The worst scandal in U.S. Olympic history, and the worst sex abuse scandal in sports history, was met with a long-awaited and entirely fitting response by the U.S. Olympic Committee Monday night.
The USOC has begun the process of shutting down USA Gymnastics, the organization responsible for the scandal in which hundreds of girls and young women were sexually abused by team doctor Larry Nassar.
If decertification does in fact take place — a rare and extreme action within the U.S. Olympic movement — USA Gymnastics will be no more. It will cease to exist as the national governing body for one of the most popular and successful American sports in the Olympic Games.
In other words, it will receive the fate it richly deserves.
And it will answer the question that has been asked about USA Gymnastics for many months now: how much dysfunction can one organization be allowed to produce before the guardians of the U.S. Olympic movement say enough is enough?
USOC CEO Sarah Hirshland, who has been on the job for less than three months, made it clear that Monday was that day.
“You deserve better,” Hirshland said in an open letter to all USAG gymnasts and the U.S. gymnastics community at large. “You might be asking why now? The short answer is that we believe the challenges facing the organization are simply more than it is capable of overcoming in its current form. We have worked closely with the new USAG board over recent months to support them, but despite diligent effort, the NGB continues to struggle. And that’s not fair to gymnasts around the country.”
While some wonder what took so long in a horrifying scandal that first was made public in August 2016, it’s important to note that decertification is the nuclear option of the Olympic world. Because it is so final and far-reaching — forcing a sport with more than 150,000 athletes and 3,000 clubs around the country to essentially begin anew — Olympic leaders are wise to search for other solutions first.
In late August, Hirshland had been USOC CEO for just 11 days when she blasted USA Gymnastics in an email to USA TODAY, saying “it is time to consider making adjustments in the leadership.”
Four days later, Kerry Perry resigned after a disastrous nine-month run as USAG CEO.
Hirshland could have called for decertification right then and not a soul would have blamed her. But so new in her own role, she wisely watched and waited.
What she saw was not good. On Oct. 12, USA Gymnastics announced former U.S. Congresswoman Mary Bono would serve as interim CEO. On Oct. 16, Bono resigned after a controversial tweet and concern over her affiliation with the law firm that helped the governing body cover up Nassar’s assaults on numerous young gymnasts.
Why didn’t Hirshland move to decertify USA Gymnastics on Oct. 17? The timing would have seemed right, and she certainly would have had all the evidence she needed.
She didn’t do it out of deference to Olympic champion Simone Biles and the other members of the U.S. gymnastics team about to compete at the world championships in Doha, Qatar. Had steps been taken to decertify then, the news would have been a constant and unfair distraction for the American gymnasts, casting a shadow over Biles’ historic fourth world individual all-around title and the U.S. women’s fourth consecutive team championship.
Now that the worlds are over, with no significant international gymnastics events on the horizon for several months, the time was right for the USOC to make this historic stand for its athletes.
There are risks involved with shutting down an organization of the size and magnitude of USA Gymnastics. Tearing down the house doesn’t come without great concerns. Who will run the new national governing body? Who runs the organization in the interim? What happens to every-day logistics?
The questions will mount. The answers won’t be easy. But for the first time since the horrific sex abuse scandal came to light days before the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, it can safely be said that these courageous gymnasts, these athletes who have served as the conscience of their sport, have finally had their day.