Re-Imaging Our Worth
by Rosalyn Mitchell
Rachael Denhollander is a survivor. She fights for justice as a Christian lawyer, mother, activist, and former gymnast. The author of What is a Girl Worth? asks a core question of the sexual abuse scandal that rocked United States Gymnastics, the Olympic movement, and broader society. She is the first public accuser of the now-convicted pedophile, former Team USA medical doctor Larry Nassar.
As a physician, Nassar preyed on young women, using his privilege to groom athletes, befriend them, and abuse their trust.
It would be naïve to assume that one man’s evil was responsible –a convenient answer that neglects the structural failures of institutions. All levels of power, with various culpabilities, are responsible, from local club gymnastics coaches to national team staff to organizations like United States Gymnastics and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Recently four survivors, Ally Raisman, Maggie Nichols, McKayla Maroney, and Simone Biles, testified at a United States Senate congressional hearing on the failure of these institutions. The truth came to light due to an alliance of brave survivors, journalists, law enforcement, and the broader public.
Therefore, as a gymnastics fan, I choose to reflect on this topic. I want to thank the online gym community, the Gymternet, for their coverage, specifically the Gymcastic Podcast and The Skating Lesson.
Using the lens of the Consistent Life Ethic, I ask: how could society allow such rampant abuse?
I’m not pretending to have all the answers and ask that we listen to the survivors. I write my perspective critiquing society’s commodification of human worth and argue that sexual abuse violently dehumanizes its victims.
This topic is a life issue as all people deserve to live free of violence from fertilization to natural death. We must protect human life against commodification as the worth of countless little girls is greater than any gold medal.
A traditionally elite sport like gymnastics sacrifices both bodies and minds to the dark side of the Olympic movement. During the Tokyo Olympics, as during every Olympics, the public fell in love with athletes. Gymnasts like Sunisa Lee, the first female Hmong American and Asian athlete to win an Olympic All-Around gold medal. She competed with legendary teammates like Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast of all time.
Yet for every Lee, and rarer still Biles, are millions of nameless failed athletes. The grim reality of the quantity needed to produce champions parallels a factory. American gymnastics became golden after adopting the merciless militancy needed to win Olympic gold.
The Karolyis, a pair of Romanian coaches who coached Nadia Comaneci, adopted a semi-centralized training system at the notorious Ranch in wooded Texas, where champions were made. Marta Karolyi oversaw the rise of the Women’s Artistic Gymnastics team as the National Team Coordinator. Success followed, counted in gold medals, with the program dominating the Rio Olympics.
Behind the scenes, the exploitation was an open secret: the control, the eating disorders, the injuries. Therefore, in an ironic twist of fate, a pedophile, Dr. Larry Nassar, offered relief from psychological and emotional abuse. Presenting himself as a friend, he would feed the gymnasts contraband like candy, flatter them with kind words, and offer “healing” pelvic massages. Many gymnasts did not know until afterwards of the sexual abuse disguised as a legitimate medical procedure.
How about parents? Away. The isolated setting discouraged communication with the outside world. Speaking up meant certain blacklisting in a culture that demanded obedience.
Imagine being a young gymnast. Would you risk your Olympic dream? All these factors enabled sexual abuse.
What for? Money. Fame. Ego. A cruel industry that capitalizes on pretty girls doing extraordinary athletics being commodified as plastic dolls.
Very few athletes, especially young women, are allowed to display their personalities. When interviewed, they’re trained to answer with empty phrases like, “I only want to do my best.” Never in terms of winning, as outward ambition is inappropriate. Athletes in a sport like gymnastics are performers, not people with thoughts and emotions.
It’s because of the broader culture of dehumanization that such abuse can occur, because human worth is commercialized. Phrases like “the cost of living” assign human life a numeric value. Life is cheap. Easily replaceable. People are taught that if they cannot perform they are disposable, as utility defines human dignity.
If gymnastics’ success was not profitable, I boldly argue, the abuse would not have occurred, at least not on this level. The cover-up and systemic failure to protect young girls are motivated by profit. One could not speak the truth because the truth was too expensive.
I counter this narrative by arguing that human life is too valuable not to speak up. A human being is inherently more precious than any gold medal. To answer the question that Rachael Denhollander asks – “What is a Girl Worth?” – the answer is that she is invaluable.
For another post from this author, see: 300 Roses
For some of our posts on women’s rights, see:
Abortion and Violence Against Pregnant Women / Martha Shuping, M.D.
The Myth of Sexual Autonomy / Julianne Wiley
How Abortion is Useful for Rape Culture / Rachel MacNair