Netflix's Athlete A is a compelling true-crime documentary and also an ode to investigative journalism
Originally intended to premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, Athlete A, one of the several films to become a casualty of a global pandemic, sacrificed a potential festival run for a direct Netflix release.
For over a year since June 2015, Maggie Nichols, widely considered to be the second best athlete after Simon Biles, came to be referred by the USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for the sport, as Athlete A.
All of 15 at the time, Nichols was a brilliant gymnast, well on the track to make it to the Olympic team in 2016. And yet, the next year at the trials, not only was she left out of the team, but she also didn’t manage to secure a spot as one of the three alternates. It wasn’t that Nichols didn’t rise up to the occasion, the problem was in fact that she refused to bow down.
Nichols was the first gymnast to publicly disclose her abuse at the hands of Larry Nassar, the osteopathic physician who served as the doctor for the USA Gymnastics women’s team for close to three decades, to authorities. As punishment, she was shunned from the very team that she dedicated every waking moment of her whole life to.
That’s because in daring to become “Athlete A”, Nichols was effectively outmaneuvering a culture of silence, intimidation and manipulation that held hundreds of impressionable women hostage for years. In the eyes of an organisation held together by oppressive practices, wide disregard for the trauma inflicted on young girls, and an insatiable desire to produce winners at any cost, athletes like Nichols come across as a liability. The only way to render her insignificant then, would be to strip her off any identity. So they christened her as Athlete A, shrinking her attempt at blowing the lid of what came to be the biggest sexual misconduct scandal in US sporting history to a mere one-off inconvenience.
That changed 15 months later. In September 2016, Indianapolis Star broke the disturbing story of how Nassar went about sexually abusing underaged female athletes with complete impunity for almost 30 years. The newspaper’s investigation came on the back of the powerful testimony of two sources – former gymnasts, Rachael Denhollander and Jamie Dantzscher – both of whom detailed assaults that Nassar carried out in the guise of medical examinations, confirming in effect the culpability of USA Gymnastics, that worked hand-in-glove to cover up Nassar’s crimes. Their stories didn’t just buttress Nichols’ allegations, but they also indicated that she might not be on her own for much longer – that it would be a matter of time before Athlete A multiplied into Athlete B, Athlete C, and so forth.
That estimate turned out to be accurate. By the end, over 500 women came forward to hold USA Gymnastics and Larry Nassar accountable for their collective breaches of power, culminating in Nassar’s arrest, a seven-day hearing that saw over 125 women, including Olympians, confront him in court, and his eventual conviction.
Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s Athlete A, a harrowing, meticulous documentary that chronicles Nassar’s crimes as well as spotlights how they were uncovered, is foremost a tale of this very reckoning that turned one voice into a chorus.
Originally intended to premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, Athlete A, one of the several films to become a casualty of a global pandemic, sacrificed a potential festival run for a direct Netflix release. By the fabric of its design, Athlete A joins the ranks of recent documentaries centred around sexual predators (Untouchable, Finding Neverland, Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich) that not only take them to task but also act as a form of recourse.
Most of these films are structured in a way that allow survivors control over their own narrative, stacked with testimonies, detailing either their side of the story or unfolding from their perspective. But even when these films deliver a brand of social justice, they can come across as recreations of events that have already been extensively reported in print as well as reached a logical conclusion through due process. In that sense, they often end up as an exhibition of courage: evocative portraits of a precise moment in time instead of capturing that very moment first-hand.
It’s here that Athlete A, one of the more narratively ambitious documentaries in this genre, predominantly differs from its predecessors.
For one, it doesn’t limit itself to being a documentary that is invested only in curating outrage against the horrifying misdeeds of a sexual predator. Instead, the spine of the story is in the systemic concentration of power that could treat the bodies of young women as disposable goods.
The film’s central preoccupation seems to be in locating the significance of the questions that arise even after any semblance of justice has been delivered: For example, how do we prevent a culture that enables abuse? And how exactly do we punish complicity? Thus, it is at once, a compelling true crime documentary, a sensational ode to the perseverance of investigative journalism, and a deeply moving exploration of the oldest injustice in the world: women’s bodies being used as collateral for their ambition (what makes the affair particularly nauseating is that in this case, the violated bodies belonged to little girls, some as young as six years old).
Athlete A’s biggest achievement then, isn’t that it storifies history as a record for the future but that it casts its net much further, choosing to become accountable to the present, observing circumstances that are still developing in real time.
Cohen and Shenk masterfully achieve that with their clinical approach toward a narrative that has numerous moving parts, focusing primarily on providing context to a system that chose to become inept at preventing abuse or even telling it apart from coaching. The makers take a conscious decision to not dwell on the parts of the story that have already become archived in public memory, like Nassar’s long drawn-out, emotionally searing trial.
