At the end of last month Simone Biles logged into Twitter and highlighted the absurdity of the current chapter of her life. As she travelled to a USA Gymnastics training camp in order to continue preparations for the Olympic year in which she will compete for USAG and for whom any success will garner millions of dollars, she tweeted in despair about what she sees as the continued failings of USAG and its culpability in her sexual abuse: “Still want answers from USAG and USOPC [US Olympic and Paralympic Committee]. Wish they BOTH wanted an independent investigation as much as the survivors & I do. Anxiety high. Hard not to think about everything that I DON’T WANT TO THINK ABOUT!!”
A couple of days later Biles’s former teammate Aly Raisman appeared on the Today show projecting identical frustration. Raisman has admitted that conducting these interviews and constantly reopening her wounds leaves her anxious and exhausted. But there she was again, putting on a brave face and tossing her own comfort aside as she implored USAG to release documents outlining the events of the Larry Nassar scandal: “They’re just trying to push it under the rug and hoping people forget about it when people watch the Olympics this summer.”
Both gymnasts were reacting to USAG finally releasing its settlement proposal for the 517 people who have come forward as survivors of Nassar’s abuse. While Nassar’s former employer, Michigan State University, settled their lawsuit for $500m, this proposal is valued at $217m and it would split payments into four separate tiers, ranging from $1.25m for such as Biles and Raisman, who competed on Olympic or world championship teams, to a paltry $82,550 for “Derivative Claimants”. According to the Orange County Register, the proposal has been met with widespread outrage from the gymnasts and their families involved in the case and they will likely near unanimously vote to reject it.
It is difficult to think of a more symbolic failure. All those months ago in January 2018, as the army of survivors marched on Michigan to read aloud their victim impact statements against Nassar’s case, the former gymnast and whistleblower Rachael Denhollander challenged Judge Rosemarie Aquilina and the world watching at home with one simple question: “How much is a little girl worth?”
While Denhollander asserted that little girls are worth everything, for many the figure of $82,500 seems an apt summary of how this case has been handled. USAG, which filed for bankruptcy in December 2018, says the $212m is the figure its insurance would agree to. But for the gymnasts on the lowest tier it does not even amount to the vast sums many have spent on therapy and medical interventions as a result of their abuse.
Denhollander was not really talking about monetary worth in Michigan but rather the full-throated justice that she and her fellow survivors deserve. In this proposal, money is the primary focus. One of the details that provoked the most outrage was the stipulation that the settlement would release the former USAG chief executive, Steve Penny, the former US team coordinators Marta and Bela Karolyi, US Olympic and Paralympic tcommittee officials, the former US coach Don Peters and many others from liability despite a congressional report having branded the handling of the case by various organisations a “cover-up in spirit”.
As this case endures, the stream of revelations from the victims continues. In recent months the Olympic bronze medallist Tasha Schwikert, who joined the suit in 2018, has been discussing her own trauma alongside her former coach, Cassie Rice. According to Schwikert, she was stretching in oversplits just before the 2000 Olympics when Bela Karolyi taunted her as he physically forced her further down into the split. Schwikert’s hamstring tore and it was ripped from the bone. The fear generated by the head coaches naturally meant Schwikert spoke little of her injury and competed in Sydney with her injury diagnosed. Until then she was sent straight to Nassar where he abused her.
Schwikert’s experiences in 2000 were eerily similar to the system later described by Raisman and most others. The astronomic workloads that broke their bodies, the hoards of snacks they would hide so they would not starve under the immense physical strain, the obsession with weight that would lead the Karolyis to rummage through bags and the comment from Marta Karolyi still embedded in her mind today: “Lighter athletes fly higher”. Schwikert eventually suffered from bulimia for a decade until she was determined to stop in the fear that it would kill her.
After hiding her vulnerabilities from view for years Schwikert says that now she is just trying to be real. Her reality is straightforward: “It wasn’t a Larry problem. He was a sick fucker, OK? But it’s not a Larry problem. How did Larry get to do what he did? He got to do what he did because of this environment.”
As usual, things return to the central question. How much is a little girl worth? One would hope that a little girl is worth more than only money – she is worth accountability and every last word of the truth. They are worth transparency in order to understand exactly why the environment failed them and so that this never happens again. An entire Olympic cycle on from when Denhollander first blew the whistle against USAG in 2016, they are also worth a resolution so that Raisman, Biles, Denhollander and so many others will no longer have to continually put their trauma in the spotlight in search of something as simple as justice.