In more than 25 years of the ESPY Awards, I honestly remember only two events: the heartbreaking farewell of Jim Valvano while looking death in the face in 1993; and 2018, when more than 100 survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of American team doctor Larry Nassar flooded the scene one by one with deafening applause. The two were incredibly moving events, but it was the sight of all these injured women that aroused not only pride but anger. Most of them targeted the organization that deliberately looked away while more than 500 girls – most of them under the age of 15 – were sexually assaulted: USA Gymnastics.
It sparked strange echoes of the Catholic Church scandal, so much so, it seemed that the USAG was inspired by the Vatican in its eagerness to sweep its mess under the carpet and to pretend ignorance falsely. Worse, he did so by allowing the attackers to continue to have carte blanche with the victims. And with USAG, it wasn’t just an assault; it was also physical and mental violence on the part of coaches and administrators, a state of mind instilled by a megalomaniac who cut his teeth under the cruel and totalitarian regime of the Romanian Nicolae Ceausescu.
This man, of course, is Bela Karolyi, whose ruthless practices have brought gold to the United States, but at the expense of the tarnished souls of children. Children! It was inhuman, a point that was effectively reached in the new Netflix documentary “Athlete A”, a deeply disturbing chronicle of the only major sport in which competitors are not old enough to drive. They are children! It is a fact that many choose to ignore in the name of national pride that these little girls inspire us every four years. Rarely, however, do we think of the cost behind the scenes. At least we didn’t do it until Larry Nassar became a household name.
It is poetic justice that he is now the one who would be at the end of sexual abuse – in prison. How he got there is just a small piece of “Athlete A”, who rightly focuses his attention on his victims, half a dozen of whom courageously tell directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk their heartbreaking stories. The cornerstone is Athlete A herself, Maggie Nichols, who, at the cost of a great sacrifice (think of Colin Kaepernick), traded in her Olympic dream of a lifetime for a blow to justice.
It was she and her mother, Gina, who denounced Nassar in June 2015 by filing an official complaint with the USAG. But incredibly, their accusations have been ignored by the monolith for over a year. Instead of taking action against Nassar, who continued to molest the little girls for 15 months, the USAG attempted to take revenge on Maggie by voluntarily leaving her out of the 2016 team he sent in Rio. Fortunately for her, a team of investigative journalists from the Indianapolis Star supported her, doing her “Spotlight” thing by diving deep into the USAG, which conveniently has its national headquarters just around the corner from downtown.
Like the journalists of the Globe exposing the Catholic Church, we see the team of journalists of the Star go beyond expectations by contacting the victims, acquiring documents and creating a file that would eventually bring down one of the the most powerful institutions in the world. It’s exciting to watch, but it’s not the “Athlete A” part that touches you – it’s the girls, who are now all women who were once competitors but now united in their calls to the justice. Not just against Nassar, but his many facilitators, including USAG President Steve Penny (a born sleaze) and Karolyi’s wife Marta, with whom Bela ran a famous gymnastics ranch just north of Houston that we now know that he was without parents – licensed house of horrors.
For obvious reasons, none of the “bad guys” pass in front of the camera. What will they say? Admit guilt? Not likely. But you want the filmmakers to delve deeper into the corrupt practices of the USAG, which is now under new management. But – like the Catholic Church – can we ever trust it again? Without that, the survivors’ testimonies are sufficiently inspiring, a feeling reaching its peak in the last 20 minutes when dozens and dozens of Nassar victims find themselves face to face with their attacker during the conviction. It is a catharsis in which everyone describes the damage he has caused. It’s empowering to the maximum.
The same goes for pictures of Penny handcuffed after his arrest for plotting to cover up the scandal, even putting the cops and the FBI on the payroll to prevent his organization’s dirty little secret from ever being unveiled. And it could have stayed that way without the lifeblood of our nation: good solid local journalism. Under President Donald Trump, the press was beaten, but it is these good deeds that renew your faith in the Fourth State. More so, “Athlete A” reinforces the belief that even in our darkest hour, light ends up making its way into the dirtiest corners of society, allowing even injured little girls to gain the upper hand. day by converting pain into power.
Al Alexander can be contacted at [email protected]
A documentary by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk starring gymnasts Maggie Nichols, Jamie Dantzscher, Jessica Howard, Jennifer Sey and Racheal Denhollander. Available on Netflix.
(PG-13 for mature thematic content, including detailed descriptions of child sexual abuse.)
Quality: B +
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