Image: Wikimedia Commons / Associação Brasileira de Jornalismo Investigativo
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Associação Brasileira de Jornalismo Investigativo

‘Athlete A’: Inside sport’s biggest sexual abuse scandal

Netflix’s new documentary, Athlete A, is an upsetting watch. It details the horrific abuse suffered by young US gymnasts at the hands of team doctor Larry Nassar, and looks at the Indianapolis Star’s investigating into USA Gymnastic (USAG).

It asks some big questions – what did it take to bring down Nassar? How could the abuse have continued for more than two decades? And did USAG take steps to cover it up? Athlete A paints a horrifying and necessary picture of one of the most shameful episodes in sporting history.

The story came to light in 2016, but Nassar was never the main target. The Indianapolis Star was conducting an investigation into USAG policy, and how the organisation dealt with reports of sexual abuse. As one of the directors, Bonni Cohen, noted: “Larry Nassar was just one bad guy within a system that has tolerated abuse for decades. The truth that was exposed was that they had been burying cases for many, many years.”

Denhollander became the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar of abuse

Reports against Nassar date back to 1997, but the cases came to a head in 2015 and 2016. The titular ‘Athlete A’ is Maggie Nichols, a former gymnast who filed a complaint against Nassar in June 2015.

After the IndyStar article alleging malpractice came out in 2016, Rachael Denhollander became the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar of abuse, stating that he repeatedly assaulted her over a year and a half when she was just 15. Another athlete, later revealed to be 2000 bronze medallist Jamie Dantzscher, anonymously came out against the doctor.

In response to these public statements, Nassar’s lawyers denied he had ever touched a patient inappropriately during treatment. That opened the floodgates, as hundreds of women who knew that to be untrue then came forward. They spoke to IndyStar reporters and the former gymnast Jennifer Sey, who had written a 2008 book exposing the darker side of elite gymnastics.

More than 200 women delivered impact statements about Nassar’s abuse

It is impossible to know how many women Nassar abused, but more than 265 have made allegations against him, including four-time Olympic champion Simone Biles.

Faced with a flood of reports against him, Nassar was soon taken into custody. In November 2016, he was charged with criminal sexual conduct against a child, and with possessing child porn in December. He has faced 22 additional counts of criminal sexual conduct in February 2017, and more than 200 women delivered impact statements about his abuse in court.

When the law finally caught up with Nassar, it did so in force – between the child pornography charges and the sexual abuse charges, the doctor was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison.

Penny admits that reports were not always passed straight to the police

How could Nassar have escaped justice for so long? One reason is that the organisation failed to deal with reports of abuse. In a filmed deposition shown in the documentary, former USAG president Steve Penny admits that reports of assault were not always passed straight to the police. He was forced to resign in 2017 and arrested for allegedly tampering with evidence in relation to Nassar, although he denies any suggestion of a cover-up.

It also transpired that a number of reports were simply dismissed – that Nassar was able to say “these women are confused” and that was the end of the matter. And, in some cases, it was suggested that the athletes would be penalised for pursuing abuse complaints, because it would damage USAG’s reputation.

Perhaps a major issue is that, according to the athletes, there was a widespread culture of abuse at USAG. In the documentary, Sey said that emotional and physical abuse “was actually the norm” during her time as a gymnast.

Complaints were dismissed by officials because Nassar had this positive reputation

As Joan Ryan, author of the seminal gymnastics book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, said: “There is no other sport in which this could have happened but gymnastics. These girls are groomed from an incredibly young age to deny their own experience. Your knee hurts? You’re being lazy. You’re hungry? No, you’re fat and greedy. They are trained to doubt their own feelings, and that’s why this could happen to over 150 of them.”

Dantzscher said that, at the time, Nassar seemed like “the only nice person” in gymnastics – thus, he was able to exploit his position and befriend many girls with the intention of abusing them. Whenever complaints were made, they were dismissed by officials because Nassar had this positive reputation.

And although the level of his abuse was unprecedented, reports of abuse were far from unique – former coaches Bela and Marta Karolyi, and Maggie Haney, have both faced questions about torturing and abusing their athletes. What mattered most was whether the athletes were winning – if they brought in medals, then that was all that counted.

This documentary will force the story back into the headlines

USAG says that it has now shifted its organisation “to be more athlete-centric”. It has created new athlete health and wellness roles, a new “safe sport” policy and educational initiatives. It is now reeling from a bankruptcy brought on the fallout of lawsuits linked to Nassar, an estimated cost of half a billion dollars.

This documentary will force the story back into the headlines, as will a call by more than 120 victims to realise a report into the FBI’s handling of the case. No matter what happens, the long-term culture of mistrust will be a hard one to shift.

Athlete A is a hard watch, but it’s a necessary one. The scale of abuse at USAG is a story that should not be forgotten, and it should never be allowed to happen again. As Sey says in the film, this is a damning investigation into what it looks like when a culture is “willing to sacrifice its young” to win at any costs.

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