‘Athlete A’ Exposes How USA Gymnastics Brushed Aside Sexual Abuse of Female Athletes for the Sake of Winning
Netflix’s documentary “Athlete A” chronicles the frightening reality that major institutions have been party to covering up sexual abuse. It hints at exploring the overall nature of the gymnastics world and how a culture of cruel training techniques brushes aside human wellbeing to reach perfection. Unlike other recent documentaries which have told harrowing stories of individuals enduring abuse within the private zone of their families, this one unnervingly reminds us of how predators can hide anywhere. The key villain is Dr. Larry Nassar, who abused hundreds of young women while working as a doctor for USA Gymnastics, but as is demonstrated here, his superiors are just as guilty.
Directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk open the documentary by introducing us to Maggie Nichols, a gymnast at the University of Oklahoma who was also the first athlete to report Nassar in 2015 when she was training at USA Gymnastics. Nichols is one of several women who recount how they first fell in love with the sport at a young age and honed their craft with the universal dream of reaching the Olympics. In parallel to these stories we also learn about how reporters at the Indianapolis Star began receiving tip-offs on sexual abuse allegations at USA Gymnastics, first involving coaches but then connecting more and more to Nassar. When the Star broke the story more and more athletes, both current and former, began reaching out, daring to tell the public about their experiences.
“Athlete A” condenses all of its material and participants to a mere 1 hour and 44 minute film. Unlike a Netflix docuseries where the information would be more broadly spread out, and every angle given adequate space, Cohen and Shenk rush along through the bulk of material. But the core of the story remains powerful and infuriating. It is also an iconoclastic documentary, demolishing the romanticized view the public holds so dear of the sports world and Olympic competition. Early sections chart the rise of very young gymnasts in the ‘70s, mostly as a result of the wide fame achieved by Romania’s 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci winning the gold medal at the 1976 Olympics. U.S. trainers began looking with envy at the Soviet bloc’s young and impressive results. The star trainers in the field were Romanians Bela and Marta Karolyi, who practiced a rather brutal form of preparation. Eyewitness accounts describe constant slapping and verbal assaults. When the Karolyis defected to the U.S., they set up shop at a private ranch used as a training facility and began training Olympic-reigning American athletes. Former competitors, like 1986 national champion Jennifer Sey, bluntly admit that emotional torture and pushing the physical limits are simply accepted in a terrain where winning means everything. A finer detail espoused by lawyer John Manly, who represents some of Nassar’s accusers, is how the Karolyis imported training methods acceptable in the communist regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu, but no one seemed to care as long as the U.S. scored big wins. Kerri Strug’s famous performance at the 1996 Olympics, where she carried on with an injured leg, takes on a new dimension when another athlete in the documentary clarifies, “it’s not like she had a choice.”
What all of this insightful exposition does is set the stage for the abuses that would later be exposed. An institution that only cares for its public image and scoring wins, which leads to huge corporate sponsorships and ad campaigns, simply looked the other way while someone like Nassar used his own power to abuse athletes. Maggie Nichols was just one of hundreds. Some who speak in the documentary recount how Nassar would win their trust by letting them get away with a few snacks, sneaking them candy and playing the role of the nice guy in comparison to other brutal coaches. A fully shameless and bold abuser, Nassar’s actions took place mostly at his clinic, where exams and check-ups would turn into sexual abuse. In one jarring moment an athlete describes how Nassar would be so sick as to carry out a sexual violation subtly with an unknowing parent right there in the room. The Karolyis’ ranch was another site where Nassar committed more of his crimes.
There was a price to pay for those who decided to speak out. Early accusers like Rachael Denhollander, reached out to the Indianapolis Star and suddenly faced public scrutiny from cruel doubters. Nichols was basically ostracized at USA Gymnastics. Her parents make no attempt to hide their conviction that because they reported Nassar to USA Gymnastics president Stephen Penny, Nicholes was denied a spot on the 2016 Summer Olympics team. Penny comes across as a cynical corporate boss, lying to families about FBI investigations that never existed and burying reports of abuse in order to not threaten sponsorship dollars and prestige.
Thanks to the Star the story made headlines and Penny was forced to testify before Congress and Nassar was eventually arrested (after child pornography was found on his computer) and is now serving what amounts to a life sentence. Where “Athlete A” slightly stumbles is in leaving the audience wondering about many key sections of the story. It all rushes by with fleeting yet powerful moments, like Nassar’s victims delivering statements at court during his sentencing. But then we get a small news clip about Penny being arrested attempting to destroy evidence, and nothing more about this wild development is said. And while we learn that the Karolyis ranch has been closed, what else did the star coach couple know? A brief final clip of a deposition involving Marta reveals she knew about the complaints, but there is no further digging.
Yet there is no denying the bravery of victims like Nichols, Denhollander and also Jamie Dantzscher, who not only discuss what they suffered under Nassar, but their entire experience of coming of age in a harsh world where the body is sacrificed in pursuit of public glory. The sections on the reporting done by the Indianapolis Star also provide admirable insights into how it takes good, hard journalism to get the truth out there. “Athlete A” tells the story of the young women who found themselves unprotected by an institution they trusted, but they also prove no institution, no matter how respectable, can hide its sins forever.
“Athlete A” begins streaming June 24 on Netflix.