The disgraced gymnastics team physician Larry Nassar is in prison for the rest of his natural life, which is a just fate considering the estimated hundreds of young female gymnasts he abused over many years. That was scandal enough, but as we also learned, not only had USA Gymnastics fielded many reports from young athletes about his sexual abuse, but they were summarily ignored and/or the complainants punished.
One of those brave whistleblowers was named Maggie Nichols, who was all but certain to make the 2016 women’s Olympics team until she raised her voice. Still hoping for a career in the sport, but wishing to remain anonymous, in legal proceedings Nichols was known as “Athlete A,” which is also the title of a new documentary about her story.
Co-directors Bonnie Cohen and Jon Shenk (“An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power”) say that one of the early heroes of blowing the lid off the culture of abuse in USA Gymnastics was Jennifer Sey, whose 2008 book “Chalked Up” showed what life was like for young women like her, who often were prepubescent when they entered the sport.
Shenk said that “Chalked Up” exposed the emotional and psychologically abusive culture within the elite gymnastics community, and Sey gave the filmmakers an insider to begin their on-camera interviews.
“If we could get on the inside and see it from the perspective of the journalists and survivors who were stepping up to take on USA Gymnastics, we could really have a special story to tell,” Shenk said, adding that the story truly began in the seventies, when female Olympic gymnasts changed from being fully adult women to barely adolescent teens and preteens.
“Olympic gymnastics became a ‘little girls’ sports,” Shenk said, adding that the United States program simultaneously started importing the belittling coaching techniques of the Eastern Bloc that pushed aside “the concerns of the athletes in favor of winning at all costs.”
Indeed, the interviewees of “Athlete A” have few kind words for Bela and Martha Karolyi, the Romanian defectors who set up a gymnastics factory in the Houston area that pumped out Olympic-level athletes year after year. Bela Karolyi especially was famous for his big smile on the sidelines of competitions, but he and his wife’s outbursts and belittling of their charges, if they were discussed, was done so quietly.
The Karolyis ran their gym more like an army barracks. Outsiders were rarely permitted to visit or film. Even the athletes’ parents were typically barred from visiting the dorms where the girls were kept.
The Karolyi compound has long since been abandoned, but Cohen and Shenk were able to utilize drone technology to access the remote property, now eerily quiet.
“We hired a guy who knew the area well, and he also knew how to fly a drone,” Cohen said. “He went down the dirt road you see Bela Karolyi driving down in [archival footage]. And he set up his drone to check out the area and figure out what could be shot.
“We directed him to fly low and skirt around the buildings,” she said. “So it gives this eerie feeling of a ‘deserted camp’ that obviously the participants in the film bring to life in the archival material.”
However, neither the Karolyis nor any executives from USAG are interviewed in “Athlete A.”
“We went formally to USA Gymnastics requesting interviews for the leadership and from their lawyers [but] they chose not to participate,” Cohen said. “We fact-check everything in many, many ways, so we stand by what’s in the film.”
“Athlete A” trains its lens not only on the Karolyis’ unsound training methods and USA Gymnastics’ complicity in hiding Nassar’s abuse, but on how, given the #MeToo movement, many victims finally came forward.
“Our film is coming out in the context of this movement in the right direction,” Shenk said. “These survivors were coming out and supporting each other, and it built upon itself to this incredible moment in the Michigan courtroom where all of the survivors” finally confronted their abuser publicly.
The list of Nassar’s victims who spoke at his sentencing included Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas—and Maggie Nichols, aka “Athlete A.”
“Of course we’re hopeful that the needle will be moved in the right direction, but we know this is a culture of entrenchment for 50, 60 years of putting the medals above the safety of athletes,” said Shenk. “There’s also the broader issue of abuse of young people and abuse of women that happens in our culture that the #MeToo movement has been part of a corrective to—but not enough.
“We need more and more social policy for more equitable treatment of women.”
“Athlete A” premiered at AFI Docs this month and will debut on Netflix on June 24. Cohen said that most of their subjects have already seen the film, and they encouraged the filmmakers to not shy away from including the most harrowing descriptions of their abuse.
“We were concerned particularly about how the survivors would respond to seeing the footage of Nassar in those how-to videos that he presents in the film where he performs ‘osteopathic procedures’ on girls,” Cohen said. “Their response was actually very strongly in favor of including that material. They wanted the world to see what kind of a guy this was and what they were subjected to. And what better way to show that than if you have video evidence.”
Shenk and Cohen said we are in a new golden age for documentaries, especially as filmmakers are forced to work from home amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s in line with audiences really wanting to find truth and storytelling, which these days is harder than you might imagine given the news,” Cohen said, adding that even financial backers are eager to back socially conscious projects.
“We can always remind funders and broadcasters that there are underprivileged markets,” added Shenk. “Lots of different voices are probably not represented in terms of their percentage of the population.
“There’s still a ways to go, but there’s an exciting moment going on in documentary filmmaking.”
“Athlete A” bows on Netflix this Wednesday.