As the #MeToo movement continues to grow, American gymnast Simone Biles is the latest woman to come forward with a horrific story alleging sexual exploitation. Biles joins a long list (more than 140 to date) of other athletes who have accused former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse. Biles and other gymnasts also say that USA Gymnasts pressured them into silence and allowed the abuse to continue -- allegations that USA Gymnastics denies.
In a moving statement posted to her Twitter account, Biles wrote, in part, "I know that this horrific experience does not define me. I am much more than this. I am unique, smart, talented, motivated, and passionate. I have promised myself that my story will be much greater than this and I promise all of you that I will never give up."
As she prepares for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Biles surely knows the risk she's taking on: That the appalling and cruel choices of an awful man may indeed define her. Commentators, broadcasters, journalists and fans may indeed bring up Nassar's name whenever Biles or one of her teammates are on the gym floor.
It would be worse, though, to sweep his crimes under the rug by pretending they never happened. So how can we respect Biles' right to be defined by her talent and her intelligence instead of the acts of a criminal, while also doing justice to her bravery in speaking out?
First, journalists and fans have an obligation to treat Biles' story as a call to action, not fodder for gossip. Biles is clear that she holds Nassar and USA Gymnastics responsible, and so should we.
The gymnastics organization claims it is implementing dozens of policy changes to prevent something such as this from happening again. Anyone who finds themselves in a position to comment publicly on Biles and Nassar over the next few years should also take the time to confirm that USA Gymnastics has actually made a substantive transformation in how it treats its athletes. Instead of making Nassar's abuse definitional for Biles, we should make her bravery the story and heed her call to place responsibility where it's due.
Second, this should be the death knell of treating gymnastics like a girly, sexualized endeavor. Gymnasts are serious athletes (how sad that even needs to be said) and should be accorded the same respect and reverence offered to the men who run, jump and swim. That means less emphasis on gymnasts' perceived femininity or aesthetic appeal, and more on their strength and technical skills.
And finally, the gymnastics industry as a whole needs an overhaul. Gymnasts are often treated as bodies on display instead of as young athletes, even by their own coaches and advocates. Young girls are mocked for their weight; eating disorders are rife. Girls generally are taught to be nice, polite and subservient, and in gymnastics, this social norm is too often exploited by coaches who are cruel and abusive -- even if the abuse isn't sexual in nature.
It takes tremendous physical strength to compete as an Olympic gymnast, and perhaps an even stronger sense of integrity and self-worth to come forward about sexual abuse the way Biles and her teammates have. The least the rest of us can do is exactly what Biles asks: Don't use this moment to define her. Use it to hold the powerful to account, and make sure this never happens again.
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