‘Athlete A’ empowers survivors, exposes system that protected capital over children

Athlete Documentary
Netflix/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

Content warning: sexual abuse and exploitation of minors.

In March, Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, announced the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games to 2021 over concerns about the devastating global pandemic. “These Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 can be a light at the end of this tunnel,” Bach offered in a statement. 

Americans adore the Olympics. They’re a treasured tradition exhibiting U.S. excellence, determination and triumph. In 2016, while my parents watched Michael Phelps match a 2,000-year-old Olympic record, my friends and I gazed in awe at the U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team, our breath taken away as these young women took flight. After watching the Netflix documentary “Athlete A,” my admiration for these young athletes has swelled into a new shape, tinged with horror at the institution that exploited them. For everyone who would have watched the 2020 Summer Olympics, this movie is mandatory.

“Athlete A” centers on the gymnasts who spoke out against the sexual abuse perpetrated by former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, highlighting the reporters who believed them and investigated USA Gymnastics’ sinister culture of exploitation and cruelty. The documentary’s title alludes to the legal moniker given to Maggie Nichols, the first gymnast to report Nassar’s abuse to USA Gymnastics. Award-winning directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk brilliantly broaden the documentary’s scope beyond Nassar, exploring USA Gymnastics’ culpability in concealing his abuse. The movie examines what lurks behind the curtain of a beloved U.S. spectacle and who operates the machinery tugging the curtain closed.

Cohen and Shenk trace the history of USA Gymnastics in a riveting retelling of the 20th-century vicissitudes that enabled the organization to exploit young girls. When Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci earned a perfect score at the 1976 Olympics at 14 years old, her victory transformed and infantilized the aesthetic of elite gymnastics. The United States welcomed Comăneci’s defected coaches, Béla and Márta Károlyi, hoping the Károlyi method would generate prodigies like Comăneci and win gold medals. While the Károlyis succeeded in bringing USA Gymnastics international renown, former gymnasts interviewed in “Athlete A” describe the Károlyis’ training as psychologically and physically abusive, preying on power imbalances to control and condition impressionable girls. 

USA Gymnastics became a brand, capitalizing on doe-eyed girls plastered in patriotic leotards. The documentary explores the burning cultural desire to see U.S. institutions prosper and prevail. People want to see young girls dream and succeed, to see them happy and proud to represent the country. “Athlete A” sobers this fantasy, imploring viewers to renounce this blinding cultural fiction and reconsider the ruthless competition straining children’s athletics.

The Károlyis’ cruelty contextualizes Nassar’s abuse. Nassar was a warm beacon in the Károlyis’ frigid regime. When the Károlyis called gymnasts “fat cows,” Nassar gave them candy. When the Károlyis told gymnasts to perform through their injuries, Nassar offered to heal them and make them laugh. He was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and as the documentary affirms, he was protected by his pack. 

“Athlete A” frames Nassar’s sexual exploitation as the squeaky wheel in a larger machine wrought with corruption. When Nichols informed USA Gymnastics about Nassar’s perversion, the organization’s then-president, Steve Penny, allegedly misled her family and weaponized Nichols’ Olympic dreams to ensure her silence. Nassar was only brought to justice after the tireless efforts of survivors, such as Rachael Denhollander, and impassioned journalists from the Indianapolis Star, a local newspaper. A stunning total of 156 women testified at Nassar’s sentence hearing.

“Athlete A” is controlled by its subjects, not its architects, and the movie remarkably pivots away from problematic tropes such as victim-blaming and gaslighting. Survivors stand at the movie’s center, their strength inspiring. The stories of abuse are harrowing, but the interviews feel cathartic, rather than like cruel ploys to relive trauma. 

While supporting the survivors, “Athlete A” emphasizes that the belated justice from Nassar’s sentencing does not put this issue to rest. USA Gymnastics spun an intricate web to protect Nassar and the organization’s reputation. The documentary dislodges the glossy veneers through which Americans admire elite gymnastics. In the absence of the Olympics, “Athlete A” implores viewers to look critically at a beloved sport and wonder if status and gold medals are worth the high price. If victory is demanded at any cost, who is really paying?

Contact Maya Thompson at [email protected].