Instead, Athlete A starts with Nichols' story, which acquires a heartbreaking turn early on as her parents admit to the helplessness of being reduced to bystanders unable to prove the injustice meted out to their daughter even as they witnessed her bear the psychological brunt of that cruelty. It simultaneously explores the toxic codependency that the sports body has exploited in its favour: In one scene, Nichols' father, racked with guilt over not doing enough, notes the unequal power equation between them. Despite being wronged, they couldn't afford to rebel against USA Gymnastics simply because their daughter's dream warranted their signoff.
Then, the documentary proceeds to intercut the specificity of these consequences with laying down a broader groundwork, busying itself in charting the path to this codependency – a gymnast for instance, claims that the "standard methodology of coaching in US Gymnastics was cruelty".
Athlete A spends a considerable chunk of its runtime establishing it as a result of inheriting a physically and emotionally abusive training regime from Béla and Márta Károlyi, two Romanian coaches who defected to the West and were lapped up by the sports body to give their gymnastics team a makeover. The merciless methods that they developed under the repressive Ceausescu regime bore continuous results, most popularly in the case of Nadia Comăneci who became the first 14-year-old to win gold at the 1976 Olympics.
That in turn, Athlete A argues was also pivotal in altering the very aesthetic of competitive gymnastics, which moved on from having only adult women compete in women’s gymnastics and became more infatuated with the idea of training female gymnasts from a young age. Delayed menstruation, maturations and eating disorders soon became the norm.
The result was a sport thronged by kids in their formative years left under the supervision of men and women who cared not about them but only about what they could get out of them. If for Steve Benny, the President of US Gymnastics, these girls signified a more marketable brand, one that could attract endorsements based on how “wholesome” their image was, then Karolyis saw them as little more than cattle, bred instead of nurtured. And Nassar, the only “friendly” adult who gave these girls the impression that he was on their side simply by appearing non-threatening in comparison, saw them as an opportunity. Essentially, he became a monster of their own making: The more gruelling the training regime got, the more injuries these athletes sustained, which by extension, increased the number of hours they were required to spend in the doctor’s room. Besides, the organisation’s tradition of not passing on any allegations of sexual misconduct to the police (The FBI wasn’t immediately intimated about Nichols’ complaint even though Benny assured her parents that an investigation was on and barred them from speaking about it) only reinforced the cycle of abuse.
The illuminating Athlete A frequently shifts between archival footage of the gymnasts, digging up old interviews even, and the investigative work undertaken by the Indianapolis Star journalists to lay emphasis on how deep the rot lay and just how redundant it is to curtail any of it without overhauling all of it.
By the time Nichols reported her abuse, Nassar had almost become a veteran in getting away with sexual assault in the same way the sports body had perfected a lexicon of minimising and dismissing allegations. A common exercise was to convince these athletes that the violations reported by them, which included Nassar using his ungloved fingers for vaginal and anal penetration (in some instances, he would proceed to assault a victim while a parent was in the room), were part of standard medical procedures.
An early scene in Athlete A has one of the journalists fact-check whether intra-vaginal procedures were part of any gymnast-related treatments –they were not.
It is these moments of contrast – the interplay between the enthralling appearance of the US Gymnastics and the inner torment of the gymnasts – that make Athlete A such a riveting, worthy affair. The film constantly riffs on the distance between what the world got to see and what really went behind the scenes to reveal the bigger picture: the tragedy that is the loss of youth. This dissonance informs every aspect of the film, right from how much the organisation knew about Nassar's sexual misconduct to how little the parents were made aware of it (much of the abuse took place at Karolyi Ranch, the USA Gymnastics National Team Training Center, where no parent was allowed).
Athlete A also plays up this act of concealment perpetuated by US gymnastics to force the viewer into confronting their perception of two crucial moments of sporting history: The first was the iconic moment from 1996 when Kerri Strug won gold with an flawless vault that she executed despite a visibly painful leg injury. At the time, she was unanimously praised and celebration for her dedication and bravery. But today, it's impossible to peel your eyes away from the young girl in enormous pain who had no other option but to flawlessly execute a vault despite a severe injury, and who was left to then, crawl on the mat after, unable to walk. The other image is McKayla Maroney's scowl at the 2016 Olympics when she received her silver medal. At the time, her facial expression became fodder for internet jokes, read as nothing more than disappointment on not coming first. But now, knowing that she was one of Nassar's victims, gives deeper meaning to the expression of displeasure on her face.
In the opening minutes of the documentary, a former US Olympian recounts that the young gymnasts from the Communist Bloc, whose training regime US Gymnastics later replicated, looked terrified during competitions and behaved almost like robots. "All I can say is that the athletes did not look happy, ever,"
Athlete A forces you to consider the implication of the statement because it could very well apply to the scores of female US athletes whose childhood and identities were destroyed by a system that was designed to torment them.
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