Gaining confidence will be harder than winning medals for USA Gymnastics

Larry Nassar, a former U.S. gymnastics team doctor who pleaded guilty in November 2017 to sexual assault charges, appears in court during his sentencing hearing in Eaton County Court in Charlotte, Michigan, United States on February 5, 2018. REUTERS / Rebecca Cook

TOKYO, July 22 (Reuters) – The most closely watched members of the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team in Tokyo won’t be superstar Simone Biles or her fellow athletes, but the doctors and therapists hired to treat them like the sport works for put years of scandal behind.

After the Rio 2016 Games, USA Gymnastics was rocked by revelations of systemic athlete abuse that sparked massive resignations, lawsuits, investigations and bankruptcy filings.

It also forced the introduction of long overdue health and safety protocols that prohibit medical staff, coaches, judges and other event staff from spending one-on-one time with a athlete, and which will be visible in Tokyo.

“I’ve only been in the organization for a year and a half, so I don’t know what it was like in Rio, but with SafeSport now in place, we have… prevention policies,” Kim Kranz, USA Gymnastics Manager of the health and well-being of athletes told Reuters.

The US Center for SafeSport is an independent, non-profit organization that provides guidelines for sports on how to provide safe environments for athletes and how to train coaches and administrators.

USA Gymnastics will have a seven-member medical team – five physiotherapists and two reservists – in Tokyo. “There are a lot of rules now (they have)… to follow,” Kranz added.

These include the need for formal athlete consent to treat them, the use of privacy curtains only when athletes are receiving delicate treatment, and the presence of two adults when there is a minor athlete in the medical field.

Many of the new rules were implemented in a rush to correct failures in a system that allowed former U.S. gymnastics physician Larry Nassar to tackle hundreds of young athletes.

A year after the Rio Games, Nassar was sentenced by a federal court to 60 years in prison for possession of child pornography.

The following year he was also sentenced to terms of up to 175 years and up to 125 years, respectively, in two separate Michigan courts for assaulting young gymnasts in his care, including medalists of Olympic gold medalists Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney.

HAMMERED SCANDAL

But even as the current team led by Biles – herself one of the many who were abused by Nassar – prepared to leave for Tokyo, the sport continued to be scandalized.

On July 14, the internal watchdog for the US Department of Justice released a report sharply criticizing the FBI for dragging its feet in investigating allegations of abuse against Nassar. Read more

In between, there have been other disturbing revelations of abuse.

John Geddert, head coach of the US women’s team that won team gold at the London 2012 Olympics, has been charged with sexual assault and human trafficking. He committed suicide on February 26 shortly after court documents were filed for his arrest. Read more

Other coaches have been suspended for verbal and emotional abuse of athletes, including Maggie Haney, who coached fellow Rio gold medalist Laurie Hernandez.

Kranz admitted that while the American gymnasts felt like they were in a safe and protected environment in Tokyo, it would take a lot longer for them to regain their confidence.

“It’s going to take a while,” she said. “I think they’re seeing an improvement, but I don’t think the athletes are quite ready to give it their all and say, ‘You’re awesome’ … It takes a long time to get that back.”

When asked if, given the scandals, the best therapists and medical staff avoided gymnastics, she replied, “I guess it could have been at first, but I didn’t see it. “

There were a lot of qualified therapists lined up for Olympic missions and ready to undergo scrutiny, ”she added.

“We will take a very close look at the people who work (with) our medical (teams) … These are usually people that the medical team knows, but when they don’t, we look at their references, their backgrounds. professionals, have undergone a background check and SafeSport training before they are allowed out and work.

Reporting by Steve Keating in Tokyo; edited by John Stonestreet

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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