Journalists were slow on the Nassar story. Here’s why.

In 2015, at a press conference during the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, Jessica O’Beirne asked a question. O’Beirne, host of a popular gymnastics podcast called GymCastic, wanted to know whether the women’s team from the United States—which had just won its third consecutive gold medal—had been told why, during the finals, two of their teammates had not been allowed on the floor.

“The whole room stopped and stared at me,” O’Beirne recalls. The athletes “looked at their coaches, looked at me, and then looked at their coaches again.” Leslie King, the vice president of communications for USA Gymnastics, the sport’s governing body, interjected. “She turned her back to the athletes, put her arms out like she was protecting them from bullets, and said, ‘I don’t think that’s a question for the athletes. I’ll get you an answer later,’” O’Beirne says. O’Beirne was later told that athletes who weren’t competing were not allowed on the floor, “which was a lie.” When she offered examples proving the opposite, she says, “they didn’t have an answer for that.”

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Later, other members of the media who had been in the room scolded O’Beirne for asking the question, warning that she’d put her press credentials at risk and soured the win for the competitors. “I was like, what is this? What is happening?” O’Beirne remembers. “You should never have done that,” they said. “You just ruined it for them.”

O’Beirne says that tightly controlled media access, even for uncontroversial questions or requests such as interviews with athletes, is typical of USAG. The organization’s reticence has earned it vicious criticism in recent years for its handling of the fall of Larry Nassar, who molested children while serving as the women’s team’s official doctor. USAG cut ties with Nassar in 2015, and news reports of his assaults followed. In November, the US Olympic Committee moved to strip the organization of its designation as the official governing body of the sport. But questions remain about why it took so long to uncover serial abuse, and about how the sport as a whole has handled numerous other instances of mistreatment.

There is no easy explanation. Women’s gymnastics is unlike any other sport, in that its top athletes are so often children. It’s organized both on the individual level and in teams; there is no local franchise for kids to buy jerseys in support of, no mascot, no mainstream, year-round spectator culture. Sports like basketball and football attract beat writers in a way that wouldn’t work as easily for gymnastics, which has, historically, been left absent a critical press. “There was a glorification of sacrifice in gymnastics,” Blythe Lawrence, a freelance gymnastics writer who has also worked for the International Federation of Gymnastics (known as the FIG), the international governing body of competitive gymnastics, says of most coverage in the past. “You watch fluff pieces on NBC and you hear about girls who didn’t go to prom, took correspondence courses instead of going to school, parents uprooted so their daughter could train,” she continues. “I remember as a child wanting that, I was so awed by what these gymnasts could do, it all seemed so glam and special. When I think back on it as an adult, it makes me cringe a bit.”

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All this has assisted the USAG in controlling coverage—to obscure the full picture of what it takes to reach the Olympics and to normalize harsh training methods—both in the general and specialized press. Lawrence says that in her experience USAG has never given directives about what kinds of questions journalists can ask, but it has exerted control over access. (Representatives from USAG did not respond to requests for comment by press time.) O’Beirne says that this discourages probing—even beyond the restrictions imposed in other sports. “It’s not like you could walk up to a baseball clubhouse or football locker room and start talking,” Joan Ryan, a former sports columnist who published one of the first investigations of elite gymnastics, says. “Most reporters saw gymnasts a few times a year and never developed a relationship with any of them.”

In the past two years, the onslaught of attention to gymnastics has empowered athletes to speak out—several cite journalism as helping make their whistleblowing possible—but it has not necessarily improved media relations with the sport’s institutions. “While coaches are not pro-Nassar, or pro-abuse, they’re very much of the opinion that everything that is happening is ruining the image of gymnastics and they are prioritizing image over athletes,” Lauren Hopkins, a writer who runs Gymternet, an online outlet, says. “This is the vibe I get from a lot of coaches. There are so many people trying to protect the sport.”

 

The Indianapolis Star has received well-deserved praise for cracking the Nassar story wide open, in the fall of 2016. But reporters there were not the first to cover abuse at the sport’s highest levels. Twenty-six years ago, Ryan, then a sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner, was assigned a story on the training efforts of elite gymnasts and figure skaters. It was just before the 1992 Summer Olympics, to be held in Barcelona, Spain. Ryan was a seasoned sportswriter who had covered the Winter Olympics in Calgary in 1988, but she was new to gymnastics. “The one thing rattling around in my brain was that girls can be the best in the world in certain sports before they have their driver’s license, and that just didn’t happen on the male side,” Ryan recalls. So she got to work, spending three months researching the insular lives of these impressive athletes. “We set out to answer the question of ‘What does intensive, elite training do to bodies and psyches that are still developing? What is the price girls might pay to be doing this training and dealing with this kind of pressure at an early age? I was really struck, especially by gymnastics, by what I found.”

