Saturday, July 4, 2020

Athlete A: Documentary Review


I'm angry, and you should be too.

I don’t watch a lot of documentaries because often it results in me being really pissed off and feeling like there’s nothing I can do. Athlete A grabbed my attention though, maybe it was the simplicity and artfulness of the poster, maybe it was because of the high profile names involved, or maybe it was because Larry Nassar’s in prison so I knew going in there was a sense of justice being served. Unsurprisingly, I was angry throughout the film, but that’s also pretty much the point. 2020

Directed by: Bonnie Cohen, Jon Shenk

Starring: Maggie Nichols, Jennifer Sey

Available on: Netflix

Photo credit: Melissa J. Perenson for AP / Netflix

The documentary starts with the Indianapolis Star breaking the story of USA Gymnastics coaches abusing the athletes, and then we meet a number of the women who came forward with their story of sexual abuse by Larry Nassar. We jump around in time quite a bit – most of the gymnasts profiled are from different decades (yeah, let that sink in) – but I really appreciated the time jumps, highlighting how things changed, when things changed, and then how they stayed the same.

When things changed: the ‘70s. Footage from the 1950s and ‘60s Olympics showed adult women competing, and not just with adult bodies, but with the capacity to make decisions as an adult. They could make the decision to not compete injured, and they were probably just as happy (if not happier) than the decidedly younger gymnasts competing today. And then 14 year-old Nadia Comaneci won gold in 1976. Fourteen years old. I knew she sparked a trend to younger girls, but I thought she was like 18, I didn’t realize how big of a jump it was. One of the commentators at the time said “Look at her smile. Rumour has it, the coaches had to teach her how to smile since she never smiles.” That was apparently funny. A 14 year-old girl who never smiles. And that was the change in gymnastics. Everybody said yes, let’s copy that method. Society said, sure, no problem here.

Coincidentally (I say, sarcastically, since this is obviously not a coincidence) Romanian coaches from Comaneci’s team deflected to the United States to head up USA Gymnastics, because “there was a fertile breeding ground of young athletic bodies”. The filmmakers often followed the shocking quotes like this with silence, allowing me to catch my breath after predators were saying these things publicly. Jump ahead to 1996 and Kerri Strug landing on one leg, collapsing to the mat crying, competing with an obvious injury; the commentators: “Kerri Strug just won the gold medal for the United States.” Sure that’s not that bad, but what strikes me is that she didn’t win the gold medal for herself. And the gymnastics program basically admits that. She didn’t do this for herself, she didn't have a choice.

Rachael Denhollander in ATHLETE A. Cr. NETFLIX © 2020
So far, I have spent the entire review discussing the atmosphere of the gymnastics program, I haven’t even gotten to the abuse that got Larry Nassar two 60-year sentences. And one of the women, Jamie Dantzscher, summed it up perfectly. The coaches abused them from day one. Emotional abuse telling them they’re too fat, too ugly, not good enough, telling them they’re faking their injuries, physically pushing them through injuries, and taking food away forcing them to starve. By the time they saw the doctor, Larry Nassar, they needed a friend. He was that friend. He gave them candy, and comforted them, and knew their injuries weren’t faked. We literally have a child molester giving the girls candy. But Nassar didn’t create the system, he just preyed on the system already in place. USA Gymnastics knew that Nassar was sexually abusing the girls, and they did nothing about it. And there’s still no justice for that.

One of the key take-aways from the documentary is to support local, investigative journalism, because otherwise, this would be on-going. (I have also skipped over a ton of enlightening moments and atrocities committed because I can only spend so long angrily, and cathartically, typing on my computer). Common sense tells us that all of the abuses that created the system, are probably still occurring because society doesn’t care. When the women came forward, they were met with a chorus of “you’re just a jealous washed-up gymnast”, “you obviously wanted it”. Until all that physical and emotional abuse is deemed illegal, society is going to continue to convince 14-year-old girls that winning gold medals for their country is more important than their happiness. Yeah, you’re god damn right I’m angry, and if you’re not, watch Athlete A.