It is often difficult to process what is told in Netflix documentary film “Athlete A”, which was released on this Wednesday. Like many other recent documentary films on sexual abuses, the documentary gives us a series of devastating testimonies on a shocking case of sexual abuse which was covered up by USA Gymnastics for more than 20 years, and you will certainly be relieved to see those numerous survivors getting the justice in the end.
The documentary opens with the story of Maggie Nichols, an adolescent gymnastic athlete who had aspired to become a member of the American Olympic team since her childhood years. Even when she was very young, she showed considerable potential and talent, and her parents enthusiastically supported her as she advanced more and more in her burgeoning athletic career, but, as their parents bitterly tell us, her earnest aspiration was unjustly dashed just because she and her parents reported a case of sexual abuse to USA Gymnastics.
As subsequently shown to us in the documentary, Nichols was sexually abused by Dr. Larry Nassar, who, as many of you remember, was eventually put on a trial for his long history of sexual abuse on young women and girls at not only USA Gymnastics but also the Michigan State University. While the case was utterly shocking considering the number of young women and girls abused by this vile man, it was also pretty infuriating that USA Gymnastics had deliberately ignored his horrible crimes just for protecting its interest and public image.
Director Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk interviewed several survivors of Nassar’s sexual abuses, and they willingly tell us how his sexual exploitation on them and many other young female athletes was possible during his long tenure at USA Gymnastics. As the national gymnastic teams from Romania and other Eastern countries showed considerable athletic achievements at the Olympics during the 1970s, USA Gymnastics was certainly willing to surpass them by any means necessary, and then there came a chance when a trio of Romanian gymnastic coaches defected to US around the early 1980s. These coaches were promptly hired by USA Gymnastics, and then they pushed young female athletes into harsh and demanding training sessions which were often accompanied with verbal or physical abuses.
Frequently isolated in this toxic environment, many female athletes of USA Gymnastics were naturally drawn to the seemingly kind approach from Nassar. Still being young and innocent, most of them did not know what happened to them when he sexually molested them in private, and some of them belatedly came to realize that only after his crimes were fully exposed in public. The documentary shows us a number of creepy online education video clips made by him, and it is really disturbing to see how he casually touches several young women just for demonstrating his physical therapy techniques.
When they came to learn of what happened to their daughter, Nichols’ parents took an immediate action. After they told about that to several persons at USA Gymnastics, they were notified that there would be an internal investigation, but nothing much was done, and USA Gymnastics did not even report that to the local police, let alone FBI.
In the meantime, Nichols and her parents came to face the consequence of their attempt to reach for justice. In a national competition for the selection of the national team members for the 2016 Rio Olympics, Nichols was not even chosen as an alternative despite earning the 6th place, and Nichol’s parents were blatantly disregarded by USA Gymnastics in contrast to the parents of other athletes.
However, the wheel of justice subsequently started to roll for Nichols and many other survivors of Nassar’s sexual abuse thanks to the diligent and stubborn efforts from the reporters of the Indianapolis Star. When they were about to broke the story about Nassar’s sexual abuse at USA Gymnastics in September 2016, they had only three survivors to testify, but then, once their article was published, far more survivors approached to them for telling each own story of sexual abuse, and Nassar was eventually accused of sexually abusing no less than 250 young women and girls at least.
Not only Nassar but also several figures associated with the cover-up of his crimes came to get comeuppance in the end, and the most powerful moment in the documentary comes from the scene showing a bunch of survivors of his sexual abuse coming forward and then making a statement in front of Nassar during his trial. They were not afraid of him anymore as finally getting what they needed for many years, and this moment certainly resonates a lot with the ongoing #MeToo era.
Overall, “Athlete A” may be a bit tough to watch, but it handles its sensitive subject with enough consideration, and it is surely another commendable documentary from Netflix, which already presented us “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” (2020), “Circus of Books” (2019), “A Secret Love” (2020), and “Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen” (2020) during this year. They are all worthwhile to watch in my inconsequential opinion, and I assure you that you will get a fair share of enlightenment from each of them.
I watched this yesterday! and seeing Maggie Nicholls find her love for gymnastics in a different context after being so mistreated by USA gymnastics and molested by Larry Nassar, gave me some hope that she and the other girls found some peace after their tragedy. Those people stole so much from these girls and women but they still survived!
SC: And I am glad for that.
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