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Review: Athlete A (2020)

Athlete A (2020)

Directed by: Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk

Premise: A documentary about the sexual abuse of young women who were part of the United States’ Olympic gymnastics team.

What Works: The past few years have seen the release of several documentaries about sexual abuse in a variety of settings including The Hunting Ground, The Invisible War, Mea Maxima Culpa, and An Open Secret. Athlete A brings the topic to athletics and specifically the United States’ Olympic gymnastics team. As documented in the film, Larry Nassar assaulted hundreds of female gymnasts while employed as the team’s doctor. Athlete A is primarily about the struggle to bring these allegations to light and it covers the investigation through interviews with the survivors and their families as well as journalists who broke the story and the investigators and prosecutors who brought the legal case against Nassar. Just as troubling as the details of sexual abuse is the film’s documentation of inaction by USA Gymnastics. As depicted in Athlete A, the coaches and executives were made aware of abuse allegations and did nothing and actually obstructed efforts to bring those allegations to light. This is a familiar motif within this genre of abuse documentaries; never trust an institution to police itself because it won’t. Where Athlete A is distinguished from some other abuse documentaries is the way it connects the molestation to the larger culture within USA Gymnastics. The documentarians depict a culture of abuse in which athletes were demeaned and exploited and health problems from sprains to eating disorders were common. Perhaps most subversive is the film’s recasting of Kerri Strug’s final vault at the 1996 Olympics. Strug famously won the gold while competing with an injury and she was celebrated for her sacrifice. Athlete A asks the audience to question our glorification of suffering in the name of Olympic gold.

What Doesn’t: As Athlete A depicts it, the sexual abuse of these gymnasts was enabled by a general culture of abuse within Team USA. Furthermore, the film states that abuse was essentially imported when USA Gymnastics hired coaches who had defected from Communist Bloc countries which had used similarly abusive training techniques. This raises larger concerns that the filmmakers do not investigate: could this abuse, sexual and otherwise, be endemic throughout Team USA and throughout the Olympics themselves? These questions are beyond the scope of Athlete A but in light of the film’s revelations they hang over the film and the games.

DVD extras: Currently available on Netflix.

Bottom Line: Athlete A is not a pleasant watch but it is an important examination of abuse and the way it is enabled. The courage of the survivors and their families shows through but this is a devastating critique of Team USA and it leaves us with serious questions about the value placed on athletic excellence and Olympic gold. 

Epsiode: #833 (January 3, 2021)