By now, you’ve likely heard about sexual abuse scandal involving USA Gymnastics and team doctor Larry Nassar. The benefit of Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s new documentary Athelte A is how they’re able to carefully lay out the events as they transpired, show the broader historical context that set up the rotten system, and then how it all leads to someone like Nassar being able to molest countless young girls for decades. As one of the Indy Star reporters who broke the story explains, “Nassar wasn’t our target. Our target was USA Gymnastics.” That’s not to diminish or minimize Nassar’s crimes, but rather to show the bigger picture that this wasn’t an anomaly. Rather, this was how a rancid organization operated and why it operated in such a fashion to leave its gymnasts vulnerable to predators. Larry Nassar is in jail for the rest of his life, but Athlete A makes a compelling case for why USA Gymnastics should probably be torn down.
Cohen and Shenk approach the case from both the micro level and the macro level. On the micro level, we follow individual stories of abuse, specifically from gymnast Maggie Nichols as well as Nassar victims such as Rachael Denhollander and Jamie Dantzcher. Nichols specifically complained directly to USA Gymnastics in 2015, but USA Gymnastics already had a policy that they would dismiss complaints as hearsay unless signed by the victim, the victim’s parents, or a witness to the abuse. And yet when Nichols, a victim, complained directly to USA Gymnastics, they instead stalled out any investigation into the reports of abuse. The documentary then pulls back to show why this system of neglect was in place—because in the 1970s, USA Gymnastics chose to import the abusive Cold War mentality of coaches Marta and Bela Karolyi, which prioritized training children because children were smaller and could do more spectacular routines, thus winning Olympic gold. From there, once USA Gymnastics started winning, they promoted Stephen Penny Jr. to President, and his marketing background prized USA Gymnastics as a brand above all else, which meant maintaining a wholesome image regardless of what was happening behind the scenes. From there, Athlete A is able to carefully lay out the systemic abuses that allowed Nassar to abuse countless children and the victims those chose to go public even if it meant erasing their privacy.
The smartest aspect of Athlete A is how it doesn’t really make the story about Nassar. It shows who he is, where he came from, and how he committed his crimes (the film starts with a trigger warning noting that there are descriptions of sexual abuse committed against minors), but he’s not the focal point of the documentary. Instead, he becomes the tragically inevitable consequence of an organization that was more interested in protecting its reputation than the safety of its athletes. When you pull back and look at the whole picture of USA Gymnastics, you can see the organization as hopelessly broken. Even before you get to the sexual abuse scandal, you can see that there’s another system of abuse already placed on top of it. When you allow coaches to run little girls ragged because “that’s the cost” of obtaining an Olympic medal and being an elite athlete, that’s an abusive system. If you’re body-shaming 9-year-olds because you want them to able to jump higher, that’s not for the benefit of the athlete. That’s for the benefit of the highly paid coaches and the massive revenue raked in through sponsorships. It’s a toxic mix of patriotism and capitalism, and it’s the athletes who were left to pay the price.
The larger picture here is what it means to use a pre-teen girl’s body. We accept it in the context that these girls (or their parents) can consent to brutal training regiments. As author and former gymnast Jennifer Sey points out, in the 1950s and 60s, gymnasts were adult women, but our need to compete with Eastern European countries like Romania then put children in harm’s way because they could be the “better” athlete. When Sey breaks down Kerri Strug’s famous vault at the 1996 Olympics, it recontextualizes a moment that’s traditionally seen as “triumphant” and instead shows that, no, Strug did not have a choice. She couldn’t say, “No, I’m injured, and I can’t do this.” She had to put her body in harm’s way for the benefit of USA Gymnastics, and from there, you can see it’s not much of a stretch for someone like Nassar or sexually abusive coaches to prey on gymnasts.
Although Athlete A is frequently enraging, the subject matter is handled with such a calm, controlled tone that it never feels the need to reach for emotions. There’s the occasional misstep near the end where it tries to find a triumphant note in the victims’ statements against Nassar at his sentencing (it’s hard to find uplift when you’ve been sitting with a rotten system for the previous 80 minutes), but for the most part, Cohen and Shenk let the facts speak for themselves and can give audiences a basic understanding of how this scandal happened. It wasn’t a perfect storm, but rather a purposeful policy to turn a blind eye to abuse because it was more profitable to look the other way.
The one area where I wish they had gone a bit further was exploring Nassar’s relationship with Michigan State University. If you’re looking at rotten institutions, then Michigan State University also orchestrated a cover-up, and they did so at taxpayer expense. Perhaps the directors felt that it would spread their focus too thin if they looked at an institution other than USA Gymnastics, but I feel like what Athlete A does exceptionally well is show pervasive rot that powerful people allowed to fester because it was more convenient to their interests than to protect minors from a sexual predator. Michigan State University is no exception here; they’re just not as “big” as USA Gymnastics.
Athlete A will upset you, not just because of the nature of Nassar’s crimes, but because of the institutions that allows those crimes to persist and their willingness to silence victims who jeopardized the profitable images of success. If young girls want to pursue a dream of gymnastics, then there needs to be rigorous standards in place to protect them, not something like the Karolyi Ranch in Texas where they’re cut off from their parents because that’s supposed to make them good gymnasts. We need to rethink letting children participate at the elite level even if it means that, heaven forbid, the USA wins slightly fewer gold medals at the Olympics. Athlete A offers no easy solutions to systemic rot, but I’m grateful that it works to expose it so clearly.
Athlete A is now streaming on Netflix.