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USA Gymnastics

Simone Biles shows how violence against women continues to be tucked under the floor mat

It’s unfortunate that the other side of her luminescent medal and legacy is dulled by USA Gymnastics’ neglect

Simone Biles demonstrates that even one of the most decorated Americans in our society can’t get a proper institutional response to sexual assault and predatory abuse.

On March 14, USA Gymnastics tweeted her (they didn’t even take care to tweet the right account) on the occasion of her 23rd birthday, saying, “We know you will only continue to amaze us and make history.” But Biles had a different idea of “making history” in mind. She countered with, “how about you amaze me and do the right thing… have an independent investigation.”

This callout by Biles places the onus back on USA Gymnastics to take full accountability for its handling of the Larry Nassar scandal and ensuring that the lives of the adolescent women athletes in their care aren’t forever scarred by sexual abuse.

When Biles was on the way to a mandatory training camp Feb. 29, she tweeted out an initial call for USA Gymnastics to conduct an independent investigation in response to its proposal, which includes settling hundreds of lawsuits brought about from its handling of the Nassar abuse, as well as releasing USA Gymnastics officials from liability and a responsibility to reveal who was aware of Nassar’s actions at the time.

“And don’t they also want to know how everything was allowed to happen and who let it happen so it never happens again?” Biles wrote. Her teammate, Aly Raisman, who also experienced abuse at the hands of Nassar, tweeted her support on the thread, saying, “The problem is USAG & USOC don’t want anyone to know. This is a massive cover up.”

The USA Gymnastics tweet showed the tendency of institutions to erase history for marginalized people, to highlight the achievements of women and people of color associated with their organization, while simultaneously exploiting us and leaving us unprotected. The tough reality is that Biles’ unprecedented gymnastics career is twinned with a more unfortunate reality in her personal life: that she herself, the greatest gymnast in the world, was molested while under the purview of the organization that continues to take public pride in and credit for what she has achieved.

In the face of this insult, she shows that she will continue to use her voice to contend with these institutional realities and mismanagements on behalf of herself and other women. She is uniquely positioned to do so because, from the beginning, her life has been about trusting in her own intelligence and instincts rather than those who are placed in authority positions to do so.

Back in October, on the occasion of Biles becoming the most decorated gymnast of all time, I wrote about what shaped her into the unprecedented athlete that she is: fast and powerful in her athleticism, yet fully self-possessed and controlled in that power. Outspoken and competitive in spirit, yet deliberate and graceful in media relations. What I cited was the early hardship — a seminal event of neglect by a trusted adult — in her life that didn’t afford her the privilege of growing up naive but, rather, cultivated in her mental fortitude and the instinct to trust herself and her own judgment.

Biles continues to demonstrate this mental fortitude and trust in herself by using her even larger platform and voice to speak out against injustice and to hold those in authority accountable. She knows that it takes a village to raise a predator above reproach, to look the other way when his predations become so far out of hand as to be a well-known secret. She knows, from experience, that true, explicit acknowledgment and real structural change are required.

It’s unforgivable that Biles must use her hard work and success in this way — risking it all to advocate for herself and other gymnasts trapped under the governing body’s irresponsible purview. It’s unfortunate that the other side of her luminescent medal and legacy is dulled by that governing body’s paternalism and neglect. By pressuring an institution that performs in the face of its own inaction and injustice, Biles makes legible the ways our society tucks violence against women under the proverbial floor mat, and the ways in which women continue to materialize the strength necessary to demand the world beyond violence that we deserve and imagine.

Joy Priest is the author of HORSEPOWER (Pitt Poetry Series, Sept. 2020), winner of the Donald Hall Prize for Poetry. She is the recipient of the 2020 Stanley Kunitz Prize, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in APR, The Atlantic, Poets & Writers, Poetry Northwest, and Best New Poets, among others. Currently, she is a doctoral student in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Houston.