Content Warning: Athlete A and this article features discussions of sexual assault
Athlete A is a Netflix documentary that focuses on the former USA Gymnastics’ team doctor Larry Nassar and the abuse young women experienced while under his care. The documentary also sheds light on the culture in USA Gymnastics and how for years the toxicity bred therein led to the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of many athletes. The documentary, directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, follows the Indianapolis Star reporters as they began to uncover the decades of abuse and corruption within the organization.
I, like most Americans, look forward to the summer Olympics and especially watching the USA women’s gymnastic team who has dominated the competition for years. When the initial scandal broke, I was shocked. But after watching Athlete A, it becomes clear that the clues about the horror behind the scenes were in front of us all along. Star reporter Mark Alesia explained how disturbing Nassar’s videos explaining his treatment were, especially the ease in which he touched young girls. But before even breaching on Nassar’s sexual misconduct, the documentary looks at the strict and often abusive environment young female athletes are forced to survive in.
One of the most impactful moments is listening to a former gymnast and the author of Chalked Up, Jennifer Sey, describes Kerri Strung’s famous 1996 vault that she completed with a serious injury. The media, to this day, proclaims that event as heroic but Sey tells a different story. She describes an environment of fear and points out that unlike many other sports, female gymnasts are children and because of that are easily manipulated and cannot make rational choices, like whether they should complete a vault while seriously injured. After seeing the success of the Romanian program with Nadia Comaneci, USA Gymnastics changed their tactics and quickly adopted a lot of the abusive training the communist block made famous. Gymnasts were expected to be small, docile, and not question their coaching staff.
Compared to the harsh conditions Bela and Martha Károlyi, Romanian-American gymnastics coaches for USA Gymnastics, forced their athletes to train under, to the young girls, Larry Nassar seemed friendly and funny. While under strict diets, Nassar would sneak the young athletes’ food and candy. He would make them laugh and keep them calm during stressful injuries. However, that guise was just an easy way to gain the young girls’ trust. Rachael Denhollander, a former gymnast, explains that as a child she didn’t realize she was being abused. She thought what Nassar did was normal. It wasn’t until years later that she realized how damaging those sessions with him were and finally understood that she was sexually assaulted. The documentary goes into detail on how Nassar sexually assaulted his victims through their own words. Nassar fooled parents and, in many instances, sexually assaulted children during physical therapy and exams while their parents were still in the room.
However, when Maggie Nichols‘ parents did find out about Larry Nassar’s abuse they reported it to Károlyis and Stephen D. Penny, the former President and CEO of USA Gymnastics. Penny assured them it would be dealt with and that an FBI investigation was ongoing. But it quickly became apparent that was not the case and Penny began controlling everything Nichols could and could not do even going so far as to threaten her place on the Olympic team. Penny forced victims to stay quiet, lest they lose their careers. Even after performing well, Nichols did not make the Olympic team in 2016 and felt she was “mentally and physically ready to move on.”
A theme throughout the documentary is directly confronting whether it was worth it for these athletes, many of whom had successful gymnastics careers. Jamie Dantzscher, a former gymnast who competed in the Olympics, blatantly says “The Olympics were not a dream come true” and goes on to explain that even at the Olympics, Nassar was abusive. Athlete A is blunt in its presentation of the abuse these children and young women experienced and also confirms that there is no win worth this.
Athlete A is hard to watch but listening to these women’s stories is necessary. The survivors of Nassar and the USA Gymnastics organizations’ abuse are credible and that is backed up by the Star reporters who investigated their complaints as well as Nassar himself. The second half of the documentary focuses on the Star’s reporters and the fallout from the story they published. More and more women came forward and each one of these women, all from different decades and Olympic teams, had so many similarities in their stories that it is impossible to not believe them. Understanding the toxic culture that allowed Nassar’s abuse to thrive is key to seeing the full picture. The strongest point of the documentary is its focus on the history of the organization and how it evolved into the toxic environment it became.
Athlete A is streaming now on Netflix.
- Athlete A - 9.5/109.5/10
Athlete A is hard to watch but listening to these women’s stories is necessary… The strongest point of the documentary is its focus on the history of the organization and how it evolved into the toxic environment it became.