Patrick Burke

"Really proud of what we've been able to accomplish" but aware "a lot more work can still be done" is the verdict of USA Gymnastics President and chief executive Li Li Leung on the organisation's efforts to drive cultural change in response to an abuse scandal that shamed the sport.

The disgraced Larry Nassar sexually abused hundreds of athletes in his capacity of USA Gymnastics team doctor, and is serving several effective life sentences for his horrific crimes, which were also committed while he practised medicine at Michigan State University.

Late last year, USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee finally reached a $380 million (£340 million/€390 million) settlement with survivors.

Details of the scandal in gymnastics in the United States first emerged in The Indianapolis Star in 2016. 

By 2018, USA Gymnastics had field for bankruptcy following numerous lawsuits. Australia, Britain, Greece, The Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland are among the countries who have faced similar disturbing transgressions in gymnastics.

Leung was named USA Gymnastics President and chief executive in February 2019, faced with the task of restoring credibility to the organisation and trust among those practising gymnastics in the US. 

In the three-and-a-half years since, she has attempted to reform the national governing body, pointing to the introduction of policies such as a new mission statement outlining its aim to "build a community and culture of health, safety and excellence, where athletes can thrive in sport and in life", Code of Ethical Conduct and Athlete Bill of Rights.

Reflecting on her time at the helm on the sidelines of the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships here, Leung admitted that she was under no illusions of the scale of the challenge that she faced when moving from her role as National Basketball Association vice-president, but believed that it was her duty to serve a sport which has formed a big part of her life.

Li Li Leung has served as USA Gymnastics President and chief executive since February 2019 ©ITG
Li Li Leung has served as USA Gymnastics President and chief executive since February 2019 ©ITG

"There was one article written that said there are thankless jobs, and there is Li Li's job," she recalled.

"I come from the sport. I was a gymnast, I started when I was seven years old and did the sport for 15 years. I had a very positive experience in the sport, and in fact I spent more time with my coaches growing up than I did with my own parents, but my coaches were like my second set of parents.

"When everything was happening at USA Gymnastics, I was working at the NBA, and I was watching everything unfold, and I kept on saying it will get better, it will get better, and it didn’t get better.

"I was actually really happy at NBA, but wanted to reach out and see if I could volunteer and help them out in any way, and they said actually we're looking for a CEO, do you want to talk to the head-hunter? 

"And I said I'll talk to the head-hunter, but I'll talk to them because maybe I can point them in the right direction because I was happy at the NBA. I talked with the head-hunter a couple of times and they finally said will you put your name in the ring, and I did thinking nothing would ever happen of it. Then a couple of months later, I got a text on my phone late one night saying congratulations you've got the position.

"I showed my husband the text and he said it looks like we're moving to Indianapolis because we were in New York City at the time, and the underlying motivation for taking this position is because it gave me a chance to give back to a sport which has given so much to me, and how can you pass up an opportunity that gives you an opportunity to positively affect the lives of so many girls and boys for generations to come?

"Some people still call me crazy. When I did take the position, people were saying congratulations and condolences in the same breath, but in my mind, I never wavered from the magnitude and the impact that this position could have on the sport of gymnastics and the sporting world."

Prioritising winning over athlete health and wellbeing, the athletes' voice going unheard, a power imbalance of coaches over athletes and a lack of accountability were among the issues identified by Leung at the USA Gymnastics she inherited. A root and branch change became a necessity.

Gymnastics in the United States had been shamed by the crimes of former team doctor Larry Nassar, who sexually abused hundreds of athletes ©Getty Images
Gymnastics in the United States had been shamed by the crimes of former team doctor Larry Nassar, who sexually abused hundreds of athletes ©Getty Images

"We've been on this cultural transformation for a little while now, and have been working really hard to instil a very positive culture in terms of training and wellness for our athletes, and our belief is that a positive environment and competitive excellence are not mutually exclusive, meaning you can have both at the same time," she explained. "That's what we've been working really hard to do over the past several years."

Leung was a key speaker at the Safe Sport Journey Symposium held in Liverpool, jointly hosted by British Gymnastics and the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG). Her presentation was entitled 'Lesson Learned: Leading Cultural Transformation', and featured what she terms as the "three Ps" of "new people, new priorities and new policies that ladder up to those new priorities".

