Many elements of the sobering documentary Athlete A are upsetting, but the one I’ve had the hardest time shaking was the idea that, within the world of USA Gymnastics, Larry Nassar was considered the nice guy. A global powerhouse that frequently dominated the Olympics and elsewhere, USA Gymnastics (or USAG) was fiercely competitive, pushing its adolescent athletes to their breaking point. Pain meant nothing. Exhaustion and hunger were merely signs of weakness. Winning was all that mattered. In such an oppressive environment, the young female gymnasts were desperate for one sympathetic soul. That seemed to be Nassar, the organization’s longtime team physician who would sneak them candy or a kind word amidst the yelling they received from their taskmaster coaches. The girls thought they could trust him.
Anyone who’s been following the Nassar scandal over the last few years knows the truth. In September 2016, The Indianapolis Star published a devastating report in which two former gymnasts accused Nassar of sexual abuse. Soon after, approximately 150 more women came forward, leading to his arrest and conviction. (He’ll spend the rest of his life behind bars.) It’s a horrible story with no end to its ugliness, but Athlete A does a fine job focusing your anger and disgust, which is impressive considering that there’s plenty to go around in this tragedy. But while filmmakers Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk eviscerate Nassar’s predatory behavior, the documentary zooms out to make sure we understand the poisonous atmosphere within USAG as a whole. Many young women were abused by Nassar, but Athlete A compellingly argues that other kinds of abuse by other people in power were even more rampant — and just as ignored.
Athlete A is structured somewhat like Spotlight, the Oscar-winning drama about the Boston Globe investigative reporters who unearthed rampant sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. We meet the Indianapolis Star journalists responsible for breaking the Nassar story, which began when writer Marisa Kwiatkowski was interested in how rigorously local schools were (or weren’t) reporting sexual-abuse accusations. This led to a tip to look into USA Gymnastics, whose offices are in downtown Indianapolis. First, the paper learned about a predatory coach who had been quietly moved from job to job, despite warnings that he was an abuser. When that story, written by Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia and Tim Evans, went live in August 2016, it highlighted how shoddy USAG was at reporting sexual-abuse cases. But soon, former gymnasts started reaching out to The Indianapolis Star. They wanted to talk about Nassar.
Cohen and Shenk (An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power) spend a lot of time speaking to some survivors. Again and again, we’re greeted by grown women relating what happened to them when they were just girls. Athlete A points out that many of these survivors had no sexual experience before Nassar, which makes his crime even more galling. As part of his supposed treatment for these elite young athletes, Nassar would work on their leg muscles, inching his way up to inserting his fingers into their vagina or anus, massaging their genitals. Because they were young, these girls didn’t know enough to realize that what he was doing was wrong — and if they got uncomfortable, they’d occasionally talk to a fellow gymnast, who would say the same thing happened to her, which normalized the behavior. Maybe, they thought, they were overreacting.
This is just the latest documentary to question the lengths we’ll go — or, more accurately, force others to go — in order to be champions. For decades, USAG has been one of the top attractions at the Olympics, as generations of American viewers have watched young women like Mary Lou Retton, Kerri Strug and Simone Biles become household names, their grace and tenacity celebrated as emblematic of our sterling national character. What Athlete A repeatedly makes you realize, however, is that these are just kids — and, frankly, it’s gross that we put such burden on them to be gold medalists in the first place.
The documentary provides enough historical background so that we understand the evolution of women’s gymnastics — how Romanian Nadia Comăneci’s triumph at the 1976 Games, when she was only 14, transformed the sport. After Comăneci, no longer would female gymnasts be fully-developed adults — now, they would be raised almost from birth to be superior athletes, reaching their peak in their teens. When Comăneci’s coaches, Béla and Márta Károlyi, defected to the U.S., they joined USAG, bringing with them their no-pain, no-gain style, forcing their gymnasts to stop at nothing to achieve excellence.
Like many sports fans, I only pay attention to gymnastics every four years when the Summer Games come around, plugging into the prepackaged storylines and mindlessly rooting for our athletes. Athlete A examines the crassness of the way the USAG sold that seemingly inspirational storyline to viewers like me: We wholeheartedly cheered for these adorable, wholesome, super-talented girls, always with smiles on their face as they made us proud while vanquishing America’s foes. The breathlessly parental coverage from recent Olympic telecasts proves to be among Athlete A’s most nauseating clips, and that’s even truer once we hear gymnasts talk about performing with broken toes or bad backs.
On one level, “play through the pain” has been a hallowed sports trope for a good long while — a highlight of The Last Dance was revisiting Michael Jordan’s gutsy performance during the so-called “flu game” — but the filmmakers deftly make the case that putting underage athletes through such rigors is unconscionable. Do we care about winning that much?
The film is especially attuned to the physical and mental damage that happened to these girls — and I’m not even referring specifically to sexual abuse. Apparently, it’s become accepted that, because of their intense training, young female gymnasts will have to contend with “female athlete triad,” a series of conditions that can include delayed menstruation and may impact their future health. Not that former USAG president Steve Penny cared — Athlete A illustrates how this longtime marketer saw the organization as a brand, and believed that the brand had to be perpetuated and protected, even at the expense of the athletes who helped promote it. And so when serious accusations started swirling around Nassar — who came across as a harmless, slightly nerdy nonentity — the culture of silence continued.
Nassar was permitted to keep working, and Penny actively worked to keep complaints from reaching law enforcement, orchestrating some shady dealings with an FBI agent who was part of the investigation in order to get the agent a coveted Olympics security job. The furious parents of one gymnast recall that Penny insisted that Nassar was, essentially, “being taken care of” when they ultimately were persuaded not to go public with their daughter’s accusations. He most assuredly was not.
Athlete A is suffused with sad stories. University of Oklahoma gymnast Maggie Nichols tells of how her dreams of being part of the 2016 Olympic team were sabotaged by Penny, apparently in retaliation for her reporting Nassar’s sexual abuse of her. Rachael Denhollander, who was abused as a teen and is now a lawyer in her mid-30s, speaks of the mental turmoil she experienced as a gymnast: The sport can trigger eating disorders in girls, who fear not being rail-thin. (One interview subject talks about having the flu and losing several pounds in the process — her coaches were mostly concerned with how they could make sure she kept that weight off going forward.)
Some of Athlete A’s anecdotes are about sexual abuse, while others are about the world of USA Gymnastics itself. Neither Penny nor the Karolyis stepped in to protect the athletes — in fact, Nassar committed many of his crimes at the Karolyis’ Texas facility — and the girls were left to fend for themselves.
The 2020 Summer Games were originally slated to start next month, but the pandemic has forced them to be delayed until July 2021. It’s just as well. After Athlete A, it will be very hard to cheer on “our girls” in USA Gymnastics in the same way again — now you’ll know all too well what they’ve sacrificed to get there. Larry Nassar is gone, but the stain of the unhealthy culture that shielded him remains.