By now, you’ve probably heard about sexual abuse scandal involving USA Gymnastics and crew physician Larry Nassar. The advantage of Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s new documentary Athelte A is how they’re in a position to fastidiously lay out the occasions as they transpired, present the broader historic context that arrange the rotten system, after which the way it all results in somebody like Nassar with the ability to molest numerous younger women for many years. As one of many Indy Star reporters who broke the story explains, “Nassar wasn’t our target. Our target was USA Gymnastics.” That’s to not diminish or reduce Nassar’s crimes, however moderately to point out the larger image that this wasn’t an anomaly. Rather, this was how a rancid group operated and why it operated in such a trend to depart its gymnasts weak to predators. Larry Nassar is in jail for the remainder of his life, however Athlete A makes a compelling case for why USA Gymnastics ought to in all probability be torn down.
Cohen and Shenk method the case from each the micro stage and the macro stage. On the micro stage, we comply with particular person tales of abuse, particularly from gymnast Maggie Nichols in addition to Nassar victims akin to Rachael Denhollander and Jamie Dantzcher. Nichols particularly complained on to USA Gymnastics in 2015, however USA Gymnastics already had a coverage that they’d dismiss complaints as rumour until signed by the sufferer, the sufferer’s mother and father, or a witness to the abuse. And but when Nichols, a sufferer, complained on to USA Gymnastics, they as an alternative stalled out any investigation into the studies of abuse. The documentary then pulls again to point out why this method of neglect was in place—as a result of within the 1970s, USA Gymnastics selected to import the abusive Cold War mentality of coaches Marta and Bela Karolyi, which prioritized coaching kids as a result of kids have been smaller and will do extra spectacular routines, thus profitable Olympic gold. From there, as soon as USA Gymnastics began profitable, they promoted Stephen Penny Jr. to President, and his advertising background prized USA Gymnastics as a model above all else, which meant sustaining a healthful picture no matter what was taking place behind the scenes. From there, Athlete A is ready to fastidiously lay out the systemic abuses that allowed Nassar to abuse numerous kids and the victims these selected to go public even when it meant erasing their privateness.
The smartest side of Athlete A is the way it doesn’t actually make the story about Nassar. It exhibits who he’s, the place he got here from, and the way he dedicated his crimes (the movie begins with a set off warning noting that there are descriptions of sexual abuse dedicated towards minors), however he’s not the point of interest of the documentary. Instead, he turns into the tragically inevitable consequence of a company that was extra desirous about defending its fame than the security of its athletes. When you pull again and take a look at the entire image of USA Gymnastics, you’ll be able to see the group as hopelessly damaged. Even earlier than you get to the sexual abuse scandal, you’ll be able to see that there’s one other system of abuse already positioned on high of it. When you permit coaches to run little women ragged as a result of “that’s the cost” of acquiring an Olympic medal and being an elite athlete, that’s an abusive system. If you’re body-shaming 9-year-olds since you need them to in a position to bounce increased, that’s not for the good thing about the athlete. That’s for the good thing about the extremely paid coaches and the huge income raked in by means of sponsorships. It’s a poisonous mixture of patriotism and capitalism, and it’s the athletes who have been left to pay the worth.
The bigger image here’s what it means to make use of a pre-teen woman’s physique. We settle for it within the context that these women (or their mother and father) can consent to brutal coaching regiments. As creator and former gymnast Jennifer Sey factors out, within the 1950s and 60s, gymnasts have been grownup ladies, however our have to compete with Eastern European international locations like Romania then put kids in hurt’s means as a result of they may very well be the “better” athlete. When Sey breaks down Kerri Strug’s well-known vault on the 1996 Olympics, it recontextualizes a second that’s historically seen as “triumphant” and as an alternative exhibits that, no, Strug didn’t have a alternative. She couldn’t say, “No, I’m injured, and I can’t do this.” She needed to put her physique in hurt’s means for the good thing about USA Gymnastics, and from there, you’ll be able to see it’s not a lot of a stretch for somebody like Nassar or sexually abusive coaches to prey on gymnasts.
Although Athlete A is regularly enraging, the subject material is dealt with with such a peaceful, managed tone that it by no means feels the necessity to attain for feelings. There’s the occasional misstep close to the tip the place it tries to discover a triumphant notice within the victims’ statements towards Nassar at his sentencing (it’s arduous to seek out uplift while you’ve been sitting with a rotten system for the earlier 80 minutes), however for essentially the most half, Cohen and Shenk let the details converse for themselves and may give audiences a fundamental understanding of how this scandal occurred. It wasn’t an ideal storm, however moderately a purposeful coverage to show a blind eye to abuse as a result of it was extra worthwhile to look the opposite means.
The one space the place I want they’d gone a bit additional was exploring Nassar’s relationship with Michigan State University. If you’re taking a look at rotten establishments, then Michigan State University also orchestrated a cover-up, and so they did so at taxpayer expense. Perhaps the administrators felt that it will unfold their focus too skinny in the event that they checked out an establishment aside from USA Gymnastics, however I really feel like what Athlete A does exceptionally nicely is present pervasive rot that highly effective individuals allowed to fester as a result of it was extra handy to their pursuits than to guard minors from a sexual predator. Michigan State University isn’t any exception right here; they’re simply not as “big” as USA Gymnastics.
Athlete A will upset you, not simply due to the character of Nassar’s crimes, however due to the establishments that permits these crimes to persist and their willingness to silence victims who jeopardized the worthwhile pictures of success. If younger women need to pursue a dream of gymnastics, then there must be rigorous requirements in place to guard them, not one thing just like the Karolyi Ranch in Texas the place they’re minimize off from their mother and father as a result of that’s purported to make them good gymnasts. We have to rethink letting kids take part on the elite stage even when it implies that, heaven forbid, the USA wins barely fewer gold medals on the Olympics. Athlete A gives no simple options to systemic rot, however I’m grateful that it really works to show it so clearly.
Athlete A is now streaming on Netflix.