Athlete A

 

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As last year’s major documentaries are being sifted through for Oscar glory, Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s tale of sexual misconduct within the USA Gymnastics’ body is gaining traction.

 

Athlete A

 

The sign of a good documentary is the capacity to engage a viewer completely indifferent to its subject matter. It is also the ability to tell a really good story. Athlete A, with its access to key players, wide-ranging video footage (both global and covert) and its multi-layered take on its theme, is about as good as it gets. You don’t have to be a salivating devotee of gymnastics to be sucked into the drama at the heart of Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk's shocking film.

 

This is the story of Maggie Nichols, a teenage girl from Minnesota who, on a full athletic scholarship, enrolled at the University of Oklahoma to become the first representative of Oklahoma to perform a gym slam (a perfect score of 10.00 on every discipline). She was a star (obviously) but, two years before that accomplishment, in 2015, she had become a victim within the closed ranks of the gymnastic establishment. Aged 19, she retired from elite gymnastics altogether, focusing instead on the sport at college level. Maggie Nichols may have the ‘title role’ in Athlete A, but she is just one casualty in what turned out to be a culture of systemic abuse of teenage girls.

 

As the space race between Russia and the USA technically concluded in 1975, a new rivalry began in 1976 when Nadia Comăneci, aged 14, became the first gymnast to be awarded a perfect score of 10.0 at the Olympic Games. Although Romanian, Comăneci was a product of the Communist Bloc and her success, fine-tuned through a rigorous training routine, affected a sea change, in spite of the girl’s dour demeanour. Formerly a sport reserved for grown women, the activity became a magnet for over-achieving pre-pubescent girls (and pushy parents) the world over. Consequently, little innocents with stars in their eyes suffered unimaginable mental, emotional and physical torture in order to achieve their dreams of world domination. So, who better to assuage their tears and torn ligaments than the avuncular human haven that was Larry Nassar, doctor, osteopath and virtual saint?

 

Recalling Tom McCarthy’s Oscar-winning Spotlight (2015) in its forensic exploration of institutionalised sexual abuse, Athlete A peels off its narrative layers with skilful, low-key acuity. Like Maggie’s parents and the investigative reporters working for The Indianapolis Star, nobody could really believe the full extent of the abuse and the cover-up surrounding it.

 

A frequent on-screen presence, Maggie Nichols’ father, John, fights back signs of emotional heartbreak with a rictus grin as he chips in with his own testimony: “Steve Penny [CEO of USA Gymnastics] would always tell me: ‘Don’t worry about Maggie. We got Maggie.’ So why would I not believe him? You know, we’re talking about USA Gymnastics. We’re talking US Olympics.” But even as John Nichols musters a smile for the camera, he cannot mask the moist hurt in his eyes. However, it’s his daughter, our Athlete A, now aged 23, who sums up the irony of her story, seemingly without rancour: “I started gymnastics when I was three-years-old, because I was always climbing out of my crib. So my parents put me into it [gymnastics], just to be in a safer environment.”

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Featuring  Maggie Nichols, Jennifer Sey, Rachael Denhollander, Jamie Dantzscher, John Manly, Mark Alesia, Jessica Howard, Steve Berta, Tim Evans, Mike Jacki, Marisa Kwiatkowski, Andrea Munford, Gina Nichols, John Nichols, Angela Povilaitis, Geza Pozsar, Tracee Talavera, and (archive footage) Nadia Comăneci (not smiling), Ronald Reagan, Nicolae Ceausescu, Larry Nassar, Mary Lou Retton, Kerri Strug.

 

Dir Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, Pro Serin Marshall, Julie Parker Benello and Jennifer Sey, Ex Pro Richard Berge, Regina K. Scully, Barbara and Eric Dobkin, Patty Quillen, Ann W. Lovell, Jennifer Westphal, Joe Plummer, Debbie McLeod, Jay K. Sears, Ken and Christina Nolan, Jim and Susan Swartz, Dan Cogan, Geralyn White Dreyfous and Jenny Raskin, Ph Jon Shenk, Ed Don Bernier, Music Jeff Beal.

 

Actual Films/Impact Partners/Artemis Rising Foundation/Meadow Fund and Dobkin Family Foundation/Chicago Media Project/Grant Me the Wisdom Productions-Netflix.

103 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 24 June 2020. Available on Netflix. Cert. 15.