Review: 'Athlete A' yanks back the curtain on the horrifying abuse of Team USA gymnasts
It can be difficult to acknowledge the near-ubiquitous prevalence of sexual abuse when victims are nameless, shapeless and unfamiliar. Released on June 24, “Athlete A” forces a recognition of this rampant abuse, as the victims are the young women that America champions as Olympians. Through the bravery of the female gymnasts and the brutal, but necessary look into the bleak world of USA Gymnastics, “Athlete A” is an illuminating, tear-jerking, must-watch documentary.
“Athlete A” is directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, and stars the gymnasts and reporters who exposed USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar for his crimes. The setting of the documentary is Indianapolis, where investigative journalists from The Indianapolis Star pursue claims of abuse against him. The film features saddening testimonies from the gymnasts who suffered at the hands of Nassar’s abuse, including Maggie Nichols, Rachael Denhollander, Jessica Howard, Jamie Dantzscher, Jennifer Sey and Tracee Talavera. Clips of other Olympic gymnasts and Nassar survivors, such as Simone Biles and Aly Raisman, are also featured.
The film is heartbreaking because of the combined youth and status of the victims. “Athlete A,” named after Maggie Nichols, the anonymous athlete who first reported Nassar’s abuse, yanks back the curtain on the damage that a predator in a position of power causes. Nichols was a contender for the 2016 Olympics, training seven hours a day. Yet, she still was subjected to the unwanted sexual touch of her team doctor. It took several weeks for Steve Penny, the former president and CEO of USA Gymnastics, to actually contact law enforcement about the abuse. It took several more months for the FBI to contact Nichols for her testimony. Penny turned a blind eye for a decade or more to Nassar’s abuse of the gymnasts.
Not only does “Athlete A” succeed in creating a meaningful connection between the gymnasts and the viewers by including such intimate interviews, but it also successfully portrays the painfully large scope of Nassar’s abuse. The tragic reality of USA Gymnastics’ concealed horrors becomes all too clear during the montage of footage from the court proceedings of Nassar’s case. Since Nichols came forward, over 500 survivors have followed suit.
Nine of these survivors are Olympians. The “Final Five,” or the group of Team USA’s female gymnasts who won the team event at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, all were abused sexually by Nassar and abused verbally and emotionally by other coaches. These five women, Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez, Madison Kocian and Aly Raisman suffered unimaginably as they carried the Stars and Stripes on the world’s biggest athletic stage.
The videography of the film contributes to its effective portrayal of the scandal. Shifting from clips of the investigative journalists and interviews with the gymnasts to recordings of the athletes competing as kids and Nassar’s interrogation and trial, “Athlete A” provides a compelling history of the ignored sexual abuse in the highest echelon of athletics.
To analyze the film emotionally is to underscore its compelling nature. I found myself swirling in a storm of feelings: sadness for the gymnasts, indignation on behalf of the parents of the gymnasts, disgust for Nassar and some relief with the justice that was ultimately achieved and the subsequent success the women found. It was deeply distressing to hear Nichols discuss her memories of being a teenager, lying on Nassar’s exam table as he pretended to provide an osteopathic exam, while actually inserting a finger into her vagina. It was similarly saddening to hear Nichols’ parents talk about their regrets for trusting Nassar and the other coaches with their daughter at the remote Karolyi Ranch training camp. From 2001-2018, the Karolyi Ranch served as the national team’s training center, where, in reality, the women were pushed towards eating disorders, lived and trained in draconian conditions, and were left subject to Nassar’s predation.
My sympathy for the athletes turned to anger toward Nassar and Penny. They did what men in prestigious positions of power that are accused of sexual abuse/harassment do: deny, deny, deny. Nassar sat in an interview room multiple times with investigators claiming that he never touched a gymnast inappropriately. Penny sat in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, pleading the fifth to every question Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) asked him.
Also angering was the atrocious cyberbullying and victim-blaming that America’s Olympic gymnasts endured. “Athlete A” does a service to the survivors in this sense — the film is completely realistic about the pain and suffering that may never ease for these women. The documentary is not naive about the world we live in; where victims are blamed rather than their attackers, who are rescued by the privilege of their masculinity, whiteness and professional status.
“Athlete A” refuses to leave its viewers on a note of negativity, though. Nassar is sentenced to 60 years in federal prison, 175 years in Michigan state prison, and an additional 40-125 years, currently being consecutively served. Penny is awaiting trial for tampering with evidence, facing two to ten years in prison. Perhaps the line that struck me the most from the film is a quote from the athletes at the trial: “We are no longer victims, we are survivors.” After such trauma, these women continue to compete athletically and pursue justice for their cause.
Although painful to watch at points, “Athlete A” offers a story that the world must see. It is a story about how even the most talented, strong and famous athletes were subjected to abuse that went ignored for decades. Time is up for abusers, and the spotlight must be shined on the courageous survivors that continue to come forward.