Why you should care
Because sexual abuse in sports has gone on for far too long.
OZY Newsmakers: Deep dives on the names you need to know.
The image should haunt the U.S. Olympic Committee for decades to come.
It’s Aly Raisman, but not how we remembered her from 2012 — not the shy Jewish teenager whose poised and cheery floor routine to “Hava Nagila” won her gold medals and hearts as that summer’s most decorated U.S. gymnast. Instead, it’s Aly Raisman the adult, able to fight for herself, her hair pinned back, her lips taut. When listening, her eyes are distant, as if watching a terrible storm come in from the sea.
A haunting, horrible feeling rolls in as an astounding 156 survivors, including Raisman, speak against Larry Nassar, a public bloodletting only made possible by the decision from Judge Rosemarie Aquilina to give every victim the voice they had been denied. This week, Nassar, the longtime USA Gymnastics doctor who used his position of power to sexually abuse girls as young as 6, was sentenced to between 40 and 175 years in prison.
But Raisman’s quest does not end here. She’s emerging as an ever more powerful voice to address the way institutions shield unimaginable behavior. “This may not be what you thought you were getting into,” one of the most decorated gymnasts in U.S. history said, directing her courtroom remarks to new USA Gymnastics CEO Kerry Perry, “but you will be judged by how you deal with it.”
While this scene has been shocking to those on the outside, it’s hardly surprising that Raisman has emerged as the determined face of those calling for change. At 15, she was molested by Nassar while training for the London Olympics, yet she went on to lead the American women to their first team gold medal overseas, along with two more medals of her own. Named team captain for both the London and 2016 Rio Olympics, Raisman has long been known as an old soul. Younger gymnasts call her “Grandma Aly,” partly because, as fellow gymnast Gabby Douglas explained in 2016, she “goes to bed [early] and takes a lot of naps and sleeps a lot and is just, you know, a health nut.” Now-resigned USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny then called her “the one who’s always looking out for everybody.”
Raisman continues to do so — by taking on the organizations that once lauded her. She criticized tepid responses from USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee, which she says are aimed more on avoiding blame than enacting change to avoid future abuse. “They are still not acknowledging its [sic] own role in the mess. ZERO accountability,” Raisman wrote after USOC CEO Scott Blackmun released a statement that laid blame on the USA Gymnastics board. She also called for USA Gymnastics to stop sending gymnasts to Karolyi Ranch in Texas, the training — and, for Nassar, preying — grounds for the nation’s elite gymnasts since 2001. (USA Gymnastics cut ties with the ranch last week.) Raisman is advocating for an independent investigation into the sport, testifying that “this monster was also the architect of policies and procedures that are supposed to protect athletes from sexual abuse for both USA Gymnastics and the USOC.”
Thoughts on USOC's statement pic.twitter.com/hygTV6nNXd— Alexandra Raisman (@Aly_Raisman) January 23, 2018
When asked for comment, the USOC pointed OZY to a public apology to Team USA published Wednesday, shortly after criticism from Raisman and others had reached critical mass: “We have said [sorry] in other contexts, but we have not been direct enough with you,” the letter reads. It vowed to create a better culture around reporting abuse, change the governance board of USA Gymnastics and expand funding for treatment and counseling.
There are questions as to how much one woman can really do. Predatory cultures frequently survive major scandals, and it’s easy to imagine that the Nassar case could be written off as the heinous act of a sick man rather than a sign of systemic problems. Perhaps the problematic practices of Team USA will be swept under the rug once the media hordes move on to other sex scandals in Hollywood and Washington.
But as the #MeToo movement spreads, part of Raisman’s staying power will be her steadfast position at the pinnacle of American athletics. Raisman hasn’t ruled out competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which would make her one of just a few female gymnasts to participate in three Games. Still, she hasn’t started training just yet. After solely focusing on gymnastics since she was 8 years old, the Needham, Massachusetts, native is trying other stuff: “I like boxing. I started taking tennis lessons,” she said at the Forbes Under 30 Summit event last fall, before adding, “It’s nice to not have to work out to try to be perfect all the time.”
That October stage in Boston seems far removed from her current role. But the world has been her stage for most of this decade. While challenging her own sport could be her most daring acrobatic feat to date, bet on Raisman to nail a perfect landing.