May 12, 2021 - Sports

Larry Nassar scandal sparks changes to gymnastics' outdated norms

Illustration of a gymnast on a beam that is sloping up and down.  

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The status quo of elite female gymnastics, which has been questioned for decades, may finally be ready to change.

The state of play: Gymnastics is steeped in tradition, but the Larry Nassar scandal has led to a reexamination of many of its outdated norms, and there have already been some encouraging signs of change.

  • Apparel changes: Three German gymnasts donned unitards at last month's European Gymnastics Championships — a symbolic gesture "for all gymnasts who might feel uncomfortable or even sexualized in normal leotards," wrote one of the athletes on Instagram.
  • Culture of abuse: Aside from the heinous sexual abuse, coaches have long made their athletes endure physical pain while training, leading to mental and physical burnout. But after hundreds went public about Nassar, thousands opened up about the sport's toxic culture.
  • Prevention and protection: The IOC recently established a certification course to create a legion of international safeguarding officers. There's still a lot of work to be done, but it's a good start.
  • Age is just a number: Gymnastics used to favor a balletic aesthetic, which called for smaller, and thus younger athletes. But the sport has evolved, challenging the notion that one's prime is as a teenager. Just ask 32-year-old former Olympic medalist Chellsie Memmel, who came out of a nine-year retirement and hopes to qualify for Tokyo.

Looking ahead: Simone Biles recently left Nike for Athleta, which will fund Biles' post-Olympic Gold Over America Tour that she's planning to mount herself, rather than the usual tour backed by USA Gymnastics.

  • Biles' powerful voice is one of many speaking out against USA Gymnastics, which she believes is "more interested in avoiding responsibility for Nassar's abuse than in finding the truth," per NYT.
  • Her Athleta-funded tour could help reshape professional opportunities for gymnasts and usher in a new era for the sport.
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