Then as now, mainstream press outlets only covered gymnastics during the Olympics. (There was only one major dedicated gymnastics outlet that covered the sport year round, International Gymnast, a monthly magazine founded in 1956.) “They were more of an industry magazine rather than journalistic,” Ryan recalls. “Which is not to say they didn’t do good stories, but they weren’t going to pull the curtain back on what was going on. They weren’t going to look for trouble.”

Ryan published a series of stories about the intense pressure gymnasts face, and the ramifications—broken wrists, bulimia, cutting. Afterward, Ryan couldn’t let the subject go; she took a year-long leave from her day job and, in 1995, published a book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, a scathing exposé on gymnastics and figure skating, this time focusing on the athletes who don’t make it to the elite level.

“In the dark troughs along the road to the Olympics lay the bodies of the girls who stumbled on the way, broken by the work, pressure, and humiliation,” Ryan writes in the book’s introduction. Throughout, she profiles child athletes who had been abused. Some had broken necks and backs. There was a 13-year-old who had been driven to cut her arms and legs with a razor blade, and another who slit her wrists when she didn’t make the Olympic team. One girl was so desperate to perform better that, in an attempt to lose weight, she’d starved herself to death. Another had been sexually abused by her coach and yet another by her teammate’s father.

 

While coaches are not pro-Nassar, or pro-abuse, they’re very much of the opinion that everything that is happening is ruining the image of gymnastics and they are prioritizing image over athletes.

 

Ryan rang the alarm about dangerous practices and a toxic culture at the sport’s elite level, born of Americans’ obsession with winning. The conditions that she describes are exactly those that gymnasts today say contribute to an atmosphere that enables predators. Just three years after Ryan’s book came out, Nassar would begin abusing the six-year old child of a family friend.

Reporting the book was a challenge. “I didn’t get to talk to anybody,” Ryan says. At meets, she was shut out by USAG officials. “It didn’t run itself like a regular sport in that way,” she adds. “Almost all of them were kids. You couldn’t pull them aside and have a cup of coffee and talk to them. There was zero access to any of them. And then the coaches were very wary of media and of the questions I was asking, so word got around quickly to stay away from me.”

When the book came out, it was met with critical acclaim. But not among the ranks of gymnastics leaders. “I literally was the devil,” Ryan remembers. “I was hated from top to bottom.” The book had been especially tough on Bela Karolyi, a prominent coach who, with his wife Martha, had defected from Romania to coach in the US. Settling in Texas, they opened a gym that, by the late eighties, was known for training a number of top gymnasts and for having imported to America frowned-upon elements of Eastern European style: “The blank faces, the abnormally small bodies, the bandaged ankles, broken wrists, and compressed vertebrae,” Ryan writes. Bela Karolyi once compared Michelle Hilse, a 13-year-old gymnast, to a cockroach, Ryan reports, and kicked Hilse out of his gym the first time she cried after one of his tirades, calling her an “idiot.” Ryan interviewed Karolyi, giving him a chance to respond to athletes’ descriptions of his methods. Later, he told a reporter from USA Today that she had never spoken to him. (Ryan had recorded the conversation.)

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The revelations in the book led USAG to create a handbook for parents, on risks and best practices, along with a credentialing program for coaches. But in 1996, the year after Ryan’s exposé was published, the US Olympic women’s gymnastics team won gold, something it had never done before. “It was a happy story,” Lawrence says. “It was a very American story of controversy and redemption and fighting through it all.” That year, Martha Karolyi was head coach of the team and “there was a general idea in the air that Martha was softer, no less disciplined, but maybe fairer [than her husband Bela],” Lawrence explains. Martha was seen as the person to lead the team forward, she adds. “There was this impression that everything was fine.”

“You couldn’t argue with the results,” Lawrence explains. Though wins don’t justify abuse, she says, the Karolyis’ training wasn’t recognized as dangerous at the time. “You thought they’d cooked up a perfect system. It wasn’t draconian like in Eastern Europe in the seventies and eighties when children were taken and put in camps and went home twice a year. You could live at home and even go to high school if you wanted. It seemed like all these lessons from Ryan’s book had been learned.”

