[Review] ‘ATHLETE A’ an alarming account of USA Gymnastics breeding champions while ignoring sexual abuse

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

ATHLETE A

Rated PG-13, 103 minutes.
Directors: Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk
Featuring: Maggie Nichols, Marisa Kwiatkowski, Rachael Denhollander, Jen Sey and Steve Berta

The spirit of competition can be a wonderful thing. It can also do more harm than good. Winning at any price calls into question one’s integrity. But bruised egos, tainted championships, and tarnished greatness cannot compare to a sports organization failing to report sexual abuse of young girls. 

Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s ATHLETE A is a blistering documentary about survivors of sexual molestation at the hands of Larry Nassar, who was found guilty of abusing hundreds of female athletes as the team doctor of USA Women’s Gymnastics and at Michigan State University. Nassar was described as being “quirky” and “nice.” He was the complete opposite of the national team’s disciplinarian coaches, Béla and Márta Károlyi. 

Defectors from Romania, the couple would transform the women’s gymnastics program and make the United States a national powerhouse. Because of their coaching, women’s gymnastics would become one of the major attractions of the Summer Olympics. It’s a ratings-getter every four years. But as millions of eyes watch women’s gymnastics, those in charge turn a blind eye.  

Béla was critical and emotionally abusive to his pupils; critical remarks about weight caused some girls to develop eating disorders. Nassar would cheer up the young girls with candy and chocolate. A small, comforting gesture and relief from rigorous training. These intense practices would lead to treatment sessions to relieve joint and ligament pains. Only Nassar’s therapies went further than his diagnoses.  

Sparing any details, which are hard to stomach, Nassar’s abuse is part of a more significant systemic problem. To get there, Cohen and Shenk take us inside the walls of The Indianapolis Star and its investigative journalism team, led by editor Steve Berta. The newspaper was there from the start, doing the work in building a story about USA Gymnastics and its failure to report cases of sexual abuse. The article was published August 4, 2016. Five days later, the U.S. Olympic Team for women’s gymnastics would win gold at the Summer Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro.

Rachael Denhollander in ‘ATHLETE A.’ Courtesy of Netflix.

In fact, the original article doesn’t even mention Nassar; his then-accusations of sexual abuse were revealed the following month. The focus is on USA Gymnastics and how the U.S. Olympic Committee (which happens to be headquartered in Indianapolis) grossly ignored allegations of sexual misconduct. More than 50 complaints on coaches were filed away. 

ATHLETE A is the fallout from the initial bombshell story. The paper started getting responses from former gymnasts about Nassar. Cohen and Shenk let us hear from some of his victims, and what they say on camera echoes louder than a printed quote. Maggie Nichols, as the “Athlete Anonymous,” is the one who first reported the doctor. It is through her recounting that builds Nassar’s history of abuse and begins to show that the USOC is nothing more than a house of cards with USA Gymnastics as a bubble onto itself. 

Throughout their documentary, Cohen and Shenk take us into the organization’s history of abuse and covering up. Listening to the interviewees, one might think USA Gymnastics was like the Catholic Church, as coaches continued to coach amid complaints and allegations. Steve Penny, the former president and chief for the organization, and the rest of the executive staff failed to listen, claiming sexual abuse allegations as hearsay unless it came direct from the victim or victim’s parent. Protecting the coach and the program at the expense of the athlete – sickening. 

To learn that Nichols was likely left off the 2016 Olympic team because of a complaint she and her parents filed the year previous, again, illustrates that when it comes to winning, nothing is out of bounds. 

Four years after the media seized upon Larry Nassar’s history of sexual abuse, the US Justice Department is still investigating USA Gymnastics. Penny is facing charges, and Márta Károlyi is no longer coaching. 

Hopefully, ATHLETE A will impress upon investigators that speaking up in the face of obedience is worth more than its weight in Olympic gold. 

 Grade: A-

ATHLETE A is now streaming on Netflix.

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