Review: Netflix's powerful 'Athlete A' chronicles abuse scandal at USA Gymnastics
One of the most tragic lines in the powerful documentary "Athlete A," about sexual abuse in the USA Gymnastics, comes when the gymnast Jamie Dantzscher says Larry Nassar -- the osteopathic physician who in his 29 years as the USA Gymnastics women's team's doctor used medical treatment as a guise for molesting hundreds of young athletes -- was the only nice adult among the team staff.
It's a point Dantzscher, a survivor of Nassar's abuse, struggles to say. But it's an important one about the culture that allowed Nasser to operate and thrive in.
"Athlete A," which began streaming Wednesday on Netflix, chronicles the often harrowing process of brave women coming forward against Nassar and the belated justice that eventually came his way. He was sentenced to 40 to 125 years in prison in 2018.
But the documentary, directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, is vigilant in widening its lens to capture the broader problems at USA Gymnastics. Nassar continued working for months after the first allegations, including those by Maggie Nichols, were brought to team leaders. (Nichols was then dubbed "Athlete A" to preserve her anonymity.) President Steve Penny, a former marketing executive, was later indicted on felony charges of tampering with evidence. In only a toxic atmosphere could a predator like Nassar seem like a friend to young competitors like Dantzscher.
But the sensational success of the U.S. female gymnasts came at a steep cost. The program, gymnasts say, adopted the harsh, militant style of the former Soviet Bloc. It was overseen by coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi, who defected from Romania in 1981. Their training center in Huntsville, Texas, a wooded ranch where parents weren't allowed, is where much of the abuse took place. The pervasive psychological abuse -- to eat less, to perform through pain -- survivors say made Nassar's actions all the more confusing. Some of the Karolyis' decisions -- like dropping Nichols from the Olympic team shortly after she made the allegation -- are also plainly dubious.
Aside from the vital issues of who knew about the abuse but didn't contact authorities, there's the question of whether the enormous pressure and marketing machinery set up around USA gymnastics should be borne by young girls. Many begin serious training as 10-year-olds at national centers. Predators, former gymnast Jennifer Sey says, were "everywhere."
Blind eyes and cover-ups are also ubiquitous in "Athlete A," one of the best of the many powerful #MeToo-era documentaries to delve into stories of powerful men and abuse. It is also about the important role the press has played in bringing these stories to light. "Athlete A" is told partially through the efforts of the Indianapolis Star (including investigative reporter Marisa Kwiatkowski), which began digging into reports of abuse in 2016.
Few Olympic athletes have been more celebrated in recent years than USA gymnasts. But after "Athlete A," you may never again watch America's pursuit for gold with quite the same enthusiasm.
★ ★ ★
Directed by: Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk
Other: A Netflix release. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content. 113 minutes