There's a lot to unpack in Netflix's Athlete A — a harrowing documentary that unveils the horrors of sexual abuse and a culture that allowed it to persist for years.
Athlete A is a challenging documentary by its nature, but it is necessary to hear from these brave women — their stories are vital. USA Gymnastics' toxic culture needs to change — in light of the reporting, the trials, and this documentary, we see an organization whose main priority was to protect the brand and not the girls. Filmmakers, Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk (An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power), grapple with the corrupt system inside USAG and the culture of predatory behavior that allowed Dr. Larry Nassar to prey on young girls and to continue doing so unprosecuted. Athlete A also shows us the power of journalism, its importance for holding others accountable, and the virtue of knowing the truth. The name, "Athlete A," refers to a then-anonymous gymnast whose complaint led to the first public disclosure of decades of abuse by Nassar. We would later find out "Athlete A" is gymnast Maggie Nichols, whose complaint was buried for more than a year, until 2016. By then, a team of reporters (Steve Berta, Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia, and Tim Evans) from The Indianapolis Star were already investigating other abuse claims from the nation's most well-known Olympic organization.
The IndyStar had also spoken to other survivors, like former gymnasts Rachael Denhollander and Jamie Dantzscher. The abuse and change in this organization date back to the dynamic shift of the sport during the 1976 Olympics, when Nadia Comăneci ushered in a new era of gymnasts. After 1976, the competitors got younger and smaller — guiding a path for body and mind manipulation, and a system of fear and intimidation from adults. Within this new structure, coaches Béla and Márta Károlyi carved out a method of systemic verbal and physical abuse as the only model for achieving gold medals. During the '90s, Nassar had propelled himself deep into the organization, while he was commonly known as "the only nice adult" to these female gymnasts. It was here, where Nassar would gain trust — often passing out candy and making jokes to the children. When he was left alone in one-on-one interactions with them, this is where the abuse started. Nassar even strategically abused some of the girls when their parents were in the same room. He would position his body in ways to block what he was actually doing, leaving these girls traumatized for the years that followed.
The investigation by The IndyStar expanded over a period of nine months and found that the abuses were widespread because "predatory coaches were allowed to move from gym to gym, undetected by a lax system of oversight, or dangerously passed on by USA Gymnastics-certified gyms." These discoveries were downplayed and covered up by USAG's former CEO, Steve Penny. In October of 2018, Penny was arrested on the charge of evidence tampering in the Nassar case and was also accused of removing documents linked to the Nassar sexual abuse case from the Karolyi Ranch, the gymnastics training facility in Texas. Also in 2018, Lou Anna Simon (former Michigan State University president) and Kathie Klages (former MSU gymnastics coach) were both arrested with felonies and misdemeanor counts for lying to police about knowledge of sexual abuse allegations against Nassar and a disregard to the Title IX complaint against him from 2014. After explosive revelations came out in 2015 about Nassar — two years later, he would be sentenced to 60 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to child pornography charges. Additionally, in January 2018, Nassar was sentenced to 175 years in a Michigan state prison after pleading guilty to seven counts of sexual assault of minors. Finally, in February 2018, he was sentenced to an additional 40 to 125 years in prison after pleading guilty to an additional three counts of sexual assault — assuring that he will die behind bars. Over two decades, more than 368 persons alleged that they were sexually assaulted "by gym owners, coaches, and staff working for gymnastics programs across the country."
Since The IndyStar first reported the scandal in September 2016, more than 265 women, including former USAG national team members Dantzscher, Nichols, Morgan White, Jeanette Antolin, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Simone Biles, Jordyn Wieber, Sabrina Vega, Ashton Locklear, Kyla Ross, Madison Kocian, Amanda Jetter, Tasha Schwikert, Mattie Larson, Bailie Key, Kennedy Baker, and Alyssa Baumann, have accused Nassar of sexually assaulting them — making this one of the largest sexual abuse scandals in sports history. There's a powerful scene in Athlete A, where Angela Povilaitis (former assistant AG of Michigan) had 100 women come forward to give testimony in front of Nassar. These brave women looked Nassar directly in the face, as he glances down, and begin speaking of what Nassar had taken from them — physically and emotionally. That scene is a sense of awe as we see these courageous women openly speak up. Athlete A is a devastating and inspiring documentary about survivors speaking out and a culture of cruelty thriving within the institutions of elite-gymnastics. Athlete A reveals a sense of triumph for these brave athletes of refused to be silenced by an institution that rejected their humanity and only sought for the gold.
Athlete A is rated PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned). For mature thematic content including detailed descriptions of sexual abuse of minors.
Directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk
Available to watch on Netflix.
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