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Director interviewDamning exposé on how abuse was committed -- and tolerated

Netflix film ‘Athlete A’ puts spotlight on USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal

Documentarians Jon Shenk and Bonni Cohen focus their lens on toxic culture that exploited and endangered young athletes, while protecting perpetrators for decades

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

American gymnast Maggie Nichols as seen in 'Athlete A' (Netflix)
American gymnast Maggie Nichols as seen in 'Athlete A' (Netflix)

The new Netflix documentary “Athlete A” takes viewers behind the scenes of the sexual abuse scandal that rocked USA Gymnastics and put long-time national and Olympic team doctor Larry Nassar behind bars for the rest of his life.

The film by San Francisco-based husband-wife team Jon Shenk and Bonni Cohen follows a team of investigative journalists from the Indianapolis Star as they uncover the abuse of more than 500 girls and women by Nassar and various coaches with the United States of America Gymnastics (USAG) since the late 1990s. The film also exposes how systematic physical and psychological abuse of the athletes enabled the abusers and silenced the young victims until the scandal broke in 2016.

It’s a damning exposé on how and why such abuse was perpetrated and tolerated for so long. But it is also a celebration of the girls and women who eventually fought back against the soul-shattering evil done them by people they trusted.

The film’s release this summer was meant to coincide with the Tokyo Olympics. However, the postponement of the Games due to the global COVID-19 pandemic did not diminish interest in “Athlete A.” The documentary has struck a chord with millions of viewers in the US and elsewhere for dealing with a subject so resonant with the current zeitgeist.

Filmmaker Jon Shenk (Bonni Cohen)

“The film came out in the summer of 2020 when all of the story in the US is about fighting against systemic power, systemic racism and systemic sexism,” Shenk said in an interview with The Times of Israel.

Furthermore, as a result of viewing “Athlete A,” gymnasts in other countries including the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium and Japan came forward with their own stories of trauma from training in physically and mentally abusive environments.

“Athletes were saying, ‘We saw this film and that is how we were treated, and it is not right.’ They came forward to their individual federations and Olympic organizations,” Cohen said.

“We could not have planned for that kind of ripple effect,” she said.

Filmmaker Bonni Cohen (Jon Shenk)

Having made the 2016 Netflix documentary “Audrie and Daisy,” about teenage rape, victim shaming and bullying,  Cohen, 54, and Shenk, 51, were initially unsure they were ready to tackle another project on sexual assault. (Both Audrie and Daisy are now dead from suicide.)

“As much as we respect survivors who have come forward and the whole world that has unfolded as part of the #MeToo movement, it is not easy to spend years of your life — especially when you yourself have teenagers — focused on the subject. But the hope at the end of the story where the women ultimately have the victory was inspiring to us,” Shenk explained about the decision to move forward with “Athlete A.”

Weaving the narrative strands

The filmmakers were faced with the dilemma of how to how to tell such a wide-ranging story. They ultimately settled on weaving together three key narrative strands.

The first is what Cohen calls “the hero’s journey” of national elite gymnast Maggie Nichols. “Athlete A” takes its title from the way Nichols, now 22, was referred to in complaints before she decided to go public about her sexual abuse by Nassar.

The filmmakers focus particularly on the frustration felt by Nichols and her parents at the lack of response from USAG to their internal June 2015 complaint against Nassar. USAG failed to report the alleged abuse to law enforcement in a timely manner, and a subsequent FBI investigation led nowhere. The family’s inquiries into the status of their complaint were repeatedly put off by USAG president and CEO Steve Penny. The Nicholses had no idea that their daughter’s teammate McKayla Maroney had already lodged a complaint against Nassar and had been forced by USAG to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

In this file photo from November 22, 2017, Dr. Larry Nassar appears in court for a plea hearing in Lansing, Michigan. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

Performing second to Simone Biles in 2015, Nichols was considered a shoo-in for the 2016 US Olympic team. However, her lifelong Olympic dreams were dashed when she did not make the final cut. Various reasons were given by USAG for the decision, but “Athlete A” intimates that Nichols’ abuse complaint might well have been the determining factor. Without being able to prove this, Nichols (with her parents’ full support) decided to cut ties with USAG and move on to college gymnastics as a way of healing. Nichols is now a star athlete representing the University of Oklahoma.

“She’s climbing and climbing toward the pinnacle of the 2016 Games, and she falls off a cliff and there is tremendous disappointment. But then she crawls back out and goes on to have this really amazing career as an NCAA champion, reclaiming her love of the sport,” Cohen told The Times of Israel.

