‘Athlete A’ is Netflix’s recently released documentary which focuses on the sexual abuse scandal at USA Gymnastics (‘USAG’), perpetrated by Dr Larry Nassar, a former team doctor, under the guise of medical procedures. Nassar was accused of sexually assaulting over 250 women and girls dating back to 1992. The documentary explores the investigation by the Indianapolis Star which culminated in the conviction and sentencing of Nassar in 2018; the response of USAG to reports of sexual abuse; and the culture within USAG which enabled Nassar to continue to commit sexual assaults for a considerable length of time.
It is revealed that the investigation by the Indianapolis Star that led them to Nassar was in fact an investigation into USAG’s policy around how it dealt with allegations of sexual abuse. In a filmed deposition shown within the documentary, USAG’s president Steven Penny admits that USAG did not always pass reports of assault straight to the police. However, USAG refute that there was a ‘cover-up’. The documentary notes that there had been numerous reports of sexual abuse by Nassar dating back to 1997, however unfortunately these reports were not acted upon sufficiently as Nassar was able to continually abuse women and children, including within his role as a team doctor at USAG.
The documentary explores how the culture and training techniques applied to produce high performing elite gymnastics also made the athletes vulnerable to abuse. Jennifer Sey, USAG National Champion in 1986, describes the coaching methodology within the sport during her time as an elite gymnast as ‘cruelty’. The documentary notes that, within USAG, this was exacerbated by the adoption of an ‘oppressive’ system of coaching when Romanian coaches Bela and Marta Karolyi became US team coaches. Emotional and physical abuse which took place within USAG and within gymnastics generally is considered to have contributed to gymnasts feeling powerless, inhibited disclosure and blurred the line between training and child abuse so that victims were unable to recognise what was and wasn’t acceptable behaviour. Examples of coaching techniques which made gymnasts vulnerable to abuse included isolated training camps conducted away from gymnast’s families and strict disciplinary practices, including close weight monitoring and critical commentary. In addition, the documentary refers to USAG’s focus on marketing, sponsorship deals and revenue, which may have diverted the organisation’s focus from the protection of the athletes in their care to protection of their brand image.
In January 2020 USAG announced a plan to pay a $215million settlement to a group of survivors of Nassar’s abuse. Later in the year USAG filed for bankruptcy in order to be able to resolve claims made by gymnasts. It has been reported that many of the survivors of Nassar’s abuse have ongoing civil claims against USAG. Nassar had also previously worked at Michigan State University and in 2018, Michigan State University agreed to pay $500million to a group of survivors of Nassar’s abuse.
It is clear that the culture within elite gymnastics and gymnastics more generally is now under further scrutiny – this also includes Great Britain.
Lauren Donnison, Paralegal, BLM