“How much is a little girl worth?” asks former U.S. Gymnast Rachel Denhollander at the sentencing phase of sexual predator, and former USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar. According to a harrowing documentary by Erin Lee Carr depicting the treatment of elite gymnasts in the brutally competitive arena of world class gymnastics, the honest answer to that question is a resounding “not much.”
At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal, recently aired on HBO, is a riveting, heartbreaking account of the events and institutional failures that enabled a physician to abuse his position to sexually assault legions of adolescent females. It is a sordid tale of human greed and indifference to the well-being of young girls whose only mistake was trusting the adults who were duty bound to protect them.
In 2016, one year before the dawning of the #MeToo movement, Denhollander publicly accused Larry Nassar of sexual abuse under the guise of providing medical care when she was fifteen years old. Her bravery in coming forward and detailing Nassar’s abuse led to the opening of the floodgates and empowered other victims to say, “Me too.” His victims include Olympic champions Simone Biles and Aly Raisman, but most were unknown to the public.
How did this happen? How could the US Gymnastics committee fail to recognize Nassar as a sexual predator? The documentary details earlier accusations made against him during his tenure as a sports doctor at Michigan State University. The university dismissed them, so unconcerned by the possible presence of a sexual predator in their midst they allowed him to continue performing medical examinations on the female athletes, exposing them to further physical and emotional harm.
These young, vulnerable gymnasts trusted this figure of authority, viewing him as an ally, a rarity in the grueling world of competitive gymnastics. So great was the trust they placed in him that when the allegations arose, some young victims expressed disbelief and rose to his defense. As gymnasts, they were accustomed to adults touching them during training sessions and competition. At times the abuse occurred when a parent was present during an examination. There was no reason for these young gymnasts to suspect that this friendly man who would sneak them food and candy was engaging in long-term multiple sexual criminal behavior.
Perhaps the greatest factor that allowed a sexual predator to flourish in this particular environment for so long is the culture of the United States gymnastics program in general. Fiercely competitive, and both psychologically, and physically damaging, these young girls are seen as products and expected to suffer in silence with physical injuries and pain because it’s the only way to advance in that unforgiving world. In a particularly poignant scene, a mother recounts how she and other parents were told by the leaders of the US Gymnastics program that “one hundred percent of your children will be injured.” One former Olympic gymnast compared the experience to being a “wounded animal-you don’t show your weakness, you don’t show you’re hurt.” These young gymnasts understood that they were expected to train and compete while in pain or injured. In that culture, they are disposable products and there are always others waiting in the wings willing to sacrifice everything. The documentary opens with footage of Olympic gold medalist Shannon Miller. During competition, she attempts a very difficult vault despite an injured right leg. She falls on the landing, clearly in great physical distress, but refuses help, gets up and walks off the mat without assistance. She never should have been allowed to attempt such a dangerous move with an injured leg. But she understood the unwritten rules, that despite an injury she was not to complain, and she was expected to perform. The role that money and greed plays in this arena should not be underestimated. As a journalist from the Wall Street Journalist points out, USA Gymnastics needed advertisers and sponsorships to fund them and, “it’s a money machine and at its heart is teenage girls. It’s an arrangement bound to create abuse.” Perhaps the question that also needs to be asked is: How much is the physical suffering of a little girl worth? Upon viewing this documentary, we should conclude that such suffering needs to be taken much more seriously.
The movie concludes with extraordinary scenes from a courtroom. Before sentencing Nassar to a life in prison, the judge allowed Nassar’s victims to read victim impact statements. Over the course of the hearing, more survivors came forward, drawing strength and inspiration from each other despite their obvious anguish. For seven days, one hundred fifty six women, no longer young girls and no longer his victims, found their voice and confronted the predator who they finally brought to justice, giving these survivors a small measure of justice. A little girl is worth a great deal and it is time the United States gymnastics program and audiences recognized this.
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