The Films of 2020: Athlete A (dir by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk)

By now, we all know who Larry Nassar is and what he did.

Nassar was the USA Gymnastic Team doctor, the guy who worked with some of America’s top gymnasts.  For several years, he was the guy who you would see standing in the background of televised gymnastic events, including the Olympics.  If any of the gymnasts were injured during a competition, he was the man who television audiences would see running out to the mat.  He was the man who both viewers and gymnasts were conditioned to see as being a protector.  In the documentary Athlete A, there’s footage of Nassar kneeling down beside an injured gymnast while a commentator assures the people watching at home that there’s no reason to be worried.  If anyone is going to know what to do, the commentator explains, it’s going to be Larry Nassar.

In 2015, USA Gymnastics cut ties with Larry Nassar, citing “athlete concerns.”  In 2016, the Indianapolis Star broke the story that two gymnasts had accused Nassar of sexual abuse.  (Despite the accusations, Nassar still received 27% of the vote when he ran for his local school board that same year.)  When Nassar was arrested in 2016 and put on trial, more gymnasts came forward.  It is currently estimated that there are over 265 identified victims of Nassar’s abuse and an infinite number who may never be identified.  After Nassar pled guilty to charges of possessing child pornography, he was sentenced to 60 years in federal prison.  After pleading guilty to seven counts of sexual assault against minors, Nassar was given a state sentence of 175 years.  This was followed by an additional state sentence of 40 to 125 years when he pled guilty to three more assaults.  At the time of his sentencing, the judge said, “I just signed your death warrant.”  At the time, I remember being more than a little worried that Nassar would attempt to cite those words as proof that the judge was biased against him and that he would request a new sentencing hearing.  Of course, that’s exactly what Nassar did.  Fortunately, that request was denied and Larry Nassar will die in prison.

Athlete A is hardly the first documentary to be made about Larry Nassar and the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal but it is the first one to truly explore how a monster like Larry Nassar was not only able to thrive but also why he was shielded by the very people who should have been protecting his victims.  As the documentary shows, USA Gymnastics is a brand and it’s champions — especially it’s female champions — are expected to be the perfect ambassadors for the brand.  That means following orders, winning gold medals, and not complaining.  Despite all of the footage that we see of various commentators rhapsodizing about the special relationship between the gymnasts and their coaches, the gymnasts themselves are treated as just being a commodity that’s valuable as long as they can keep winning medals and keep bringing money into USA Gymnastics.  Once they can no longer win, those coaches no loner have any use for them.

At the legendary Karolyi Ranch in Huntsville, Texas, young girls were separated from their parents and trained by Béla Károlyi, a strict taskmaster who had no hesitation about slapping a gymnast who he felt hadn’t done well.  Into this harsh environment came Larry Nassar, a seemingly dorky and friendly guy who claimed to only be concerned with the health and the safety of the gymnasts.  Nassar would assure the gymnasts, most of whom had yet to even reach puberty, that everything he was doing was for their benefit.  Some of them, he abused for years, from the moment they came in for their first check-up until the day that they finally retired from competition.   And, when many of the gymnasts grew older and realized that what Nassar was doing was not okay, they would discover that no one was willing to listen to them.  Though the first complaints agaist Nassar were made in the 90s, it wasn’t until 2015 that anything was done about him.  In fact, parents were often lied to.  As is recounted in this film, the president and CEO of USA Gymnastics, Steve Penny, assured at least one gymnast and her parents that he had forwarded their concerns about Nassar when he had done no such thing.  Though Nassar’s trial got the majority of the coverage, Steve Penny would also be arrested and charged with deliberately tampering with evidence in order to protect him.

As I said a few paragraphs ago, this is hardly the first documentary about what went on behind the scenes at USA Gymnastics.  It probably won’t be the last.  But this may be the most important one because, through heart-wrenching interviews with Nassar’s victims, Athlete A shows how a man like Nassar was able to abuse young girls for years while those who should have been protecting the athletes were making the decision to look away.  Some of the most powerful moments in the film come from the contrast between the reality of what was happening and the way that USA Gymnastics presented itself in public.  The doctor who was supposed to take care of the athletes was a monster and the coaches, who were presented as being strict but caring, were his enablers.  Everyone wanted to benefit from the success of the athletes but no one was willing to stand up for them.

Athlete A is not easy to watch.  It’s a harrowing documentary but it’s also an important one.


One response to “The Films of 2020: Athlete A (dir by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk)

  1. Pingback: Lisa’s Week In Review: 8/14/20 — 8/20/20 | Through the Shattered Lens

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