The 2020 Olympics have ended, but accountability for athletic institutions is just beginning 1 year ago

The 2020 Olympics have ended, but accountability for athletic institutions is just beginning

Women's bravery in confronting the institutions that abuse them is a bigger marvel than any Olympic event

Content warning: This article contains details of sexual abuse, including that of minors.

The Tokyo Olympics drew to a close on Sunday after a dramatic contest that was over a year in the making.

The games, which kept their branding as 'Tokyo 2020' despite taking place in 2021, faced a variety of controversies throughout (and before) their duration.

Already postponed by a year as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, there were debates on whether or not the games should go ahead at all due to concerns of rising cases and the contagious Delta variant.

Shortly before the games were to begin, Tokyo was put into a state of emergency (which is still ongoing), prompting the ban of spectators from all events. Many residents of the Japanese city called for them to be outright cancelled.

But the virus wasn't the only source of contention surrounding the games. If anything, it served to further highlight an array of pre-existing issues – with misogyny probably being the most blatant of them.

First, preparing for Tokyo was a distressing time for athletes who also happened to be new mothers. As a result of the strict rules in place to limit the spread of the virus at the games, no friends nor family were allowed to attend with athletes.

Advertisement

This meant that many athletes faced choosing between going to Tokyo to compete with their teams and staying home to continue breastfeeding their babies. Both athletes and the public pointed out that forcing breastfeeding mothers into an ultimatum was effectively gatekeeping the games from a demographic and punishing women for both parenting and working.

After mounting pressure, organisers gave in and allowed for breastfed babies to attend the games with their competing mothers. But accusations of inequalities, unfairness and failure to consider the welfare of women and girls continued.

During the #MeToo movement, several athletes came forward with claims of sexual abuse by Larry Nassar, the doctor for the US women's national gymnastics team for 18 years. He allegedly abused over 250 girls and young women during his time with the team, including gold medalists McKayla Maroney and Simone Biles.

Now retired from professional gymnastics, McKayla took to social media during Tokyo 2020 to open up more specifically about the horrific abuse she experienced during her time competing for Team USA, and the ways in which USA Gymnastics, the national governing body of gymnastics in the US, allegedly enabled it.

In 2017, Nassar was sentenced to 60 years in prison for his crimes. The same year, McKayla filed a lawsuit against USA Gymnastics (USAG), the US Olympic Committee (USOC), Michigan State University, and Nassar for forcing her to keep quiet by way of a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).

Advertisement

The 25-year-old shared an Instagram post filled with disturbing claims of how the institutions failed to protect her and other young athletes from the abuse, prevented parents from seeing the girls until after the competitions despite many of them being minors, and silenced her from speaking up about the trauma she endured.

"These tweets can be a little rough to read, and I apologise for that," she warned in the post's caption. "I never wanted these things to happen in the first place, let alone have to speak it to the world."

Her claims can be read by swiping here, but like she said, they aren't an easy read:

In another tweet, McKayla elaborated on the separation of athletes and parents, saying the latter were seen as a "distraction" and that her mother tried to take care of her despite the distance or not knowing what was happening behind the scenes.

Advertisement

McKayla has been vocal about her experiences in the hope of holding the institutions accountable, getting the public to grant athletes greater compassion, and showing others who may be struggling that they aren't alone.

Simone also opened up about her experience with the disgraced doctor, which left her confused as to whether or not she had actually been abused.

"All those years, nobody ever told us what like, sexual abuse was," she revealed on an episode of her Facebook Watch show, Simone vs. Herself. "So we didn't really feel like we were going through it, or we were victims."

Credit: Facebook

Simone also said she had wondered whether or not she was being dramatic, and admitted to feeling like "one of the luckier ones" because she "didn't get it as bad" as some of the other girls she knew.

Advertisement

Despite her honesty about everything she has been through in the sport, Simone's decision to pull out of both the team final and the women's individual all-around events due to a case of the "twisties" – a dissociative state that prevents athletes from completing a skill properly and can thereby result in serious injury – was met with shock and criticism.

"I don't think you realise how dangerous this is on hard/competition surfaces," she wrote on Instagram, explaining that it's "petrifying trying to do a skill but not having your mind and body in sync."

"Literally cannot tell up from down," she continued. "It's the craziest feeling ever. Not having an inch of control over your body.

"What's even scarier is since I have no idea where I am in the air I also have NO idea how I am going to land. Or what I am going to land on. Head/hands/feet back…"

Disassociation is also linked to ADHD, which Simone admitted to having back in 2016. Even when medicated, ADHD symptoms are relieved rather than eliminated, meaning disassociation and distraction could still pose a very real threat to Simone's performances – and therefore her health.

"Physical health is mental health," the gymnast rightfully added, saying that she shouldn't have to explain why she put her health first.

Given all that Simone has faced as a result of her gymnastics career, from sexual abuse and subsequent trauma, mental health struggles, racism and more, the world should feel lucky she still graces us with her athleticism when she feels able to.

The bravery shown by her, McKayla, and the many other athletes who spoke out against the abuse they endured is worthy of all the gold medals in the world – and is a legacy that'll live long after they've hung up their leotards.

If you have been affected by any of the details of this article, you can contact Women's Aid's 24 hour helpline on 1800 341 900 and the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre on  1800 77 8888.