Content Warning: Sexual Abuse
Netflix’s new documentary Athlete A is undoubtedly a must-watch, regardless of whether you are a fan of gymnastics.
I’ve always loved the sport. For a few years, I participated in gymnastics from a young age and, while I was never that good, I enjoyed it immensely and found training on all the different apparatus exciting. I still like watching gymnastics when it’s on TV, knowing how dedicated the athletes must be to get to the top. However, I’ve never thought much about what goes on behind the scenes of the Olympic glory we see, especially in the United States. Athlete A does just that, providing an exposé of what was a terrible shock to many, but an open secret to everyone involved in elite American gymnastics over a period of more than 20 years.
The documentary follows the discovery of a culture of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse within elite gymnastics in America, specifically the widespread sexual abuse by Dr. Larry Nassar and the deliberate cover up of this abuse by USA Gymnastics.
I already knew about Larry Nassar and the 250 cases of sexual abuse prior to watching, but less so about the abusive culture within USA Gymnastics which seemingly allowed the abuse to continue for reasons explored in the documentary. To me, this was the most eye-opening aspect when watching.
Athlete A exposes the acceptance of a cruel and abusive methodology to achieve competitive success. Former Olympic gymnast Jennifer Sey says “they would sacrifice their young to win”, and the documentary seeks to evidence this chilling claim. Within the elite team, there was an atmosphere of fear, intimidation, and silence, overseen by the notorious Bela and Marta Karolyi. Therefore, the ‘kindness’ of team doctor Nassar served as a contrast to this cruelty and he quickly gained the trust of all the girls he treated. The obedience of the young gymnasts meant that they wouldn’t dare speak out if they knew of an abuser within the organisation, and the levels of gaslighting by the coaches led the girls to question whether what they were experiencing was sexual abuse.
What I found most disturbing was the willingness of USA Gymnastics to turn a blind eye to systemic abuse. Their motivation being to protect the reputation of both an individual and an organisation that breeds success, which turns into more advertising and therefore more profit. It was shocking to learn about the commodification of young girls, who are referred to as products that are used to maintain and preserve a brand, with extraordinarily little care for the welfare of the girls themselves.
Athlete A is an incredibly difficult watch, and it is important to stress that some may find the discussions of abuse difficult or triggering. However, although the story being relayed is unimaginably awful, my overriding feelings by the end of the documentary were that of inspiration and empowerment. The documentary lays out the facts of the case, but the greatest strength of Athlete A is the amazing individuals at the centre of the story. The documentary portrayed them with respect, and rightly so as they were brave enough to share their experiences after fighting against the system that took so much from them. Justice was eventually achieved as a result of the power of local investigative journalism, the determination of tenacious lawyers, and the courage and strength of some incredible women who suffered at the hands of institutional abuse and were robbed of the chance to be girls.
Featured Image Source: Still from Athlete A Trailer / Youtube