The success of the team—and the media’s obsession with Keri Strugg, who secured a win by performing on a badly injured ankle—helped quiet whatever concerns had been spurred by Ryan’s book. In 2004, the women’s all-around gold medalist went to an American, and that has continued in every Olympics since. The era of American dominance in gymnastics had begun. The all-around gold medal winners at the FIG world championship meet—which is annual, except in Olympic years—was American all but two years from 2005 onward. Over the same period, American women won team gold five times.

Mainstream media coverage of gymnastics mostly reflected that optimism, and still paid attention almost exclusively during the Olympics. Major gymnastics outlets specialized in meet reporting and  athlete and coach profiles.

Ominous signs lingered: A 2003 CNN documentary on the Parkettes National Gymnastics Training Center, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, features an interview with the parents of a seven-year-old standout named Ashley who had been training on a broken ankle. The girl’s parents tell her repeatedly, in sweet voices, to “suck it up.” Her mother cautions, “not too much” just before Ashley is seen hopping on one leg from the car to the gym, where she participated in a rigorous physical evaluation in pursuit of an invitation to an elite training camp.

But for the most part, close examinations of training regimens were limited and curated. Lawrence says that filmmakers who approached the FIG wanting to make documentaries about what it’s like to prepare for the Olympics were usually told to contact USAG, which “frequently turned down,” requests. The dominant narrative was of intense personal dedication and deprivation, in pursuit of medals.

 

All the while, gymnastics officials sought to steer coverage toward the positive. Criticism that could not be dismissed was described as being of the past. “Every now and again questions about something like weigh-ins would come up,” Lawrence says, “and the general idea was that was something that happened in the bad old days and we have taken care of that, we have learned from that.”

When attempts were made to report on allegations of abuse, they failed to gain traction. In 2004, Scott Reid, an investigative reporter at the Orange County Register, wrote a series investigating what he called a “Darwinian” system of training that caused high rates of injury, surgery, and eating disorders. But that coverage was buried when, around the same time, stories of athletes doping across sports became predominant, and anti-doping campaigns began. In 2011, Reid reported another article, focused on how USAG handled accusations of abuse made against coaches; that, too, was overshadowed, this time by a sex-abuse scandal within the football team at Pennsylvania State University. Prominent retired gymnasts began to speak up about negative experiences they had during their careers, including Vanessa Atler, who attested to having an eating disorder; Dominique Moceanu and Jennifer Sey published books, but their memoirs failed to resonate at the level of bigger sports stories.

Before the Nassar story broke, “It could be difficult to have a conversation with an athlete about sex abuse and it would never have occured to anybody that that was, maybe, a necessary conversation to have,” Lawrence explains. “I feel deeply ashamed that I went to nationals and worlds every year from 2009 to 2016 and it never occured to me that there might be something like this.”

Within the gymnastics world, there have been some exceptions: independent critics like O’Beirne, who have coupled their meet coverage with fierce commentary—and in some cases, breaking news—on their platforms and on social media. She started GymCastic in 2012 and early on tackled mainstream media portrayals of the sport; on the sixth episode, Dvora Meyers—then the author of Unorthodox Gymnastics, a blog, now a staff writer at Deadspin—discusses “the diva plotline that was imposed on Russian gymnasts” during the coverage of the 2012 Olympics in London. (Meyers has covered the Nassar scandal extensively for Deadspin and has in the past tackled subjects like coded language about gymnasts’ bodies and racism in the sport.)

As the podcast grew, O’Beirne prioritized coverage of abuse. In 2013, O’Beirne dedicated an episode to Marvin Sharp, a former Olympic coach who was arrested on charges of child pornography and accused of molesting an athlete. In another episode the same year, she interviewed Reid, the reporter behind the Orange County Register’s investigations. Hours before the Indianapolis Star’s story went live, O’Beirne published a copy of the lawsuit brought by Rachel Denhollander and Jamie Dantzscher that, without naming Nassar, catalyzed his fall from grace. (The Indianapolis Star identified him by name.)

 

I gushed about how great he was and he turned out to be the most prolific pedophile in the history of sports.

 

On December 5, 2013, O’Beirne hosted Nassar as a guest, and showered him with praise. She now says she has left the episode—renamed “Serial Pedophile Ex-Doctor Larry Nassar interview”—up for sake of the integrity of her show and as an example of how the media was groomed, too. “Obviously I was wrong,” she explains. “I gushed about how great he was and he turned out to be the most prolific pedophile in the history of sports.” She feels “terrible” about that, but when she receives criticism for continuing to make the episode available, she replies, “It’s the truth.”

