Dave Hannigan: Sinister story lies hidden beneath a sport that enthrals America

USA Gymnastics coming under the spotlight for ignoring sex abuse allegations

As soon as returning home, the USA gymnastics team will embark on a now traditional 36-city nationwide tour to cash in on the sport’s popularity. Photograph: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

As soon as returning home, the USA gymnastics team will embark on a now traditional 36-city nationwide tour to cash in on the sport’s popularity. Photograph: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

 

In October, 1998, USA Gymnastics received a fax regarding a coach named Bill McCabe. Over six pages, Florida gym owner Jan Giunipero outlined a litany of disturbing allegations made against McCabe at nine different facilities and urged that parents and children be made aware of his proclivities. One year later, Dan Dickey, another gym owner, wrote to USA Gymnastics about an incident involving McCabe and a 15-year-old cheerleader and stated that he should be “locked in a cage before someone is raped”. Around that time, McCabe began regularly abusing at least one under-age gymnast in his charge.

Between the first warning from Giunipero and a judge sentencing him to 30 years in prison for what he described as “egregious perversions” against children in 2007, McCabe opened two gyms in Georgia, often trading on his national credentials as a skill evaluator with USA Gymnastics. It was only in 2006, after he had been formally charged with sexual exploitation of minors, that he finally had his coaching certification revoked by the sport’s governing body. In the interim, he molested several young girls, often photographing them in the changing rooms and posting their pictures on the internet.

“USA Gymnastics failed at this,” said Lisa Ganser, whose daughter was a victim of McCabe’s. “It didn’t have to happen to my daughter and it didn’t have to happen to other little girls.”

Baffling failure

The baffling failure to act on the information furnished to them about McCabe (on four different occasions by different people), was apparently par for the course with USA Gymnastics when it came to abusive coaches. That is the only conclusion to be drawn from a lengthy and thorough investigation by the Indianapolis Star, the largest newspaper in Indiana where the sport is headquartered. For those who have lived through the Catholic Church and USA and Irish swimming debacles, the narrative is all too depressingly familiar.

Whether motivated by some demented desire to protect the sport or the individuals involved, people in positions of power routinely refused to act against those accused of crimes against children. They neglected to involve law enforcement and, essentially gave the perpetrators licence to continue to prey on the most vulnerable, often watching as coaches moved quickly from place to place once accusations flew.

Second Captains

Although USA Gymnastics refused to confirm how many allegations it receives annually, the Indianapolis Star learned the governing body has complaint dossiers on over 50 coaches that it, literally, keeps in a drawer. The newspaper unearthed evidence of four particular cases (including one former national coach of the year) that followed the same troubling pattern. Accusations were allowed to gather dust for years as at least 14 underage gymnasts were abused.

The story of Mark Schiefelbein in Tennessee is typical. When a 10-year-old girl told her parents in 2002 that he’d been touching her inappropriately and videotaping her, he was eventually sentenced to 36 years for charges that included child rape and aggravated sexual battery. The family’s nightmare was compounded when, during the investigation, prosecutors found USA Gymnastics had a three-inch thick file of previous complaints against Schiefelbein from gyms in four different states. These only came to light when the organisation was subpoenaed to open its records by the court.

“USA Gymnastics has a long and proactive history of developing policy to protect its athletes and will remain diligent in evaluating new and best practices which should be implemented,” said Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics since 2005, in an official response to the revelations. “We recognise our leadership role is important and remain committed to working with the entire gymnastics community and other important partners to promote a safe and fun environment for children.”

Cashing in on its popularity

The publication of the report last week was timely because gymnastics is, along with swimming, the mainstay of the prime time Olympics coverage on NBC. Every four years, America is enthralled anew by precocious talents performing seemingly impossible feats on the various apparatus. Almost as soon as returning home, the national team embarks on a now traditional 36-city nationwide tour, cashing in on its popularity, playing to packed arenas. Over the next few weeks the 3,000 or so gyms across the country will also see a massive upsurge in new members as parents bring along children newly enamoured of the sport.

This year’s post-Olympic festivities should be backgrounded by USA Gymnastics coming under the spotlight like never before. Several senators have issued statements calling for the organisation to explain its actions and chances are Penny and others may be brought to Washington very soon to testify about the scandal under oath.

Complaint dossiers

There is also a civil suit pending against USA Gymnastics arising out of its handling of the McCabe case. Not to mention the Indianapolis Star is continuing legal efforts to force the opening of all the association’s complaint dossiers against coaches.

While none of those working with the Olympic squad have been implicated to this point, the reaction when the story reached Rio de Janeiro last week was telling.

“We try to keep the kids away from that right now for this moment,” said Mihai Brestyan, the US women’s Olympic team assistant coach. “We have concerns but we are here to do the best we can. It’s a distraction and I don’t understand why it came out now.”

Which sounds like some of those working in the sport still don’t quite understand the issue.

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