Nancy Gillen

Streaming service Netflix has been a key feature of lockdown. The vast array of films and television shows on offer have been an effective way of keeping away the boredom caused by endless hours indoors. 

There is something for everyone on Netflix, whether it is comedy, drama or action. In recent years, it has also excelled in the sport documentary genre. 

Two series of "Sunderland ‘Til I Die" offered a unique insight into the workings of an English football club, while "The Last Dance" focused on the career of American basketball legend Michael Jordan. "Icarus" is another excellent watch for sports fans, especially those intrigued by the Russian doping scandal, which still rumbles on today. 

Last week, "Athlete A" premiered on Netflix. The 1hr 44min documentary follows a team of investigative journalists from The Indianapolis Star, who broke one of the biggest stories in the sporting world from the past five years. They uncovered the sexual assault of hundreds of young female gymnasts by USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar.

The documentary does not reveal anything that was not already in the public realm of knowledge, but tells the story of sexual assault, systematic emotional abuse and cover-ups in a startling way.

Many will know who Nassar is, or remember the numerous headlines featuring his name. The story has often found its way back into the limelight, especially when Olympic stars such as Simone Biles found the courage to speak out about their horrific experiences with Nassar.

Not many know the full extent of the story, however, or how complicit USA Gymnastics was in allowing Nassar to continue to abuse young gymnasts.

Former USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny faces two to 10 years in prison for the alleged tampering of evidence ©Getty Images
Former USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny faces two to 10 years in prison for the alleged tampering of evidence ©Getty Images

Despite numerous athletes coming forward about the physician's misconduct, USA Gymnastics allegedly ignored the sexual abuse by Nassar. The documentary suggests the governing body were fuelled purely by a desire to win and were more interested in profit over the welfare of its gymnasts.

Former USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny, who resigned in 2017 during the scandal, comes across as a man woefully inept at ensuring the safety of his athletes.

Penny fired Nassar in 2015, but claimed that he had retired and did not inform the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) or Michigan State University - where he held his medical practice - about the sexual abuse allegations. It allowed Nassar to continue abusing girls for another 15 months before his arrest.

Penny is also accused of arranging for documents at Karolyi Ranch, a training facility for the US Olympic gymnastics team, to be removed and brought to him at the USA Gymnastics headquarters. The documents in question were related to Nassar's treatment of the girls and young women who passed through Karolyi Ranch. Penny is still awaiting trial and faces two to 10 years in prison for this alleged tampering of evidence.

It was this corruption and negligence, found right at the top of a high-performing sports governing body, that was impossible to portray fully in the pages of a newspaper and which Athlete A brings to life so well. 

This is helped by interviews with survivors including Sydney 2000 Olympics team bronze medallist Jamie Dantzscher, former world team champion Maggie Nichols and Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to go public with her accusation against Nassar. Their first-hand accounts of their experiences go beyond what can be read in an article and show the importance of documentaries. 

First-hand accounts from gymnasts such as Maggie Nichols helped Athlete A tell the important story of widespread sexual abuse in USA Gymnastics ©Getty Images
First-hand accounts from gymnasts such as Maggie Nichols helped Athlete A tell the important story of widespread sexual abuse in USA Gymnastics ©Getty Images

Indeed, in the past week, I have had several conversations about Athlete A on WhatsApp group chats. My friends have expressed their horror and shock at the actions of both Nassar and Penny. It was not that they did not know the story before, but more that the documentary really brought home the awfulness of the scandal.

Athlete A has really highlighted the value of creating documentaries on important stories in the sporting world. It may even help bring those who ignore safeguarding practices to account. The lawsuit against USA Gymnastics and USOPC continues, of course, but the more people who are informed of the details of the scandal, the more likely justice will be served. 

Athlete A is also vital in explaining how emotional abuse can lead to sexual assault, and how both situations can be prevalent in high-pressured sporting environments. 

Only this week, South Korean triathlete Choi Suk-hyeon took her own life after enduring years of physical and verbal abuse from her coaching staff. 

According to reports, numerous complaints the 22-year-old made to sporting authorities in the country were ignored. It is the latest dark episode for South Korean sport in recent years. 

In 2018, double Olympic short track speed skating champion Shim Suk-hee publicly accused her coach of sexual and physical abuse, leading to the coach being jailed for 10 months.

This shows that Nassar and USA Gymnastics was not just a one-off case. Far from it, in fact. Emotional, physical and sexual abuse is known to be an issue in many sports, in many countries. 

Athlete A subsequently plays an integral role in informing people on the possibilities of abuse in sport. It also gives out a stark warning on the dangers of fostering a "win at all costs" mentality in sport. It is a hard watch at times, but it is a story that must be told.