Review: 'Athlete A' shows culture that let Nassar abuse victims

Netflix documentary looks at Larry Nassar case, and larger systemic problems within USA Gymnastics program

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Larry Nassar is not the only target in "Athlete A," the effective, well-told documentary about the former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor turned convicted child molester.

Directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk also seek to indict the entire system at USA Gymnastics and the culture of predatory behavior that allowed Nassar not only to prey on young girls but to continue to do it for years. 

Maggie Nichols in "Athlete A."

Cohen and Shenk, who also directed 2017's "An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power," talk to several of Nassar's survivors who came up through the USA Gymnastics program. They describe the emotional and physical abuse young athletes in the system are put through that makes the gymnasts themselves feel powerless.

Within that structure, enacted under coach Béla Károlyi, one former Olympian describes Nassar as "the only nice adult" with whom the kids — and yes, they're children — come in contact. And since everything within the organization is seemingly on the up-and-up, there was no reason to believe the behavior of this nice adult was in any way out of the ordinary. 

Until it was. Maggie Nichols spoke up, and her complaint was buried, and eventually so was she when she was left off of the 2016 Olympics squad. But by then a team of reporters at the Indianapolis Star was beginning to look into USA Gymnastics' complicated policy of looking the other way at allegations of abuse, and a 2016 story in the paper opened the floodgates not only on Nassar but the entire USAG program.

Cohen and Shenk trace competitive gymnastics back from the 1950s and show how the dynamics of the sport changed with the 1976 Olympics, when Nadia Comăneci ushered in a new era of gymnasts. After Comăneci, competitors got smaller and younger, which allowed for them to be more susceptible to body and mind manipulation, and be controlled by a system of fear and intimidation. 

There's a lot here, but "Athlete A" handles its material lithely, moving smoothly between Nassar's survivors, the journalists who broke the story and the big picture of gold medals, Summer Games and national pride. As one parent of one of Nassar's victims who was pressured into silence puts it, "they had the Olympics hanging over our head." 

Nassar — who is currently serving a life sentence after being convicted on criminal sexual misconduct charges — should have never happened. "Athlete A" shows how he did, and the broken system that allowed it. 

'Athlete A'


Rated PG-13: for mature thematic content including detailed descriptions of sexual abuse of minors

Running time: 104 minutes

On Netflix