Disturbing allegations have preceded the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janiero for one of the Summer Games' most visible sports and by the country that has often dominated it. The Indianapolis Star on Thursday published a lengthy investigation into USA Gymnastics, the sport's national governing body, over "many allegations of sexual abuse by coaches" and a failure to notify authorities in cases that go back to the 1990s.
The 4,000-word report included USA Gymnastics disregarding allegations or ignoring them unless they were voiced by a victim or a victim's parents. According to court records, coaches abused at least 14 underage gymnasts after warnings. The abuses took places in Indianapolis, Tennessee, Rhode Island and Georgia.
Perhaps the most egregious case involved Marvin Sharp, who was named USA Gymnastics 2010 Coach of the Year. In 2011, the organization received complaints of "inappropriate touching of minors and warned that he shouldn't be around children." It took other accusations for USA Gymnastics to report Sharp to police four years later. He was arrested on accusations he fondled a 14-year-old student and after thousands of child pornography images were found in his home and business. Sharp committed suicide in jail.
Other examples shed light on USA Gymnastics' silence on the issue. According to police records, a Tennessee coach had a "thick file of complaints" from USA Gymnastics before he was charged and later convicted in 2003 of aggravated sexual battery and aggravated sexual exploitation of a 10-year-old girl.
USA Gymnastics also didn't report a Georgia coach who had received four complaints in 1998 and who later began molesting an underage girl in 1999 while continuing to coach youth gymnastics for seven more years. The coach pleaded guilty to federal sexual exploitation charges and is serving a 30-year sentence.
The allegations against USA Gymnastics prompt comparisons to the Penn State child sex abuse scandal in which longtime assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was charged and later convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse of children. Famed head coach Joe Paterno and several former Penn State assistant coaches were alleged to know of complaints about Sandusky's actions but didn't report anything to law enforcement.
"It's particularly concerning when it comes to any sort of sport or an organization that represents sports that have one-on-one contact between children and coaches. Gymnastics is not the only sport out there that kind of gives this sort of close access to coaches and kids. But because of that there really should be additional safety measures put in place in order to protect them," Ju’Riese Colon, executive director of outreach and prevention for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, told International Business Times in a phone interview.
Colon stated that some organizations have done a good job of overseeing staff. She cited how the YMCA has very strong policies in effect that require volunteers and staff members to go through certain levels of training and reporting mechanisms.
USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny, who declined to be interviewed by the Star, responded to the report with a statement on Thursday.
“Addressing issues of sexual misconduct has been important to USA Gymnastics for many years, and the organization is committed to promoting a safe environment for its athletes. We find it appalling that anyone would exploit a young athlete or child in this manner, and recognize the effect this behavior can have on a person’s life. USA Gymnastics has been proactive in helping to educate the gymnastics community over the years, and will continue to take every punitive action available within our jurisdiction, and cooperate fully with law enforcement.
“USA Gymnastics believes it has a duty to report to law enforcement whenever circumstances warrant, as was the case when I initiated the report of Marvin Sharp. USA Gymnastics has been assured by law enforcement that it went above and beyond its legal obligations to report on this matter. USA Gymnastics has, in the strongest terms, encouraged anyone who believes abuse has occurred to contact law enforcement and frequently works with law enforcement on these matters.
“USA Gymnastics seeks first-hand knowledge whenever allegations of abuse arise as the most reliable source to take action and as outlined in its bylaws and policies. The organization has continually reviewed its best practices on how it addresses these issues and has been among the first to initiate new policies and procedures including publishing a list of banned coaches and instituting national background checks.
“We remain committed to this effort and have been working closely with the U.S. Olympic Committee to help keep athletes safe in all sports.
“With the Judge considering whether to dismiss the pending lawsuit in Georgia, there are limits on what the organization can say publicly during litigation. Nonetheless, USA Gymnastics provided the Indianapolis Star with substantial information on its policies and procedures to demonstrate the organization's commitment to the safety of its athletes within the scope of its jurisdiction and governance structure. We feel the Star left out significant facts that would have painted a more accurate picture of our efforts.”
The U.S. has won 101 total medals in gymnastics since 1896, including 33 gold medals. Only the Soviet Union has won more overall medals (182) and more gold medals (72).