Introducing new people has included wholesale changes to the Board. Around half of its members are independent from outside of the gymnastics community, and around one-third are athlete representatives. 

The USA Gymnastics leadership team has also entirely changed since Leung took over as President, and she says recruitment has aimed at ensuring that "we had diverse perspectives being represented, and also to make sure that we were learning from best practices of other industries". 

For Leung, "mission and purpose-driven" individuals without egos are key characteristics required in staff.

New priorities have centred on USA Gymnastics' new mission, which Leung summarises as "holistically developing the athlete", and feed into new policies, primarily in its governing documents.

Placing athletes and athlete welfare at the heart of USA Gymnastics' operations formed a key part of the cultural transformation, Leung insists, citing anonymous surveys that regularly receive response rates of around 75 per cent from national team athletes, and a Real Response app. Communication on social media has also featured an increasingly "very positive tone".

However, Leung admits that short-term fixes cannot provide cultural changes.

"You have to have a marathon mentality in place," she said. 

"This does not happen overnight. Culture change is the most difficult change to implement. 

"Writing a policy is actually relatively easy, but getting people in the community to buy into it is what's really difficult, so understanding that you have to be patient and that culture change takes a lot of time."

Li Li Leung discussed the need for a
Li Li Leung discussed the need for a "marathon mentality" to implement cultural change ©ITG

In August, USA Gymnastics introduced a rebrand, including a new logo and "the movement starts here" tagline. Leung insisted that the timing of these changes were critical.

"We have been working on this rebrand for many years now, but we had to wait for the right time to launch it," she commented. 

"We wanted to make sure that we had done all the hard work and the homework that was needed to be done before we launched our rebrand.

"We have over the past several years purposefully not talked about that much. We didn't talk much about what we were doing because it's not right to pat ourselves on the back when there still is a lot of hard work to be done, and we wanted to make sure that all the infrastructure, that the new policies and procedures and the framework was in place for us to be able to wrap a visible bow around it before we could rebrand."

The President believes that sticking to key principles is a trait that sports organisations can adhere to.

"A lot of people disagreed with what we were trying to do, and that's why I said stay the course in the presentation," Leung said.

"As long as your north star and your guiding principles are correct, don't let others take you off that course. 

"Don't let others make you not believe that you're not doing the rights things, because if your intent in your mission is correct and if you follow that, then you are doing the right things, but there will be a lot of people out there who will say you are not doing the right things and try to make you not believe in it."

USA Gymnastics has undergone a rebrand including a new logo, and has sought to focus on "holistically developing the athlete" as part of the reforms ©Getty Images
USA Gymnastics has undergone a rebrand including a new logo, and has sought to focus on "holistically developing the athlete" as part of the reforms ©Getty Images

With other countries seeking to root out abuse from sports and gymnastics, Leung emphasised the importance of national governing bodies engaging in knowledge sharing opportunities, including the Symposium.

"Having not only the Symposium, but being able to communicate with other countries and share our learnings, the feedback that I am hearing is that they are finding it very helpful and very useful, and we don't want other countries to have to duplicate the wheel in terms of resources, so we have a lot of resources in place that we are licensing out to other countries," she said. 

"We're in discussion with countries about that. We did do something with Romania, and we're open to sharing our learnings and sharing our resources with the world on this because we think it is such an important topic."

Leung was elected to the FIG Executive Committee in November last year, and is one of seven members of the International Federation's Safeguarding Commission. 

In June of this year, FIG introduced a Code of Conduct featuring 14 general principles of integrity and respect, as well as specific principles for athletes, coaches, judges and officials, and executive officers. 

This followed on from its 10 Golden Rules of Gymnastics announced in October 2021 as a measure introduced in response to abuse scandals in the sport.

The USA Gymnastics President believes that sport globally is in a better place than it was.

"Safeguarding has definitely become a priority of FIG, there is no question about that, and I'm very happy to see that, and it's also exhibited or demonstrated in the people who have been selected or assigned to become a part of the Safeguarding Commission," Leung insisted.

"Everyone there is very passionate about really prioritising athlete safety, and I was very encouraged to see that as well."