Silver medalist Aly Raisman celebrates on the podium at the medal ceremony for the Women’s Floor on Day 11 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Rio Olympic Arena on August 16, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images via JTA)

Nichols mentions in the film that after she was digitally penetrated by Nassar during supposed medical treatments, she asked her teammate and good friend Aly Raisman whether the same had happened to her. Raisman confirmed that it had. Raisman, who is Jewish and was the captain for the US women’s gymnastics 2012 and 2016 Olympic teams, declined to be interviewed by Cohen and Shenk. She has, however, been otherwise outspoken about the abuse of female gymnasts.

Investigative journalism at its finest

The second thread follows the dogged investigation by the team of four journalists at the IndyStar, who discovered that USAG ignored 54 cases of reports of sexual abuse by coaches. The IndyStar’s first article on this in mid-2016 led three former gymnasts to contact the reporters to say that they were victims of Nassar. The newspaper published the doctor’s denial of the accusations, which led hundreds of other women and girls to come forward to accuse Nassar of sexual abuse.

Indianapolis Star investigative reporters in scene in ‘Athlete A’ (Netflix)

The reporters stayed on the case after Nassar’s December 2016 arrest following the discovery by law enforcement of some 37,000 images of child pornography at his home, and his indictment for sexual assault of children under the age of 13. The IndyStar was out to prove that it was USAG’s toxic culture that allowed Nassar to commit these criminal acts unimpeded for decades.

Cohen and Shenk, who began filming for “Athlete A” after the IndyStar broke the story, were grateful that the journalists had videotaped their  interviews with the first survivors to come forward.

“We were able to treat the early investigative materials from the IndyStar sort of like archival material…That is the sort of thing you can’t recreate. We had the advantage of these reporters having the foresight,” Cohen said.

A long history of abuse in gymnastics

Romanian gymnasts Teodora Ungureanu (left) and Nadia Comaneci (the first woman gymnast to score a perfect 10 ) with Romanian national gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi, 1970s (Unknown/Comitetul Olimpic si Sportiv Roman) / Public domain via WikiCommons)

Finally, the filmmakers provide in-depth historical background to explain how American gyms, training camps and competitions (including the Olympics) became unsafe places for children. Instead of focusing on the wellbeing of the athletes, USAG was primarily focused on generating revenue through sponsorships and marketing.

“It’s an organization that doesn’t give a rat’s ass about children, and that cared only about itself and was covering up rape,” says John Manly, an attorney representing hundreds of current and former gymnasts in civil suits against Nassar, USAG and the US Olympic Committee.

According to elite gymnasts interviewed in the film, the mental and physical abuse predated Romanian defectors Bela and Marta Karolyi‘s transformation of American top-level gymnastics training, beginning in the early 1980s. However, the abuse became systemic under the Karolyis, who turned their ranch in Texas into the national team training headquarters.

Former gymnast Rachael Denhollander gives victim impact statement during legal proceedings against Dr. Larry Nassar in ‘Athlete A.’ (Netflix)

“They are abused and mistreated for years, so even by the time they are of age, the line between tough coaching and child abuse gets blurred,” says Jennifer Sey, the 1986 US all-around national champion in the film about the young gymnasts.

“So, then when real obvious abuse — sexual abuse — happens, you already don’t believe your own take on things,” continues Sey, author of the memoir “Chalked Up: My Life in Elite Gymnastics” and a producer on “Athlete A.”

Cohen said that although she is frustrated at how slowly the wheels of justice are moving in the criminal and civil cases related to the USAG sexual abuse scandal, she is pleased about the impact “Athlete A” is making — especially with the heretofore unimagined “eyeball potential” that global streaming platforms like Netflix give documentary films today.

Former US Olympic gymnast Jamie Dantzscher attends legal proceedings against Dr. Larry Nassar in ‘Athlete A.’ (Netflix)

The husband-wife team said they don’t like to be labeled “activist” filmmakers, even though many of their documentaries deal with urgent social issues. At the same time, they acknowledged that making the right film at the right time can be powerful.

“If you are storytellers at heart, and your craft and your trade is to create stories and move people through film, the change will come,” Cohen said.

“It is not any single film that makes the difference, but collectively as we all tell these stories — authors, filmmakers, journalists — it changes the way people see the reality. I think this has happened to some extent in terms of how greater society treats girls and women,” Shenk said.

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