Content Warning: Child abuse; child sexual abuse
Athlete A, a documentary film discussing the investigation into child sexual abuse allegations against USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, was released on Netflix on June 24. While I had been aware of the 2018 sentencing of Nassar to a 175-year sentence on sexual assault charges after over 150 women submitted statements at his sentencing hearing, I did not know the full details about how his conduct came to light. I was also not aware of how USA Gymnastics and the culture of elite gymnastics fostered Nassar’s abuse.
The film introduces the three women who originally came forward to discuss Nassar’s assault with the Indianapolis Star. It then moves on to introduce the role of coaches Béla and Márta Károlyi in changing the culture of elite international women’s gymnastics from training grown women to training youths, who are more easily manipulated and controlled. After defecting from Romania to the United States in 1981, the Karolyis trained the top US competitors in women’s gymnastics and eventually took over running Team USA. According to their former choreographer in Romania, the Karolyis were often physically abusive to athletes.
The former athletes interviewed for the film described a climate of physical and emotional abuse in elite gymnastics that beat them down mentally, creating an environment that allowed a predator like Nassar to thrive. Former Olympian and Nassar abuse survivor Jamie Dantzscher described Nassar as the “only nice adult” involved with USA Gymnastics. Nassar would sneak food and candy to athletes whose diets were carefully controlled by weight-obsessed coaches. This seems to have been Nassar’s preferred method of gaining the athletes’ trust in order to prey upon them during medical treatment.
The film also discusses USA Gymnastics executives’ involvement in attempting to cover up Nassar’s crimes and their retaliation against Maggie Nichols, the titular “Athlete A”, for reporting Nassar. However, the most chilling part of the film for me was how the culture of elite gymnastics fostered by coaches like the Karolyis enabled Nassar’s decades of abuse.
If Nassar was able to sexually abuse over 150 girls and women over the course of decades, how many other predators are operating in the gymnastics world? Is this happening in other sports? This film should give parents pause about who their children may be exposed to in elite sports and whether the adults involved in running competitions and training facilities care more about money than the well-being of children.
Athlete A is currently available for streaming on Netflix.
Featured Image: Mártha Karolyi facing athletes at Jesolo Gymnastics Trophy Cup podium training (Luigi Fardella / Shutterstock.com).