“Up until now, I was identified as Athlete A by the USA Gymnastics, the United States Olympic Committee, and Michigan State University, and I want everyone to know that [Dr.Larry Nassar] did not do this to Athlete A, he did it to Maggie Nichols” — Gina Nichols.
Netflix’s new documentary, ATHLETE A (2020), directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, is a devastatingly poignant look at corruption within the USA Gymnastics (USAG), the USA Olympic Committee, and Michigan State University. Framed around the sexual assault scandal by prominent women’s gymnastics team doctor, Dr. Larry Nassar, the documentary exposes how the USAG covered up complaints of misconduct and sexual abuse for decades in order to preserve its wealth and reputation. Maggie Nichols, Jamie Dantzscher, and Jennifer Sey are among the survivors of abuse that are featured in the film.
In 2016, The Indianapolis Star exposed a trend of ignored complaints of abuse and misconduct from staff within the USAG. Instead of firing the offenders or reporting them to authorities, the institution simply moved them to different gyms, the majority being coaches. The scandal garnered attention immediately and quickly snowballed into a bigger story, that of notorious sexual predator, Dr. Larry Nassar. Nassar, who has since been sentenced to life imprisonment, abused around 500 women and girls throughout his tenure as an elite female gymnastics doctor.
With great skill and pathos, the documentary gives voice to the many gymnasts who have been mistreated by their coaches. Jennifer Sey, a survivor of Dr.Nassar, and a former gymnast herself, describes the methodology of training as “cruelty.” She claims that the abusive culture in which these athletes are trained keeps them quiet about their mistreatment. Jamie Dantzscher, another survivor, adds that many of them “didn’t even think of it as abuse” because it was so normalized by the adults around them.
Through extremely effective use of interviews and archival footage of survivors, lawyers, and journalists, Cohen and Shenk manage to paint a horrifyingly clear picture of the abusive environment many young female gymnasts grow up in. The film also explains the history of USAG and the malignant culture they encourage. This helps the viewer understand how deep-rooted these issues are and how they came to be normalised. Jennifer Sey sardonically claims the competitive culture in the US as one reason this maltreatment continued, “We love winners in this country. This is a competitive country. We consider ourselves the best in the world at everything…”
One very affecting piece of footage utilized in the documentary is that of young Maggie Nichols doing a simple vault. Nichols seems to be about seven or eight years old in the clip, but she looks overwhelmingly happy. When I first saw this clip at the beginning of the documentary, I found it cute. When it is shown again at the end, I felt almost scared. Suddenly the clip didn’t feel ‘cute’, it felt like a tipping point.
The importance of documentaries like this cannot be understated. Not only does it expose a whole culture of sexism in sport and society, it deepens our understanding of the ways in which women are systematically judged, sexualized, and invalidated by those in power. It also questions the competitive ethos of American culture, and suggests that its obsessive patriotism, and lust for “greatness” at any cost, is extremely harmful to its citizens. While I am disappointed that ATHLETE A didn’t explore other facets of sexism as in-depth, I am so grateful for what it did bring to light. Documentaries like these give me a hell of a lot of hope that things will continue to change and improve for women everywhere.