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They're Olympic Champions. Not Prey.

by Meg Heery


August 3, 2012

Thursday, August 2nd, was a huge day for American women in the prime-time Olympic sports. Rebecca Soni set a new world record and snagged gold in the women's 200m breaststroke. Elizabeth Beisel and Missy Franklin scorched the field leading up to the 200m backstroke final, leading their respective semifinal heats by 1.24 and 1.48 seconds. Beach volleyballers April Ross and Jen Kessy advanced to the round of 16, where they join legends Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings. And in Judo, Kayla Harrison won the first Olympic gold medal for the U.S. – ever.

Notwithstanding Harrison’s historic moment, of course all eyes were on the women’s gymnastics all-around final. Gabrielle Douglas emerged Thursday as the only American gold medalist on the podium, joining Mary Lou Retton, Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin in an elite club of U.S. gymnasts. Poised, confident, strong and classy, Douglas was stunning as she executed vaults, leaps, twists that seemed to defy the laws of physics. In a sport of girls, the 16-year-old was a superwoman.

To most of us, anyway. Some were still obsessing over her (actually quite graceful)  hairstyle, as if her hair mattered more than her stunning work. Worst of all: Over on Twitter, someone called @DarkBeige posted, "Watching gymnastics on bbc3. This may make me a Paedo."

And there, in 140 characters or less, is the problem with today's gymnastics.

As elite-level athletes get younger and younger, gymnastics boasts some of the youngest. Gymnastics is also the girliest of the competitions: In no other summer sport is heavy makeup, thick eyeliner and shellacked, glittery hair part of the uniform. (Though bravo, Gabby Douglas, on the tasteful styling.) Add to that a culture that worships youth and actually has terms like the "fairer" and "weaker" sex, and you get a recipe for a lot of confusion, at best. Is it appropriate to watch leotard-clad, heavily made-up teenagers twisting and hurling themselves in impressive, unimaginable ways, as DarkBeige wondered? Would their appearance be less of an issue if they wore something more congruent with their skills and less focused on femininity – a ninja outfit, perhaps?

The questions surrounding the cosmetic aspects of the sport can be endlessly distracting. They bury the much darker consequence of a culture that marginalizes and silences girls and women and trusts men in authority without batting an eye.

This year's headlines about child abuse by football coach Jerry Sandusky at Penn State  came just after Don Peters, former coach of the U.S. national gymnastics team, resigned after being accused of having sex with one of his underage athletes.  Both scandals made it easy for us to point fingers instead of looking at the issue up close.

Sexual predators don't target only young girls and boys. It happens in swimming, too. USA Swimming, has had its own sexual-abuse scandals, according to one investigative report from ABC News.

Over the past 10 years, 36 of USA Swimming's 12,000 member coaches
have been expelled from the sport for "inappropriate behavior with underage athletes," and further allegations and investigations are pending.

USA Swimming, the report suggested, has swept the problem under the rug -- in the interest of saving face and not jeopardizing the tremendous sums of money it receives from major sponsorships.


Then there's Kayla Harrison. Also on the heels of the Sandusky case, she spoke with reporters about the ordeal she suffered at the hands of her first judo coach, Daniel Doyle. He began molesting her when she was 13 and the abuse escalated until she finally spoke out at 16. Instead of going after the gym or the United States Judo Federation, Harrison's mother went after Doyle's car windows with a baseball bat, then made sure her daughter was both safe and in the hands of a new coach who would not only respect her but train her to world championships. Now Doyle is serving a 10-year prison sentence and Harrison is at the top of her sport.

At first Harrison was reluctant to tell her story because, she told USA Today, "I didn't want people to think that judo was some sport full of creeps. It's not."

I'm with Harrison. Sports aren't responsible for child sexual abuse; one villainous, rotten coach (or even 36 out 12,000) does not make an entire sport dangerous territory for little girls. The sooner we all stop fretting over what female athletes should wear (answer: whatever they want) and start calling out abusive attitudes and actions of the individuals in their care, the more girls and women can look to sports for the good they can do and start kicking some serious butt.

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Meg Heery is a freelance editor and a regular contributor to the Jersey City Independent and NEW magazine. (On Twitter, check for her more frequent notes on the Games@megheery.)



See also:

Christine Stark, "Becoming Glory: Kicking Goals to Transcend the Night, A Memoir." On the Issues Magazine, Spring 2012.


Zerlina Maxwell, "Aspiring for Medals: Watching New Gymnastic Generations." On the Issues Magazine, Spring 2012.

Stephanie Gilmore, "Students Draw the Line on Sexual Violence." Cafe, Spring 2010.


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