‘Athlete A’ exposes the ‘cruelty’ of the elite gymnastics machine

It’s been two years since a group of American gymnasts faced down the person who tried to break them. In 2018, Larry Nassar was finally sentenced to 40 to 125 years in federal prison for sexual assault.

Nassar’s sentencing followed a series of articles exposing his crimes — some of them going as far back as the 1990s — that tore through the lives of his 500 accusers.

But in the Netflix documentary, Athlete A, Nassar isn’t the only evil. There is still the corrupt system that fed those athletes to Nassar and to others — the world of elite gymnastics.

Athlete A’s take on the USA Gymnastics scandal asks: what goes into making an institution that sacrifices its young?

In the documentary, Jamie Dantzscher recalls the abuse she endured in her journey to the Olympics. For most of her teens, she was subjected to a gruelling training regime, being told by her trainers she was too fat and competing with broken toes and a fractured back. Her injuries, she says, were rarely acknowledged; her pain ignored.

“Anything they said it would take to get to the Olympics, I was going to do … Back then I didn’t think of it as abuse,” Dantzscher says.

These conditions made Nassar, the USA Gymnastics national team doctor at the time, seem kind by comparison. For Dantzsher, he was “the only nice adult”.

As a competitive sport that relies on absolute perfection, gymnastics asks its athletes not only to fight through their pain, but to grin through it too. And this culture of silence is beaten into elite gymnasts when they are still young.

Jennifer Sey, the USA Gymnastics 1986 national champion, delivers the most searing assessment of the elite gymnastics system in the United States: “We love winners in this country. This is a competitive country … But this notion that we would sacrifice our young to win, I think disgusts us a little.”

She says “the standard methodology of coaching in elite gymnastics was cruelty”.

“That was the accepted methodology. You could be as cruel as you needed to be to get what you needed out of your athlete.”

This approach was shaped by a history that required the US to compete on the same level as its strongest competitors in the Soviet Bloc.

Márta and Béla Károlyi, the husband and wife duo who went on to coach numerous US Olympic teams, rose professionally under the repressive regime of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu.

In Romania, gymnasts were subjected to strict training from as young as six years old. At the time, this system was new. The Károlyis coached Nadia Comăneci who won gold at the Olympics in 1976 at only 14 years old.

Geza Pozsar, a choreographer for the Károlyis, says that, in the context of the Cold War, “Nadia was Romania’s best product.”

When Comăneci won, the face of elite gymnastics changed forever. The bodies of the grown women who had previously competed in the sport were suddenly deemed inadequate.

This, Sey says, created a “really dangerous environment”, in which disordered eating was the norm. “I think people really believed that, for the more difficult skills to be performed, you had to be tiny. There’s also the benefit of the coaches having more control when the girls are younger.”

The image of the youthful gymnast, fearlessly flinging herself through the air and achieving the impossible before she can vote, became central to the marketing strategy deployed by USA Gymnastics — which raked in millions of dollars a year.

Here enters Steve Penny, initially hired as vice-president of marketing for the entity and who climbed all the way to the top of USA Gymnastics.

In 2018, Penny was arrested on a felony charge of evidence tampering in the investigation into Nassar. He is alleged to have known about and covered up the sexual abuse by Nassar, which would have shattered the wholesome image of USA Gymnastics that advertisers bought into.

As the custodian of young girls’ dreams, Penny wielded the ultimate power over them.

After Maggie Nichols complained about Nassar, the athlete that was already being set up for Olympic glory was mysteriously left off the 2016 team. Nichols was long identified only as “Athlete A”.

The last scene of Athlete A shows Nichols now, having rekindled her love for the sport, and still competing at college level. She celebrates her wins, free from the joyless system she once endured.

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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