Written by: Eve
Edited by: Martin
Visual by: Mischka
The release of Netflix’s “explosive” and “striking” new documentary Athlete A has been described as “one of the best documentaries of the year” by some critics (Robey, Myers). While the documentary details the shocking abuse of hundreds of girls by USAG team doctor Larry Nassar, what was interesting was the way it examined the issue as systemic. It outlined what seemed to be the main priority of USAG: the image and marketing ability of the sport and its athletes. The former CEO and president of USAG Steve Penny began as the marketing director for USAG. He worked to create brand partnerships with corporations to make money and instill the image and marketability of gymnastics as a wholesome, pure sport, ironically, to the point that USAG neglected the true health and wellbeing of its athletes. While watching the film, I began to understand that optics were one of the driving forces behind the covering up of abuse and negligence.
The other driving force is success, which goes hand in hand with the notion of image. In order to provide context for the abuse of young girls and the culture that surrounds it, the film tracks the evolution of the sport into one dominated by teenagers. In the documentary, former USAG athlete Jennifer Sey discusses this, explaining that the childlike ‘aesthetic’ began in Eastern Europe in the mid ‘70s, and that it was widely believed that, “for the more difficult skills to be performed, you had to be tiny”. She added, “there’s also the benefit of the coaches having more control when the girls are younger”. This strategy provided big wins for Romania and the Soviet Union, in accordance with their strive for soft power during the cold war. However, as with all forms of control, specifically over that of impressionable and voiceless children, it can be easily abused. Sey articulates this notion, saying, “In other sports, the athletes are adults. They can reasonably make choices about what they want. I don’t think that is true for gymnastics”. When asked by reporters whether she was aware of sexual abuse ongoing during her time with USAG in the ‘70s, she responded, “The national team coach was a known sexual abuser, they were everywhere across the country and we knew who they were. But more broadly, physical and emotional abuse was the norm, and we were so beaten down, made so obedient that when there was a known sexual abuser in our midst, we would never say anything. We felt utterly powerless”. USAG Olympian Jamie Dantzscher echoes this experience during the late ‘90s and early 2000s, saying that she had been physically and emotionally abused by coaches in her elite gym and in the national team, so that she “looked forward to treatments” with Nassar, because he was the “only nice adult on the USAG staff”. With parental contact highly limited due to the strict USAG programs, the toxic adults and the environment they created allowed Nassar and countless predators like him to gain the trust of the children. Dantzscher revealed he would often sneak the athletes food and “put candy under [their] pillows”, because they were being starved by coaches. Therefore normalisation of cruelty diminishes a child’s ability to recognize or report sexual assault and rape, especially when such mistreatment is in the name of development, a means of success. Sey admits, “the line between tough coaching and child abuse gets blurred”.
The film begins and ends with the story of Maggie Nichols, who competed in the 2014 Tokyo Olympics, finishing third all around. She was also the first to report Nassar’s abuse to USAG in June of 2015. Her report was not taken to authorities by USAG. Instead, Maggie was prevented from engaging with the media and was rejected from the 2018 Olympic team, not even as an alternate, despite her impressive scores, second only to Simone Biles. Contrastingly, Nassar conferred with USAG on the best course of action, coming to an agreement to excuse his absence as sickness rather than admit the allegations to the public and media. This behaviour emphasizes that the blame of child abuse cannot be simply handed off to the abuser themselves, as it is clearly faciliated by the system of policies and executives that protect them at the expense of the survivors. Furthermore, the investigation of the FBI in relation to the abuse scandal, as corroborating with USAG staff in exchange for administrative positions on the USAG board highlights the extent of which this systemic issue extends, to a national system as a whole.
Personally, the most important aspect of this documentary was understanding the importance of having women at every stage of justice. Marisa Kwiatkowski, a journalist for the Indy Star initially chased up the story, recognizing its importance and the systemic implications of USAG’s negligent policies. Andrea Munford was the lead investigator, and the first to question Nassar. She continued to take on the caseload of the countless girls that followed. Anglea Povilaitis was the lead prosecutor in the criminal case People v. Larry Nassar, representing the survivors. The honorable Judge Rosemarie Aquilina oversaw the court proceedings, providing compassion and a safe space in which to share their stories. Rape statistics show that only 19% of rape or sexual assault cases are reported. In this case, those that did over the decades of abuse at USAG were threatened, silenced through gag orders and non-disclosure agreements. The abuse itself was reinforced and enabled by ineffective policies and a system that prioritized image and medals first, and the athletes that achieved them last. Contrastingly, the four women at the heart of this case ensured that justice was served, along with the recognition and support of the survivors and their experiences. This immediate and thorough response is unfortunately uncommon—as survivor Rachel Denhollander reveals, “The two biggest fears I had coming forward was the investigator that I would get and the prosecutor that I would get, because both of them are capable of completely derailing the process if they dont take it seriously, if they don’t investigate it well and if they choose not to file charges”. Denhollander continues, emphasizing her gratitude for her fortunate circumstances, saying, “Andrea and Angela worked very closely together, and Angela looked at the files, and she said, ‘I will take them all, and I will fight for every last one of them.’ And she did”.
The value of women involved in the system of law, authority and sentencing is articulated by Judge Vanessa Ruiz. She explains, “Adjudication is enhanced by the presence of women who bring to the fore considerations that would not have been taken into account in their absence; the scope of the discussion is hence enlarged, possibly preventing ill-considered or improper decisions. By elucidating how laws and rulings can be based on gender stereotypes, or how they might have a different impact on women and men, a gender perspective enhances the fairness of adjudication, which ultimately benefits both men and women”.
The most striking and impactful statement for me, and the one that best sums up the true psychological and developmental impact of child abuse, is in Jamie Dantzschers reflection upon addressing Nassar directly during her impact statement in the criminal trial. She shares, “As an Olympic gymnast, to be able to say, you have no power over me anymore… I can finally say I am proud to be an Olympian”.
Kuadli, Jenifer. “32 Disheartening Sexual Assault Statistics for 2022.” 32 Disheartening Sexual Assault Statistics for 2022, LegalJobs, 18 Jan. 2022, https://legaljobs.io/blog/sexual-assault-statistics/#:~:text=Over%2040%25%20of%20women%20in,sexual%20violence%20other%20than%20rape.
Robey, Tim. “Athlete A, Netflix Review: The Greatest Abuse Scandal in the History of Sport.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 18 June 2020, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/0/athlete-netflix-review-greatest-abuse-scandal-history-sport/.
Ruiz, Vanessa. “The Role of Women Judges and a Gender Perspective in Ensuring Judicial Independence and Integrity.” The Role of Women Judges and a Gender Perspective in Ensuring Judicial Independence and Integrity, https://www.unodc.org/dohadeclaration/en/news/2019/01/the-role-of-women-judges-and-a-gender-perspective-in-ensuring-judicial-independence-and-integrity.html.
Myers, Randy. “Streaming Movie Picks: Explosive ‘Athlete a’ Unpacks USA Gymnastics Abuse Scandal.” The Mercury News, The Mercury News, 25 June 2020, https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/06/24/streaming-movie-picks-explosive-athlete-a-unpacks-usa-gymnastic-abuse-scandal/.