Aly Raisman’s harrowing testimony a plea for ongoing vigilance
Ex-US Olympic gymnast suffered gravely at the hands of ‘decorated’ team doctor Larry Nassar
Aly Raisman (R) of the United States is congratulated by Simone Biles (L) after competing on the Women’s Floor final at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images
There was an understandable protest this week when Time magazine failed to include actress Rose McGowan on its cover to mark the publication’s iconic Person of the Year which, for 2017, was bequeathed to the women behind the #MeToo movement.
As it happened, there was an interview with the actress inside the magazine as it was her voice which originally set in motion the startling number of women speaking out against instances of sexual abuse and sinister behaviour by male power brokers in the entertainment industry ranging across decades.
Those voices served as a kind of paint-stripper to the wall of silence and male acquiescence towards conduct which ranged from boorish to criminal. There was a sense that within Hollywood, the dream-factory of illusion and make-believe, something snapped.
In sport, those stories are all too commonplace. On Thursday, quietly and without much fanfare, the former US Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman published a first-person essay in The Players’ Tribune which included, in full, a transcript of the victim impact statement that she was not permitted to read out in court at the trial of Larry Nassar, the team doctor who had sexually abused Raisman and several of her team-mates over many years.
Nassar had been a highly respected figure in US gymnastics for decades; as Raisman points out in her letter, he was ‘decorated’ by the governing body of his own sport and by the United States Olympic Committee and even sat on an advisory board which set policies to protect athletes from the very abuse he perpetrated on girls over three decades.
It’s important to remember that Raisman was not abused in the grainy 1970s or 1980s, when safety procedures were non-existent. She was part of the dominant and celebrated US Olympic squads of 2012 and 2016. Those teams were among the most high-profile stories and athletes of both games.
Even within the quest for athletic perfection that drives the Olympic movement, the gymnastics arena is like a unique subculture because their feats are inexplicably alien and specialist in nature.
Most people can run, even it’s just for a bus. So when watching Usain Bolt or Kenenisa Bekele most people can vaguely appreciate and gauge just how mentally good they are at their sport.
But the floor routines or the high bars are different and you can only guess at the solitary hours, the falls, the frustrations, the physical pain that the world’s best endure – when they are little more than children – in order to impress the judges.
The clue is the way their faces crumble into a kind of permanent disappointment if they miss a half-somersault or land a sliver off balance. The difference between gold and nowhere is precarious and unforgiving.
Raisman enjoyed the glory in terms of medals and acclaim but, as her essay makes clear, the cost has been enormous. Now 23 and setting out on her adult and professional life, the psychological trauma caused by Nassar continues, with episodes of anxiety and deep-lying issues with trust.
She details how staying in a hotel while travelling alone for work carries the fear that room service meals might be delivered by a male staff member. In those instances, she holds the door open and stays there for the entire time and then worries that she has hurt that person’s feelings by being so clearly distrusting. The letter is searing in its honesty and is hugely important because of the questions Raisman raises here.
When The Players’ Tribune was established by former baseball god Derek Jeter two years ago, the intention was to give athletes a direct platform on which to speak with their fans: a sort of Speaker’s Corner for the digital age.
What gives Aly Raisman’s essay such unique power is that it is pure testimony to what she endured and, as she stresses, has survived
The idea was that rather than go through the old journalistic ritual of a written or broadcast interview, the stars would communicate directly and without filter. It was the forum that athletes like Kobe Bryant (an investor) and Steve Nash chose to announce their retirement but the first truly viral story was the essay published by baseball star David Ortiz, railing against the portrayal of him as a steroids cheat.
The Players’ Tribune marks another step in sports stars taking control of how they are perceived and represented. But it is not without criticism. It was pointed out that rather than being firsthand accounts, practically all of the essays were ghost written.
There is nothing new about that: practically all of the sports star/celebrity columns that appear in all publications, including this, are composed in just the same way. But the tone of the The Players’ Tribune was to present the athletes’ view as the unvarnished truth.
As Richard Sandomir of the New York Times pointed out in a piece about the new forum: “Providing athletes with unfettered access to fans carries with it the risk that they will lie or shade the truth”. Editorial policy precludes athletes from using it for self-promotion or to leverage for contracts but in general, whatever the athlete says, goes.
What gives Aly Raisman’s essay such unique power is that it is pure testimony to what she endured and, as she stresses, has survived. And the point of publishing a letter that was originally intended to be heard in a court of law was not solely to articulate the gravity of Nassar’s crimes or the ongoing consequences, harrowing as both are.
Her greater purpose is to shine a light on her own organisation and on sports organisations in general, not just in her country but everywhere. Her piece states that one in four girls and one in six boys will be molested before they turn 18. There is a strong likelihood that many of those future abuses will take place while those minors are under the care and supervision of the sports clubs to which they are affiliated.
That is the fear: that the systems remain flawed and loose and prone to the misdeeds of the vilest manipulators
If a behemoth like US gymnastics can be manipulated and used as a shield, as Nassar used it, then what about smaller organisations?
“Until we understand the flaws in their systems,” Raisman writes, “ we can’t be sure that this won’t happen again.”
And that is the fear: that the systems remain flawed and loose and prone to the misdeeds of the vilest manipulators. This country has had a series of high-profile sexual abuse cases in recent years. And it is understandable that the focus has always been on the perpetrator and the deviousness of their methodology.
But there has been virtually no examination of the avenues through which they moved or of the potential looseness and lapses in safeguarding which gives would-be abusers the opportunity to identify and isolate and prey.
There has been no proper examination of just how they got away with it for so long or of why other coaches remained oblivious. It is comforting to think that these lapses, these flaws, cannot take place in this day and age and that each organisation applies rigorous structures. And in the vast majority of cases, that will prove to be the case, with clubs populated by mentors and administrators who are just trying to do their best.
But it would be deeply naive to think that there isn’t already another Larry Nassar (who was sentenced to 60 years in jail on Thursday) out there, in some country and in some sport. And Aly Raisman’s testimony stands as both plea and warning for vigilance always, everywhere.