FILM REVIEW: Athlete A- Larry Nassar’s abuse. How USA Women’s Gymnastics’ drive for glory led to its downfall.
By Abby Gilchrist
I distinctly remember when Larry Nassar was sentenced in 2018 to a maximum of 125 years in prison, after pleading guilty to 10 charges of sexual assault of a minor. I remember the satisfaction of hearing the judge for the case, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, tell him “I just signed your death warrant.” This, for me, was a rare occasion where I saw a child sex offender get the sentence that fit the severity of his crime - so often they don’t. From all the media coverage at the time, however, all I remember about this case is that Nassar was singled out in the abuse of over 250 young girls in USA gymnastics between 1992 and 2016. Following my viewing of ‘Athlete A’, the new documentary film on Netflix that covers the case and USA Gymnastics, I now know that, sadly, Nassar’s actions were not isolated in the world of professional gymnastics. I can see how the cold, competitive environment of this professional sport had immensely helped with his wide-scale abuse stretching decades.
The 1960s and 70s were vital for the creation of the world of gymnastics we recognise today. Up until the late 60s, it was full-grown women we saw competing to a professional and international level at the Olympics. That all changed when Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, with the coaching of Bela Karolyi, won gold at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal at the tender age of 14. Coaches soon realised that the ability to perform more difficult tricks on the floor and on the bars was linked to youth - youth meant that the body was more flexible, less prone to injury, and hadn’t gone through or started to go through the physical changes of puberty. Youth also meant that the coaches could exert a greater amount of control over the girls - they were easier to bully and abuse in order to attain greater results. Jennifer Sey, the 1986 USA Gymnastics National Champion, states in the documentary that the “standard methodology of coaching in elite gymnastics was cruelty.” Verbal abuse, physical abuse - “anything” she says, “to get what you needed out of your athlete.” This extreme approach was not unusual in USA gymnastics, but she states that it was “validated” following the arrival of Bela and Martha Karolyi, who had defected from Romania to the USA in 1981 and who had used this method of coaching to greater success with their athletes such as with Nadia Comaneci.
Thus, the perfect hunting ground for men such as Larry Nassar was set. In the world of competitive gymnastics, most adults and coaches, the ones in charge of the wellbeing of these young athletes, were cruel and cold. This was intensified by the fact that contact with the outside world was cut off, with the young athletes training at the now infamous Karolyi Ranch outside of Houston, Texas from which parents were barred. In this place of strict diets and Soviet-styled tough-love, appeared a man who has been described as ‘warm’, ‘quirky’ and ‘kind’. A man who, in defiance of the Karolyi’s strict diet regime, would leave sweets and chocolates on the girls’ pillows. This man was Larry Nassar. Nassar was not alone in his abuse in USA gymnastics - on their official ‘permanently ineligible members and participants’ list, of the 200 people listed, 44 have been banned in accordance with SafeSport Code for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Movement, III.A.4; Bylaw 10.14(b) - being a person convicted of or subject to a criminal disposition for a crime involving (a) any form of sexual misconduct or (b) a minor. On this list is the ex-CEO of USA Gymnastics, Steve Penny. How could Penny have allowed a man such as Nassar to go on abusing girls for so long? Surely someone reported him to Penny? Someone did - Maggie Nichols, or ‘Athlete A’ as she was named in the case against Nassar. She reported Nassar in the spring of 2015. So why was nothing done until The Indianapolis Star published a story on Nassar in September 2016?
The answer is sponsorship and money. Following the success of athletes such as gymnast Mary Lou Retton at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, USA Gymnastics realised that it could make some serious money from their success. Ex-USA Gymnastics President Mike Jacki states that the organisation was earning nearly $12 million a year from sponsorship in 1991. All their sponsors wanted their companies to be associated with the image of youth, innocence and success. It was that image they were desperate to protect. This was further boosted by the arrival of Penny as President of USA Gymnastics in 2005, a man who had a background in sports marketing. Right from the top of USA gymnastics to the coaches, money and success were the driving forces - not the protection of the individual athletes. When Nichols reported Nassar’s abuse in 2015, she was bypassed for the 2016 Olympic team, despite having come second to Simone Biles in the 2015 season. USA Gymnastics did not want her story of abuse and neglect to damage the pure image of USA gymnastics.
Nassar is now rotting in jail, where he will stay for the rest of his life. Penny is still facing charges of tampering in the Nassar case and has been permanently banned from USA Gymnastics. In January 2020, USA Gymnastics offered to pay $215 million to the more than 300 plaintiffs of Nassar’s abuse. John C. Manly, the lawyer who represented over 200 of the victims, told the New York Times “I’m not in a position to reject it...but there’s a better chance of Donald Trump endorsing Bernie Sanders than the victims accepting this offer.” I agree. Money will in no way undo the inconceivable damage done to these girls not just by Nassar, but by their coaches, by Penny, by USA Gymnastics. I hope these organisations soon realise that these girls are not just there for them to squeeze every dollar out of until they have no more financial worth. They are human beings and ultimately it was, and is their job to protect them and support them. They are girls who just want to do the sport they enjoy and represent the country they love.