Published on December 2nd, 2020 | by Blake Morrow0
We review Athlete A, a Netflix documentary that follows the investigation by The Indianapolis Star into allegations of cover-ups regarding sexual abuse within USA Gymnastics.
Athlete A is a Netflix documentary that follows the investigation by The Indianapolis Star into allegations of cover-ups regarding sexual abuse within USA Gymnastics. The investigation eventually led to the apprehension of former national team doctor Larry Nassar, who had abused hundreds of young victims, and paints a damning picture of the institution that allowed him to continue unabated for years. A testament to the power of investigative journalism and to the bravery of the victims of abuse, Athlete A also has a lot to say in regards to the pursuit of excellence which created a culture of silence emblematic of so many other scandals in recent memory.
The documentary starts when the team at the Indy Star publishes a story about the USA Gymnastics policy of filing sexual abuse complaints away as hearsay instead of reporting to public authorities at once. This policy allowed USAG to keep complaints hidden to protect its image and the abusers it employed within. After the story runs, several women contact the paper with one name constantly coming up, that of doctor Larry Nassar. A predator that evaded suspicion by being an optimistic bright spot in a sport dominated by fear-mongering and verbally abusive adults, Athlete A goes into great detail of how the Indy Star’s investigation unfolded from that very first article to Nassar’s eventual sentencing and beyond. Along the way the paper’s journalists are completely diligent in their pursuit of truth and justice. Athlete A also does a great job of showing the tremendous courage the victims of Nassar’s abuse had to come forward. The strength it took to withstand the hateful criticism of the gymnastics community was nothing short of remarkable as the stories of three women expanded to include the voices of hundreds more. That it took so long for the story to break, while completely frustrating, is heartbreakingly understandable given the toxic culture prevalent in gymnastics.
The other compelling aspect of this documentary is its dissection of that toxic culture within USA Gymnastics that allowed such gross violations to continue for decades. Like any other sport, gymnastics is physically demanding on its athletes. Performing through pain while covered in bruises and broken toes is par for the course the higher you go. This became especially true after the arrival of Béla and Márta Károlyi, former coaches of the powerhouse Romanian team who defected to America in 1981. Tasked with turning the USA team from afterthoughts to champions, the two implemented several philosophical changes that led to new trends within the sport. Prevalence was given to smaller athletes, usually with the physique of children whom it was thought possible to perform the most demanding tricks in the book. This led to an emphasis on losing weight, ignoring pain, and a tough, mentally abusive coaching style where eating disorders became the norm. While being tough in sports is somewhat understandable, Athlete A does a great job distinguishing gymnastics as a sport predominantly made up of young girls as athletes. From early years somersaulting at home to performing at the highest national level by the time they’re teenagers, it’s hard to justify the extreme coaching tactics employed throughout these young athlete’s childhoods. The case is made that it not only creates emotionally damaged adults later on but a dangerous environment for predators such as Nassar to take advantage of.
In a culture dedicated to champions, Athlete A shows strong evidence that USAG’s public image was prioritized over the safety of the girls that competed for them. The man at the very top, USAG President and CEO Steve Penny, oversaw the hearsay policy and did his best to bury any allegations against Nassar. The theory the film posits for these actions is one that ultimately revolves around personal greed. As the USAG became powerhouses on the global stage, so too did it become an extremely lucrative marketing opportunity. The pure image of gymnastics along with the excellence surrounding gold led to a boon of sponsorships and revenue for the sport. With a background in marketing before becoming the head of USAG, it’s hard to think that Penny had any motivation other than preserving that pure image when he did his cover-ups. This culture of silence extended not only to him but to athletes and their families as well. The dreams of sporting glory led many individuals to ignore the safety of young girls in the hopes of winning gold. Victims that came forward were often ostracized from the community including elite gymnast Maggie Nichols, the eponymous Athlete A who first brought allegations of Nassar’s abuse to Steve Penny in 2015. In a heart-wrenching scene the talented Nichols is eventually blackballed from the 2016 US Olympic Team as a result. Nichols’ attempt to find justice was swept under the rug as so many other stories of abuse are. The real strength of Athlete A is in showing how everyone from the abuser himself to the families that looked the other way were all complicit by refusing to take action for the vulnerable people that couldn’t protect themselves.
In recent years there have been many sexual abuse scandals which have come to light in completely disparate organizations and industries across the world. The competitive stage of athletics is no stranger to such controversies and Athlete A is a thorough exposé on the case that shook USA Gymnastics to its core. This is a documentary that merges the investigative intrigue of 2015’s Spotlight with the sober examination of the culture that perpetuated the abuse similar to 2019’s The Assistant. Although difficult viewing, Athlete A is an essential story that shows its victims as the heroes that they are and takes great strides towards shedding light on what went wrong to prevent similar atrocities in the future.