Olympic gold medalist tells Boise audience gymnastics’ ‘toxic culture’ must change

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Just before the start of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo in August, American gymnast Simone Biles told “60 Minutes” she wouldn’t allow a daughter of hers to participate in USA Gymnastics.

The organization that oversees competitive gymnastics in the United States hasn’t taken responsibility for the sexual abuse of dozens of girl gymnasts by Olympic doctor Larry Nassar, Biles told the CBS program.

Dominique Dawes, who became the first African American to win an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics, at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, told an audience in Boise on Tuesday that it’s a shame anyone would have to make that choice.

“We need to change that culture,” Dawes told several hundred people who attended the Boise Metro Chamber Gala at the Boise Centre. “We need to make sure we have a healthy culture out there.”

Last week, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee defended its handling of the case against Nassar, who was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison in 2018 for sexually assaulting gymnasts in his care. The committee’s response came after four Olympic medalists wrote to Congress asking for the committee to be dissolved.

Dawes told the audience of several hundred people how she recently opened a gymnastics academy in her home state of Maryland to encourage young children.
Dawes told the audience of several hundred people how she recently opened a gymnastics academy in her home state of Maryland to encourage young children.

Dawes, a three-time Olympian, said Nassar got away with abusing hundreds of young girls “because of a toxic culture that was full of a great deal of verbal, physical, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse.”

“Many people, because of the medals and the money turned a blind eye to the pain that these young girls were suffering from,” Dawes, 44, said.

Dawes, known in the Olympics as “Awesome Dawesome,” said she realized she needed to be part of a positive change within gymnastics. She opened the Dominique Dawes Gymnastics Academy in July in Clarksburg, Maryland, north of Washington, D.C. It’s meant to encourage young athletes rather than tear them down.

“It’s not for medals and money, but to leave a positive impact on the lives of every single kid that walks through our doors,” Dawes said.

Dawes told the audience how gymnastics is much more an individual sport than a team sport. She said the “Magnificent Seven,” as her Atlanta Olympics team became known, was successful because she and her teammates were able to shove aside their “pretty hefty-sized egos” and work together.

“Collectively, we made the decision that we were actually going to get to know each other as friends,” Dawes said.

Several hundred people attended the chamber’s 138th annual gala at the Boise Centre. Last year’s event was held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Several hundred people attended the chamber’s 138th annual gala at the Boise Centre. Last year’s event was held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic.

During the balance beam competition in the women’s all-around final at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, Dawes marveled when Russian gymnast Angelina Melnikova finished her routine and American Sunisa Lee, who was next up on beam, gave her a high-five, followed by fellow American Jade Curry.

“It was the weirdest ‘aha moment’ for me as a 44-year-old former washed-up Olympian,” Dawes said.

During her Olympic career, Dawes said she was taught as an Olympian, as an athlete, as a competitor, to never acknowledge someone else’s performance.

“And I remember saying, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a result of the global pandemic, where it’s not just about competing against one another, but recognizing your part of the human race,’” she said. “And we’ve all gone through these painful moments together that we should celebrate.”

Dawes said she hopes to be a positive influence on the lives of young athletes as the U.S. gymnastics world moves past the sexual abuse of gymnasts by former Olympic doctor Larry Nassar.
Dawes said she hopes to be a positive influence on the lives of young athletes as the U.S. gymnastics world moves past the sexual abuse of gymnasts by former Olympic doctor Larry Nassar.

The chamber of commerce held its 138th annual gala in person, after holding last year’s event virtually. Attendees were required to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test to attend.

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