In the last two years, a series of scalding and essential documentaries — “Leaving Neverland,” “Surviving R. Kelly,” “Untouchable,” “On the Record,” “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich” — have shined a light on the contours of sexual abuse and the supreme, if not obscene, concentration of power that too often allows it to be concealed and perpetuated. In most of these high-profile cases, the power emanates from one figure who is either a celebrity or a backstage manipulator of celebrity: Harvey Weinstein, Michael Jackson, Russell Simmons, Jeffrey Epstein, R. Kelly. The power wielded by these men has been total and destructive: the ability to threaten and terrorize, to twist and ruin careers, to suppress and squash the rule of law.
“Athlete A,” Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s disturbing and illuminating documentary about the sexual-abuse scandal that struck the U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team in 2016, is centered around an individual who was, in certain ways, a similar kind of serial abuser: Dr. Larry Nassar, the osteopathic physician who served, for 29 years, as the doctor for the USA Gymnastics women’s team. In a 2016 investigation undertaken by the Indianapolis Star, it was revealed that Nassar had abused dozens of young women athletes during the course of conducting “routine” examinations and physical-therapy sessions.
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. Once the Indianapolis Star began its investigation in August 2016, in the middle of the Summer Olympic Games in Rio, the dominoes began to fall. The paper’s reporting hinged on the testimony of two whistleblowers: Jamie Dantzscher, who’d been a member of the 2000 Olympics team, and Rachael Denhollander, who stepped forward 16 years after suffering her own bout of abuse (which took place, in a concealed way, right in front of Denhollander’s mother as she sat in Nassar’s examination room).
Nassar responded by telling the newspaper that he had never touched the private parts of anyone he was examining. But since that was a colossal lie (he had done it hundreds of times), other survivors began coming forward with their own stories. The police raided his home and trash and found hard drives that contained thousands of pornographic pictures, some of them of children. By the time Nassar stood trial, 125 women had agreed to appear in court to present their impact testimonials.
Every high-profile sexual-abuse case is a kind of spider’s web, with toxic strands of enablers and co-conspirators, all wound into what’s been, until recently, a larger cultural denial. “Athlete A” is compellingly told by Cohen and Shenk so that we experience the pain and courage of these survivors, but also glimpse the big-picture backdrop of what occurred. In this case, the movie traces the dysfunction back to Béla and Márta Kátolyi, who had first come to prominence with the triumph of their 14-year-old Romanian gymnast superstar Nadia Comăneci, who won three gold medals at the 1976 Summer Olympic Games. In doing so, she changed the face of the sport.
In the ’50s and ’60s, the competitors in women’s gymnastics were women. It was the Romanians who started the idea of training female gymnasts at a very young age. “What emerged was an aesthetic that was very, very young — childlike,” says Jennifer Sey, the 1986 USA Gymnastics National Champion. It created what she calls a “dangerous environment,” one that bred eating disorders, the delaying of menstruation, and the belief that to do the more difficult feats it helped to be tiny. After the Károlyis defected, they were seized on by the U.S. to be Olympic coaches, much as Wernher von Braun, the visionary rocket scientist of Nazi Germany, had been tapped in the late ’40s to become an architect of the American space program. The Károlyis represented a mercilessness that was very Eastern Bloc, but they produced winners, and officials in the U.S. were eager to import their whatever-it-takes school of hard knocks.
“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.