Netflix's straightforward but vital film explores the decades-long abuse of young women by USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar
“Gymnastics teaches you to be strong and independent,” Maggie Nichols tells us at the start of Athlete A. The documentary, at once lucid and devastating, unravels a staggering cover-up within USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for the sport in the US. By journalists at Indianapolis’ IndyStar and former gymnasts, we are calmly told how over 500 girls were sexually abused by Dr. Larry Nassar, who had been volunteering for 29 years, invoking trust within these girls – but, as it transpires, also severe trauma.
The filmmakers in the new Netflix doc listen rather than speak, facilitating a verbal unravelling from both survivors and investigators of the case. It makes for a familiar, somewhat conventional watch when judged on filmmaker terms alone – sober interview set-ups, patient and unfussy pacing. But then to give such detail to the stories themselves is what really matters, compensating for the years of silence from those in power at USA Gymnastics. There had been reports and warnings from those who had been abused years prior, but no action was ever taken.
The film frames the scandal with sensitive moral grounding, explaining why these girls trusted Larry: a culture of cruelty was promoted in the sport, where young women were controlled, sacrificed, and emotionally abused, all in the name of winning. It was child abuse in endless forms – so, naturally, as the doctor is “the only nice adult,” when he crossed the line, nobody even knew that the line was still there.
It is vital to hear from the gymnasts themselves, and remember their names: Maggie Nichols, Rachael Denhollander, Jamie Dantzscher. The care and respect that was stolen from these women stopped them believing in themselves, from being proud of who they were. Today, we believe them. And Athlete A serves as an urgent warning to all those who didn’t.
Athlete A is now streaming on Netflix.Where to watch