Athlete A and the tragedy of women in sports
The new documentary about the Larry Nassar abuse scandal only scratches the surface of a systemic failure
When you talk about gymnastics, you have to talk about flying. All athletics rely, to some degree, on this sort of glittery hyperbole — be it the way runners or ski-jumpers or rowers discuss that strange and mysterious freedom that comes from physical mastery over your own body — but gymnastics is different. Unlike practically any other sport, its best-known athletes are almost exclusively young girls. And when they compete, their defiance of gravity represents more than just the years of training required to make stunts look effortless; it's also the lift-off of the dream in the young women watching, who otherwise might rarely see themselves as being the marquee event at the elite levels of competitive sports.
Netflix's Athlete A, out Wednesday, excavates the way we have failed these girls' athletic dreams. The documentary specifically follows the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal that first came to public light in the pages of The Indianapolis Star in September 2016 and revolved around the organization's cover-up of extensive sexual abuse by the national team doctor, Larry Nassar. But in the afterimage of the film is an even more chilling story — one in which this country systematically fails to protect and promote young female athletes of all different sports, robbing them of achieving their potential down the line.
In 2016, The Indianapolis Star published the sentence that would rock elite athletics to its core: "Two former gymnasts, one an Olympic medalist, have accused a prominent, longtime team physician for USA Gymnastics of sexual abuse." Within weeks, more than 150 people — mostly, though not exclusively women — had come forward to say that Nassar had also abused them under the guise of performing "routine" medical procedures and physical therapy, which frequently involved using his hands for sexual penetration (his youngest known victim was 11). While it's mind-boggling, as an outsider, to hear that Nassar managed to get away with such widespread, rampant, and obvious sexual abuse for so long, Athlete A effectively describes the culture of submission and gaslighting in U.S. gymnastics, in which child athletes are not uncommonly verbally and physically abused by coaches in the all-important pursuit of winning medals for Team USA.
Athlete A is directed by the husband-and-wife duo Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, who were also behind 2017's An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, and it feels, for all purposes, like a typical Netflix documentary. The film alternates between interviews with the survivors and their allies, and archival footage that helps to establish the ruthless pursuit of perfection first by the Soviets, and then the Americans who adopted their iron-fisted techniques (there are blessedly no recreations, unless you count a few canned-sounding newsroom conversations). Notably absent voices include Nassar himself (he was sentenced to 60 years in prison in 2017, followed by a consecutive sentence of 40 to 175 years in prison in 2018), as well as any of Nassar's allies and protectors who helped cover up his abuse. Most curiously, though, Nassar's most high-profile and outspoken victims, including gold-medal winners Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, and McKayla Maroney, are not heard from in the doc; the "Athlete A" in question is Maggie Nichols, who was left off of the 2016 Olympic team, possibly in retaliation for coming forward with her accusations.
While the extent of the cover-up and Nassar's sheer number of accusers, which has now topped 500, are remarkable, perhaps the most important takeaway from the gymnastics scandal is one that goes unmentioned in Athlete A: That the abuse of women athletes isn't limited to a single sport. All women in athletics are at risk of predatory coaches, and worse, of organizations that are more interested in the pursuit of prestige than the protection of young girls. After all, in the wake of The Indianapolis Star investigation blowing open the story, dozens of women across the sporting world (and globe) have accused coaches or other trusted adults of sexual abuse during their training. In January of this year, for example, six women sued USA Swimming, alleging that "the organization enabled … coaches to sexually assault girls and young women for years." Figure skating — another sport that, like gymnastics, attracts young women with childlike physiques — is also facing ugly reckonings. It's not just elite sports either; studies have found that between 4 and 8 percent of minor-age athletes experience sexual abuse from their coaches in the context of their sport (another study of some 6,000 former child athletes in the U.K. puts that number as high as 29 percent).
While young male athletes are hardly safe from sexual abuse — the Jerry Sandusky scandal is perhaps the only story that can rival USA Gymnastics' for coverage and outcry in the sporting world — female athletes are particularly vulnerable. "These girls are groomed from an incredibly young age to deny their own experience," Joan Ryan, the author of 1995's Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, told The Guardian. "Your knee hurts? You're being lazy. You're hungry? No, you're fat and greedy. They are trained to doubt their own feelings, and that's why this could happen to over 150 of them."
As Jennifer Sey, the author of Chalked Up: My Life in Elite Gymnastics, puts it in Athlete A: "Sexual abusers are everywhere — sexual abuse was a norm. We were so beaten down, it made us so obedient."
What's more, most young women enter competitive sports at exactly the age when psychologists say they start "losing their voice," when, for a variety of culture-based reasons, as Fast Company put it, "even the most audacious girls are likely to become more cautious about speaking out and less likely to assert themselves."
Perhaps most devastatingly, "only 27 percent of the more than 6.5 million adults who coach youth teams up to age 14 are women," The Atlantic reports. It's a self-perpetuating cycle: "Girls who were coached by men were less likely to pursue coaching careers than those led by women." That's not to say that girls would be safer under the tutelage of a female coach; a whole chain of women were involved in helping to protect Nassar at USA Gymnastics, and Athlete A alleges that the famous coach Martha Karolyi was one of the girls' worst physical and emotional tormentors. But it's also hard to see how girls can be given a launch pad to succeed in sports without women authorities and role models that they can trust — and, if need be, confide in.
By failing to universally provide girls with that most basic requirement — a safe environment where they get to be, above all else, children — it's no wonder that by the age of 17, more than half of female athletes will stop playing sports altogether. Though Athlete A never quite makes the leap itself, it functions, in that small way, as a eulogy to all the potential that's been snatched away by predators, who've used girls' dreams of flying against them.
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