ST. LOUIS — USA Gymnastics is trying to shift the narrative away from the Larry Nassar scandal. President Li Li Leung wants to talk about the progress it has made over the last three years. The safeguards it is putting in place to prevent sexual abuse. The programs that focus on education and empowerment. The emphasis on changing a culture that produced plenty of medals but at a sometimes astronomical cost both physically and emotionally to the athletes that won them.
Yet the cloud that’s engulfed the organization since the first survivors of abuse at the hands of the former national team doctor lingers.
While Simone Biles and the rest of the hopefuls looking to join the sport’s biggest star in Tokyo next month spent Wednesday preparing for the U.S. Olympic Trials, a few feet away Leung acknowledged true forward momentum will be difficult to attain as long as the mediation process with Nassar’s survivors remains unresolved.
USA Gymnastics filed for bankruptcy in November 2018 with the hope of having a settlement reached within 18 months. The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed progress significantly and Leung finds herself in the same position now as she was when she took over in March 2019: limited by what she can say — and in some instances, what she can do — out of fear of the legal implications.
“Obviously, we would love to be out of bankruptcy (so) that we can be able to more freely move forward with all of the things that we have been working on and to not have this be a part of the narrative,” Leung said. “But at the end of the day, what has happened is something that we are learning from and we’re using the past to inform how we go forward.”
Leung remains “steadfast” in her belief that a settlement with the dozens of Nassar survivors will be reached, hopefully by the end of the year. A settlement would allow the organization to exit from bankruptcy and — at least symbolically — create a little distance from one of the darkest chapters in the history of the Olympic movement.
Despite instituting a handful of initiatives, including providing athletes with a platform that allows them to anonymously provide feedback in real-time on everything from conditions at national team camp to the cut of their leotards, progress from a public perception standpoint has only moved in fits and starts.
Several Nassar survivors — including Biles — have stressed the need for a more detailed examination of the circumstances that allowed Nassar’s behavior to run unchecked for so long.
Leung pointed out that by her count USA Gymnastics has fully cooperated with “at least” six different entities that have looked into the Nassar situation. She added that, by definition, if USA Gymnastics pays for any part of an investigation it is not truly independent but offered “we are open to any investigative body to come in and investigate us.”
While USA Gymnastics has preached the need for transparency in hopes of regaining the trust of its membership, things haven’t always gone smoothly.
Women’s national team coordinator Tom Forster created a small firestorm following the national championships in Texas earlier this month when he declined to speculate on the petition status for gymnasts like 2017 world champion Morgan Hurd and 2005 world champion Chellsie Memmel.
Forster said at the time he wouldn’t feel comfortable doing so until after he spoke to the athletes. The reality, however, is that Forster did speak to the athletes, leading the organization to later clarify several days later that he didn’t talk about the petition process because he wasn’t sure if he had the athletes’ OK to do so.
Asked Wednesday if she felt Forster lied, Leung defended the man chosen in June 2018 to take over a program that’s spent a decade at the top of the sport.
“So my definition of lying is someone who is intentionally misleading, and I don’t I don’t believe that Tom was intentionally misleading,” Leung said. “I think that he was protecting the athlete.”
Leung acknowledged Forster “could have chosen better words” to describe his interactions with the petitioning athletes, but pointed to the way he’s been praised by others for his openness that things really are changing at the elite level.
“They are talking more freely about Tom … and how positive he has been in his role,” Leung said. “And so we have seen a shift in that in terms of communication from former athletes.”
A shift that Leung understands will take years to become entrenched. She pointed out that “99.9 percent” of the athletes in the organization are not in the elite program and that a true culture change can’t just be limited to the gymnasts in the spotlight.
“It’s about all these other disciplines that fall under us and that we have a responsibility to serve as well,” Leung said. “So everything that we do from like a guiding principle standpoint is that we’re looking at things through the lens of ‘How does this affect the Level 9 athlete or the Level 5 athlete and even the Excel athletes at the end of the day, when we make policies and procedures in place?’”
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