The U.S. Olympic Committee’s push to strip USA Gymnastics of its national governing body status was met with widespread praise by critics and victims of imprisoned former team doctor Larry Nassar, but it ushers in a period of unprecedented uncertainty for a bedrock Olympic sport.
USA Gymnastics will have a chance to defend itself in front of a USOC panel if it chooses, but the end result is probable: the revocation of its exclusive right to run the American international team.
What happens next is not clear, even at the highest levels of the Olympic industry. Gymnastics insiders alternately blessed the move as necessary and worried about the future without an organization that counts more than 200,000 members and sanctions 4,000 events annually.
“It’s one of those things like with the banking industry — it’s too big to fail,” said Blain Fowler, owner of Panhandle Perfection Gymnastics in Gulf Breeze, Fla. “In some ways we need USA Gymnastics to do what we’re trying to do. Or some organization.”
It’s doubtful USA Gymnastics can survive the process. In theory it could live on as a non-sanctioned body, but the loss of direct USOC aid and the sponsorship, event and media revenue made possible by its Olympic affiliation would be catastrophic.
The bigger question is what replaces it, who leads that new governing body and what happens in between the time USA Gymnastics is decertified and another organization is named in its place.
In the short term, the USOC can operate the sport directly, including appointing a team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The federal Amateur Sports Act creates the framework for independent sport groups reporting up to the USOC, but governing bodies are not mandatory, said Mike Harrigan, director of the 1970s-era Presidential Commission on Olympic Sports, which developed the law. The USOC already manages some Paralympic sports.
But a vacancy is undesirable for many reasons. The USOC lacks the manpower and expertise to run day-to-day grassroots programs, such as certifying coaches and judges and overseeing competitions.
Also, there’s some concern that USA Gymnastics’ member clubs would no longer fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Center for SafeSport if the NGB loses its status. A center spokesman said it would work with the USOC to ensure there’s no void in coverage under the safe sport law.
In her open letter discussing the move, USOC CEO Sarah Hirshland said: “Over time, gymnastics clubs around the country may become members of a new organization that lives up to the expectations of the athletes and those that support them, their parents included. This would take time and a lot of hard work from many of us, and many of you.”
In part because of the extraordinary influence the Olympic affiliation gives USA Gymnastics, there are no other existing organizations that currently can match its range of services. The AAU and the U.S. Association of Independent Gymnastics Clubs are two mentioned as possible places to start, but USAIGC President Paul Spadaro said he has no interest. “It would kill our program,” he said.
The most likely path to a new NGB would be a hybrid approach with an existing nonprofit. The USOC could choose a gymnastics group with some capabilities to step in and then help build out the full range of NGB services through direct appointments.
No rule prevents current board members or executives from returning in a reconstituted governing body, and such a rule wouldn’t necessarily be welcomed. The USOC hopes, however, that at least starting fresh would give it the ability to change the gymnastics culture with a fresh slate.
The International Gymnastics Federation would also have to approve the new NGB, which more than likely would be a formality.
There’s little historical guidance for Hirshland and the sport at this stage. The USOC has revoked the status of Team Handball, Modern Pentathlon and Taekwondo in the last 20 years, but those are bit players compared to Gymnastics. It once threatened that action with USA Track & Field in 2003 but didn’t follow through.