Based on the infamous sexual abuse scandal involving Dr. Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics, Netflix’s Athlete A is one of the most relevant and well-made documentaries, that highlights the importance of believing survivors.
All good documentaries have one thing in common – the ability to merge new information with readily available facts, in a structured, easy-to-understand story that educates and informs. That’s exactly what Athlete A does.
At the same time, it does not sensationalize the events, but rather, helps viewers understand the extent of pain and trauma that USA gymnastics inflicted upon the very athletes who brought pride and glory to the nation.
Athlete A follows reporters at The Indianapolis Star, who were responsible for first breaking the story about prevalent abuse in USA Gymnastics (USAG – a national governing body), coincidentally around the same time that the 2016 Rio Olympics were taking place.
Athlete A refers to American gymnast Maggie Nichols, who recounted Nassar’s conduct to her personal coach, who subsequently reported to USAG, and set the ball rolling, so to say.
However, Nichols wasn’t the first, or sadly, even the last person abused by Larry Nassar. It took 11 months from the time Nichols first reported the abuse, for Nassar to voluntarily retire from his position as the team doctor for USAG. He was fired from his position at Michigan State University much later. He had been abusing young girls and women since 1992.
Despite previous allegations against him and Nichols’ reports, USAG continued to protect Nassar rather than the young girls he was preying upon, and who should have been their primary responsibility.
Athlete A, thus, does not focus on just the primary issue–Nassar’s years of abuse–but also on how such prolonged abuse was allowed to continue in the first place, highlighting how a nation sacrificed its young for the gold, quite literally.
It intersperses interviews with three former USAG gymnasts, with videos of Nassar’s depositions and court proceedings, while building a timeline of how systematic abuse at USAG started and continued unchecked.
The documentary showcases the role that former coaches, Béla and Márta Károlyi and former CEO Steve Penny, played in the continued abuse of young athletes.
They continued the cycle of abuse by valuing endorsements over children’s lives and forcing athletes to compete despite debilitating physical injuries.
In such prevalent toxicity, Nassar took advantage of hundreds of young women by appearing as a ‘kind, caring, adult’ – often the only such adult on the training camp.
Ultimately though, Athlete A is not just about the facts it uncovers but also about the courage, determination, and spirit of those survivors who took the first step in putting an end to this evil.
It’s a harrowing, heartbreaking watch but it is also an important one. It is a much-needed reminder of the role of investigative journalism, especially in today’s day and age. And a glorious example of women ‘taking back the power’.
All images from Netflix, unless specified otherwise.