If someone were to task me with creating a documentary about the 1990s based wholly on my own memories of the decade, at least half of it would be footage of the women’s gymnastics competition at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. It left such an impression that even now, a quarter of a century later, I can still recall lying on my great-aunt’s shag carpet in front of an oscillating fan, chin propped in my palms, wide eyes fixated on the boxy wooden television set. I was nine years old—still young enough to see myself in the athletes on the screen, to dream my wildest dreams through them. In front of the bathroom mirror, I belted out Gloria Estefan’s “Reach,” the signature ballad of the games, and waved my arms above my head in imagined ecstasy. I pretended my Odyssey of the Mind State Competition medal was an Olympic gold. Alone in my room, I bowed low to solemnly drape it around my own neck.
Like millions of kids who came of age in the ’90s, one moment from that summer reigns supreme in my memory: Kerri Strug’s final vault in the women’s team gymnastics competition. The moment is so iconic that it barely requires a summary: Strug, the final gymnast to compete in the final event of the competition, badly injured her ankle while landing her first vault. But one more vault remained. Wincing in visceral pain, she summons the heart of a champion, dashes down the mat, executes her routine to soaring perfection, and sticks her landing on one foot. Her heroism and determination secures gold for the Magnificent Seven. It was a triumph.
At least, that’s how I remembered it.
When Simone Biles abruptly stepped back from the Olympic gymnastics team and individual all-around competitions in Tokyo last week, citing concerns over her mental health, I—like much of the nation, it seems—found myself revisiting footage of Strug’s vault.
When I watched it this time, I felt nauseous.
After landing the second time, Strug is scooped up and carried off the mat by the now-infamous coach Béla Károlyi, who with his wife, Márta, helped to create a U.S. women’s Olympic dynasty through a training regimen that was apparently heavily reliant on emotional abuse, dangerous training methods, and isolation of the young athletes from their parents and guardians. Károlyi places Strug into the arms of none other than team doctor Larry Nassar, a man now revealed to have sexually abused hundreds of gymnasts over almost two decades. At 4’7”, passed from one abusive authority figure to the next, Strug looks almost like a doll, an object.
As a child projecting my own Olympic fantasies onto Strug, I had assumed she exercised a high degree of personal agency. When I revisit that moment now, such agency seems to be mostly a product of my imagination. Could she have refused to compete on an injured ankle? Could she have actually said no? Everything we now know about Nassar, Károlyi, and USA Gymnastics (USAG) during those years suggests that she could not have. Rather than a star athlete boldly resolving to push through her pain for the sake of the team, what I see now is a teenager whose health and safety were treated as collateral damage in a drive for national and institutional prestige.