Film review: Athlete A (2020) and gymnast abuse

I had not been aware of this documentary that dealt with the massive abuse of women gymnasts in the US until three days ago when I was reading about all the turmoil in gymnastics. I watched it yesterday on Netflix and was just horrified that what it revealed was far worse than I had imagined. I do not follow gymnastics but was aware that Dr. Larry Nassar had been convicted and sentenced to essentially life in prison for the sexual abuse of girls under the guise of treating them for injuries incurred during their routines. What I had not been aware of was the vast scale of the abuse that goes on all over the country, with over 50 coaches having had allegations made against them about their predatory behavior but with the governing body USA Gymnastics doing little or nothing about it and even allowing them to move around. It reminded me of nothing so much as the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts. It seems like just as those two organizations provided an environment congenial to predators of boys, gymnastics did the same with girls.

What was also horrifying is that pain and injuries were such a routine aspect of these girls’ lives during the training process. They were taught to think that competing through pain was the right thing to do, that it was a test of their mettle, and were humiliated and even thrown out of programs if they refused. We have to be clear that most of these young girls were inspired by the performances of those who looked like them and loved gymnastics (at least initially) and were willing (along with their parents) to submit to some level of rigorous training in pursuit of success and even Olympic glory. What was wrong was that this love was used to essentially indoctrinate them into accepting much higher level of stress, pain, and injury than should ever have been permitted. When they (and we) see the people at high levels do incredible things like somersaulting and the landing on a narrow beam, we may not realize how many falls they must have suffered along the way to achieving that feat.

The acme of this cruelty was at the highest levels, in the training camp for potential US gymnasts that was run under the auspices of USA Gymnastics by Béla and Márta Károlyi and where Nassar was the doctor who ‘treated’ the athletes when they were injured. This review of the film summarizes what happened.

Much of the abuse took place at Karolyi Ranch, the USA Gymnastics National Team Training Center in Huntsville, Tex., that was overseen by Béla and Márta Károlyi, the fabled trainers who had come out of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania and led the U.S. team with a severity-bordering-on-cruelty that was part of their mystique. The woodland camp looked idyllic, but no parent was allowed to set foot there (which should have been a red flag). And inside it, the Károlyis practiced their special brand of discipline, tormenting teenage gymnasts about their weight, calling them lazy, treating them like machines who needed to push themselves to the boundaries and beyond…or else.

The reason this is relevant to the sexual-abuse case is that, within the military-like training-camp fortress of Huntsville, Larry Nassar, according to the documentary, was the girls’ one friendly authority figure — an amiable quirky goofball who would sometimes slip them food and candy. He never gave them explicit threats, even when committing abuses like putting an ungloved finger inside a girl’s vagina as part of an “exam.” He always maintained the fiction that he was their pal. Most of them knew that something was deeply wrong, but they felt they had nowhere to turn.

Where the iron grip of power came into play was inside the organization itself. In the summer of 2015, Maggie Nichols, a brilliant gymnast who appeared to be on track to make the Olympic team, told her mother that she’d been abused by Nassar. Her mother alerted an official at USA Gymnastics, and word of the allegations soon reached Steve Penny, the organization’s CEO and president. He was, at that point, legally required to alert the authorities. Instead, he hired an outside firm to conduct a private investigation. Penny was protecting Nassar, but what he was really protecting was the USA Gymnastics brand, which brought in $12 million a year. Beyond that, the women’s gymnastics team was part of the cultish “Go USA!” boosterism that had marked the Olympic Games since 1984. Penny was also protecting that. (As a punishment and a warning, he cut Maggie Nichols out of the loop.)

All of which is to say that the cover-up of Larry Nassar’s crimes, as documented by “Athlete A,” was analogous to the sexual-abuse scandals of the Catholic Church: the systematic protection of abusers who may not have been so powerful in themselves, by an organization of extraordinary power.

“Athlete A” makes the telling point that the Károlyi method was, itself, a form of abuse. The girls who were subjected to it had to steel themselves, in an almost Stockholm Syndrome way, to the sadistic rigors of their training. So it’s only natural that they ended up numbing themselves to even more devastating forms of abuse. “Athlete A” is a testament to their perseverance, and to the courage of all those who stood up in court to face the man who had violated their humanity. But it’s also a testament to the obsession that gave cover to their abuse — to a culture that wanted winners at any cost.

One notable person who is missing from the documentary is Olympic gold medal winner Mary Lou Retton who has reportedly defended Bela Károlyi, who was her personal coach. and his methods. Her name is also not among the 500 or so women who have accused Nassar of sexual abuse. She also served on the board of USA Gymnastics for eight years and defended the organization during the time that Nassar was abusing the girls. Rachael Denhollander, one of the first abused women to courageously blow the whistle on Nassar, criticized Retton for implying that Nassar was a ‘monster’ acting alone when in reality the entire system was rotten and she had to know it since even Don Peters, the head coach of the 1984 US Olympic team of which Retton was part, was banned for life over allegations involving sexual misconduct with gymnasts.

It is disingenuous of Retton to say that the gymnasts would be safe if they went to a reputable gym when the most reputable organization of all, USA Gymnastics, was enabling this massive scale of abuse.

