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‘Athlete A’ doc explores USA Gymnastics abuse scandal

June 25, 2020
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The world of elite competitive sports is a fascinating one, studded with stars and fantastic feats. We watch and we marvel and we revel in the incredible athleticism that plays out on the fields and in the arenas that make up the grandest stage. We LOVE sports.

But there’s another side to that love affair – a side that can be unpleasant, harmful and, sometimes, utterly horrifying.

“Athlete A” – a documentary by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, currently streaming on Netflix – tells a story that reveals just how dark the dark side of sports can get. It’s the story of the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal, in which team physician Dr. Larry Nassar took advantage of his position to abuse hundreds of girls over the course of decades – and in which the leadership of USA Gymnastics attempted to cover it all up. The film walks the viewer through the investigation, led by reporters at the Indianapolis Star, while also engaging with some of the first women to go public with their allegations of abuse.

Watching this film isn’t always easy – there are some gut-wrenching moments that will land hard no matter how much you already know of the story. But “Athlete A” is important filmmaking, a cinematic document of a story that forces us to take a long hard look in the mirror of our fandom. It’s a reminder that a win-at-all-costs mentality can be dangerous – because some costs are devastatingly, unconscionably high.

“Athlete A” is a thoughtful and thorough deconstruction of the events of the scandal, focusing largely on the investigative journalism undertaken by the Indianapolis Star and the individuals who became the de facto faces of the story. Through interviews with the reporters, the gymnasts and those close to them, the filmmakers get the story of how this story was dragged into the light despite the efforts of certain people to keep it in the shadows.

The film’s narrative is largely constructed around Maggie Nichols, who reported her abuse at the hands of Nassar in 2015. She and her parents were given the runaround by USA Gymnastics regarding a supposed investigation; Nichols also became something of a pariah in the upper circles of the organization. This led to her tough-to-defend omission from the 2016 Olympic team; she subsequently walked away from Olympic-level gymnastics, going to the University of Oklahoma and becoming the top all-around gymnast in the NCAA.

But Maggie Nichols is far from the only voice we hear. Other survivors share their stories – Rachel Denhollander, Jamie Dantzscher and Jessica Howard all offer up their own memories of abuse. These women came forward in an effort to finally put the pain and shame of their experience behind them, as well as to do something to protect the generations of gymnasts to come.

All of this set alongside archival footage of the many triumphs by Team USA Gymnastics over the years, with beloved superstar gold medalists and their athletic excellence executed against a fanfare of patriotic pride. It’s a juxtaposition that hits hard and opens us up to the dark realities of our own complicity in the ongoing churn of the Olympic machine.

“Athlete A” is a story of institutional rot, a tale of what happens when winning trumps all else. It shows the consequences that come when the ends justify the means. Gymnastics in particular, with its combination of intense physicality and increasingly young elite participants, opened a door for all manner of toxicity to infect the sport. And with enablers operating at seemingly every level, from club coaches all the way up USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny, those who would do harm for their own horrifying reasons had plenty of places to hide.

But it is also a story of survival. The women shown here – along with the scores of others who chose a different path in which to share their circumstances – are displaying true courage, telling their stories in an effort to help ensure the safety of others in the sport that, despite everything, they clearly still love. Their feelings are complicated, of course, but their passion for the sport remains even after the ostensible leaders in that sport let them down.

It’s a well-crafted piece of documentary filmmaking. Cohen and Shenk have struck the right balance here, building a film that will engage and inform the viewer no matter how much foreknowledge they might have of the scandal. It is disturbing in spots, as you might expect, but the filmmakers find some moments of uplift amidst the bleakness. Heartbreaking and captivating for every one of its 103 minutes.

“Athlete A” is powerful stuff. It’s a stark reminder that there are those who believe that no price is too high to pay for victory and who will sacrifice a child’s long-term well-being for a shiny bauble. But it’s also an indicator of hope, an illustration that there are people who will stop at nothing to ensure that justice is done. The light of truth is what will scatter the shadows in the dank corners of these institutions – a light that shines thanks to the courage of the truthtellers.

A hard watch, true, but an undeniably important one as well.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Thursday, 25 June 2020 15:54

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