Movie review: Netflix doc ‘Athlete A’ exposes abuse scandal USA Gymnastics
In the more than 25 years of the ESPY Awards, I can honestly remember only two events: Jim Valvano’s wrenching farewell while staring death straight in the face in 1993; and 2018, when more than 100 survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of Team USA doctor Larry Nassar one-by-one flooded the stage accompanied by deafening applause. Both were incredibly moving events, but it was the sight of all those wronged women that stirred not just pride but anger. Most of it aimed toward the organization that willfully looked the other way while more than 500 girls - most of them under the age of 15 - were sexually molested: USA Gymnastics.
It stirred eerie echoes of the Catholic Church scandal, so much so, it seemed USAG was taking its cues from the Vatican in its eagerness to sweep its messes under the rug and falsely claim ignorance. Worse, it was doing it while allowing the abusers to continue to have carte blanche with victims. And with USAG, it wasn’t just molestation; it was also physical and mental abuse on the part of coaches and administrators, a mindset instilled by a megalomaniac who cut his teeth under the cruel, totalitarian rule of Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu.
That man, of course, is Bela Karolyi, whose ruthless practices yielded gold for the USA, but at the expense of the tarnished souls of children. Children! It was inhuman, a point driven home effectively in the new Netflix documentary “Athlete A,” a deeply disturbing chronicle of the only major sport in which the competitors aren’t old enough to drive. They’re kids! It’s a fact many choose to overlook in the name of the national pride these little girls inspire in us every four years. Seldom, though, do we think of the behind-the-scenes cost. At least we didn’t until Larry Nassar became a household name.
It’s poetic justice that he’s now the one reportedly on the receiving end of sexual abuse - in prison. How he got there is only a sliver of “Athlete A,” which rightly centers its focus on his victims, a half-dozen of whom bravely tell directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk their soul-crushing stories. The rock of the piece is Athlete A herself, Maggie Nichols, who at great sacrifice (think Colin Kaepernick) swapped her lifelong Olympic dream for a shot at justice.
It was she and her mother, Gina, who blew the whistle on Nassar in June 2015 by filing a formal complaint with USAG. But incredibly, their accusations were ignored by the monolith for more than a year. Instead of taking action against Nassar, who continued to molest little girls for 15 months, USAG exacted revenge on Maggie by purposely leaving her off the 2016 team it sent to Rio. Lucky for her, a team of investigative reporters from the Indianapolis Star had her back, doing their “Spotlight” thing by taking a deep dive into USAG, which conveniently has its national headquarters just around the corner downtown.
Like the Globe reporters exposing the Catholic Church, we see the Star’s crack team of journalists going above and beyond in contacting victims, acquiring documents and building a case that would eventually bring down one of the world’s most powerful institutions. It’s thrilling to watch, but that’s not the part of “Athlete A” that gets to you - it’s the girls, all of whom are now women who were once competitors but now united in their calls for justice. Not just against Nassar, but his many enablers, including USAG president Steve Penny (a full-born sleaze) and Karolyi’s wife, Marta, with whom Bela ran a famed gymnastics ranch just north of Houston that we now know was a no-parents-allowed house of horrors.
For obvious reasons, none of the “bad guys” step in front of the camera. What are they gonna say? Admit guilt? Not likely. But you do wish the filmmakers took a deeper dive into the corrupt practices of USAG, which is now under new leadership. But - like the Catholic Church - can we ever trust it again? Minus that, the testimonials of the survivors are sufficiently inspiring, a feeling reaching its zenith in the final 20 minutes when dozens upon dozens of Nassar’s victims come face to face with their abuser at sentencing. It’s a catharsis in which each describes the damage he’s done. It’s empowering to the max.
So are the photos of Penny being placed in handcuffs after he’s been arrested for conspiring to cover up the scandal, even going so far as to put cops and the FBI on the payroll to keep his organization’s dirty little secret from ever being exposed. And it might have stayed that way if not for our nation’s lifeblood: good, solid local journalism. Under President Donald Trump, the press has taken a beating, but it’s these good deeds that renew your faith in the Fourth Estate. More so, “Athlete A” fortifies the belief that even at our darkest hour, the light eventually finds its way into the filthiest corners of society, enabling even wronged little girls to one day gain the upper hand by converting pain into power.
Al Alexander may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A documentary by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk featuring gymnasts Maggie Nichols, Jamie Dantzscher, Jessica Howard, Jennifer Sey and Racheal Denhollander. Available on Netflix.
(PG-13 for mature thematic content including detailed descriptions of sexual abuse of children.)