This article describes the cases of all the other people who abused the gymnasts and which the documentary, presumably for lack of time, did not cover or mentioned only in passing. It also says that the head of USA Gymnastics Steve Penny, who suppressed all the abuse concerns that were reported to him, received a $1 million severance package from the organization. At a US Senate hearing on the abuses, Penny invoked the Fifth Amendment to avoid answering any questions.

While Athlete A reveals that Steve Penny was eventually arrested and is currently awaiting a trial, the documentary doesn’t get down into the details. Penny was arrested on suspicion of tampering with evidence, a third-degree felony that carries a punishment of two to ten years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. The indictment alleges that Penny ordered the removal of documents from Karolyi Ranch, the training facility where Nassar was given access to the young gymnasts, that related to Nassar’s activities at the ranch. It further alleges that these documents were removed with the intention of having them destroyed or hidden in order to hamper the investigation into Nassar. The documents have still not been recovered and it’s therefore unknown what they contained, or how they might have helped with the investigation. Penny pleaded not guilty and was released on bail. He is still awaiting trial.

The Károlyis themselves only appear in archival footage. Following the scandal, USA Gymnastics has cut ties with the Károlyis and cancelled plans to buy their ranch.

The film follows the small team of four investigative reporters at the Indianapolis Star who first broke the story by following up a single tip and gives a voice to many of the women who finally managed to break through the silence and expose an entire system that is rotten through and through. Your heart breaks when the former gymnasts talk about what happened to them. I was deeply impressed by the resilience of the (now) women who were able to speak calmly about what they went through, awful though it was. While it looked on the surface that they had managed to come through unscathed, one has to imagine that that was a facade since the scars are deep and will be with them forever.

Sports and athletics should be for fun and health. Where it goes horribly wrong is with the breeding of the ‘win at all costs’ mentality. When you add jingoism and nationalistic fervor into the mix, you create a toxic brew that poisons everything. The Olympics, with its playing of the national anthem of the gold medal winners and flying the flag of all the medalists, contributes greatly to this mentality. My suggestion is that they should simply play a neutral Olympic anthem at the ceremony and forget the flags. But the Olympics is big business and they know that fanning jingoism draws viewers..

It is a film that will make you infuriated at what was allowed to happen and leave you feeling sad for the gymnasts.

Here’s the trailer.


  1. says

    The founder of the olympics was a racist, who saw the events as a way of supporting his beliefs regarding European white supremacy. They started off corrupt and got worse. It’s just moneyball, now, and cheating governments. There are plenty of international competitions that don’t have the problems the olympics have, we should support them and cancel the olympics.

    The problem with abusive training, though -- that’s moneyball. Leave young girls under self-regulating exclusively male supervision, and it’s a green light for predators.

  2. garnetstar says

    And there are people who dare to call Simone Biles, who survived all of that, a quitter!

  3. says

    There isn’t much difference between the abuse in sports, the modeling industry, hollyweird, the kpop industry, and the military. Predators put themselves in positions to take advantage of young women’s ambitions, innocence and inexperience. And when the abuse happens, they’re blamed and told “you knew the risk”.

  4. says

    When talking about sports and jingoism, Lukashenko recently threatened athletes who return without medals.

    The whole professional sports world is rotten and should be nuked from orbit. Nothing good comes out of it. There is nothing healthy about pushing your body to very limits, most professional athletes end up with injuries and health problems later on. Professional sports are most definitively NOT about healthy exercise.

  5. TGAP Dad says

    …what it revealed was far worse than I had imagined.

    It’s actually even worse than that. Where Athlete A focuses on USA Gymnastics, the podcast Believed focuses on Nassar. Dr. Nassar would frequently host parties at his house for friends, many with children, where he would volunteer to be the one left out of the fun, and watching the kids as they played in his basement. One of his moves was to have one sit on the couch with him with a blanket spread over their lower bodies. Another was dousing all the lights in the basement, and cornering one kid in an out-of-the-way place to molest. His victims were at least as young as six years old. He was finally tripped up by an excellent MSU detective whose Columbo-esque interview derailed his well-rehearsed canned response. He had been interviewed numerous times before and successfully talked his way out of trouble.

  6. garnetstar says

    Here’s what Wikipedia has on the head coach of the 2012 Olympic team, who was a close associate of Nassar:

    “On February 25, 2021, John Geddert, the head coach of the 2012 USA Women’s Olympic Gymnastics Team, was charged with multiple felonies including 20 counts of human trafficking and forced labor, one count of first-degree sexual assault, one count of second-degree sexual assault, racketeering and lying to a police officer.” He committed suicide the same day, the coward.

    20 counts of human trafficking? Forced labor and racketeering, as well as sexual assault? I don’t even want to hear the details of what he did to bring on those charges.

  7. mnb0 says

    “The whole professional sports world is rotten and should be nuked from orbit.”
    Ah, the atheist authoritarian. The adult sports(wo)man can’t and shouldn’t decide for him/herself; Charly knows better than eg Lionel Messi, Vvianne Miedema, Sifan Hassan and LeBron James and his will should be imposed on the world. Hail Charly!

  8. John Morales says

    mnb0, ah, the jaundiced reader.

    Key phrase is “professional sports” — those that make their living from it are clearly beholden to it. And sure, some will do well and be successful.

    (Most won’t)

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