and souls of people,” says Rachael Denhollander, a former gymnast who was the first woman to come forward publicly with accusations against Nassar.
Now that we know the truth about how damaging elite gymnastics can be for young women and girls, should we change how we think about the sport? Denhollander says Simone Biles’s decision to withdraw from several Olympic events might change how athletes see their own worth.
“That’s going to entail a lot of hard conversations,” Denhollander says. “Do you have value and identity and worth outside of your gymnastics ability? If we really, truly understand that the answer to that is yes, that lays the foundation to be able to say, ‘I can’t sacrifice my value, identity, the rest of my life for this one thing.’”
This week on The Experiment: When national glory comes at the expense of young women’s bodies, can we still find a way to love the Olympics?
This episode’s guests include the Atlantic staff writer Emma Green and Rachael Denhollander, a lawyer and victims’ advocate.
Further reading: “The Gymnast Who Won’t Let Her Daughters Do Gymnastics”
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This episode was produced by Tracie Hunte and reported by Emma Green. Editing by Katherine Wells and Jenny Lawton. Fact-check by William Brennan. Sound design by David Herman, with additional engineering by Joe Plourde.
Music by Keyboard (“The World Eating,” “Staying In,” “Ojima,” “Contractions,” and “My Atelier”), Ob (“Waif” and “Ghyll”), and Laundry (“Films” and “Phthalo Blue”), provided by Tasty Morsels and Nelson Nance. Additional audio from NBC Sports, NBC Nightly News, IndyStar, the Today show, The Ben Maller Show, and Dominique Moceanu.