Since then, O’Beirne has hosted controversial figures like Mary Lee Tracy—a coach who was hired by USAG this year and quickly resigned under pressure for inappropriately contacting Aly Raisman, an Olympic gymnast and Nassar survivor —in an attempt to foster healing conversations that acknowledge the wrongs of the past. “I grew up in the culture of Bela and Marta and thought that they were it, because they were it,” Tracy says in the interview. “We all saw that and when they then became the leaders you had to follow that leadership or you weren’t going to have a place.”

Hopkins has used her social media accounts to offer frank commentary to supplement Gymternet. When the Nassar story broke, Hopkins thought of USAG’s control over access as she considered the best way to add her voice to the conversation. “I had reservations at first, being new to the media world,” she says. “My site was two years old and I was afraid of losing credentials. But they can’t take my credentials for covering news. We have to write about it.” Other prominent voices come from Lawrence, online outlet The Balance Beam Situation, and a robust community of superfans on Twitter who have not been shy in their criticism of USAG.

Inside Gymnastics has offered aggregated news coverage of Nassar and the ongoing saga at USAG, publishing press releases and occasional opinion pieces. International Gymnast’s Amanda Turner has done original reporting on the site’s blog, and the magazine dedicated an entire print issue to survivors. (Representatives from Inside Gymnastics and International Gymnast did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

FloGymnastics, a subscription service that broadcasts gymnastics meets, maintains a blog and produces documentary films on athletes and training. “We don’t consider ourselves journalists in the traditional sense,” Nick Schenck, an executive at FloSports, the parent company of FloGymnastics, says. “But that doesn’t mean we look at it with rose colored glasses.” Still, most of the coverage at FloGymnastics is about competitions, not the culture of the sport or fallen coaches; the site does not publish investigative reporting. “We want to grow the sport,” Rebecca Pang a senior content marketer at FloSports, says. When asked if investigations will appear on the site in the future, Schenck replies, “Never say never.”

In the mainstream, some writers have publicly contemplated how they have covered USAG, and what they would do differently in hindsight. Will Graves, a sportswriter at the Associated Press who reports on gymnastics, says that he spent enough time around the American gymnastics program between 2012 and 2016 to hear murmurs about a toxic culture. “We would ask questions but sort of in a polite way, not hold people’s feet to the fire necessarily because … they don’t know me, I’m trying to get them to trust me because I do have a lot of respect for the sport and the people in the sport,” Graves says on a recent episode of GymCastic. “It’s tough. I sit there and think well, why didn’t I press coach X about Marta’s story Y or Marta’s story Z? …There was very much a vibe of we don’t want to really rock the boat.”

He goes on to say that, when he reflects on his coverage of the Rio Olympics, “I kind of really soft-played it there, and that’s the kind of stuff that I think going forward…you’ve got to keep that chip [on your shoulder].” Since then, “I’ve changed my approach,” he adds. “Whatever emerges out of this, there needs to be more skepticism on my part and my cohort’s part in terms of keeping those people accountable and not just saying well, we’re winning gold medals and isn’t this great.”

Such is the paradox of covering sports: sportswriters and commentators (many of whom are former athletes themselves) have a vested interest in the survival and flourishing of the sports they cover. For gymnastics—which is far less understood and watched that other major American sports—the stakes are even higher to bolster its reputation and attract new fans. But how do you balance a desire to increase the profile of your sport by writing and talking about it in the press with the responsibility to cover it with the kind of journalistic skepticism that, sometimes, requires detachment?

“The media needs to be less afraid of pissing off USAG and losing credentials and more focused on representing all areas of the sport,” O’Beirne says. When it comes to abuse, she continues, “There’s this idea that this is ‘just gymnastics’ and I would like to see the gymnastics media remind people that this is also music, volleyball, and dance. Anywhere there are kids. We have to change. It’s not just the culture of how we cover sports, it’s American culture and we can be a force for that. I don’t want to see us ever go back to not talking about this.”

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Alexandria Neason is CJR's Staff Writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow. Previously, she was a reporter at The Village Voice and covered education for the Teacher Project, a partnership between Columbia Journalism School and Slate. A team she worked on won the 2016 Education Writers Association award for news features. Follow her on Twitter @alexandrianeas.