FILM: ‘The world is waiting, the survivors are waiting for justice’
When the US gymnastics team dominated the 2012 Olympics in London, few people knew something far darker was going on away from the sequins, medals and winning smiles.
It was the biggest sexual abuse scandal in sporting history.
Team doctor Larry Nassar’s victims included some of the most famous female athletes in the sport, including Simone Biles, Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney.
A new documentary, Athlete A, details how reporters at the Indianapolis Star exposed his serial abuse and the way his crimes and those of coaches in the sport were covered up.
“When we started making the film, the paper had done a fair amount of their work investigating but it wasn’t yet the giant story that it became eight months later,” says director Jon Shenk.
“It was the middle of 2017 and at that point he had been indicted but he had not yet gone to trial.”
When he finally did go to trial the following year, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina sentenced him to up to 175 years in prison after hundreds of women flew to the trial in Michigan to make victim impact statements.
“That was really the thing that kind of blew through into the mainstream consciousness in the world about this case,” Shenk adds.
“We were really fortunate to be in the newsroom in Indianapolis and be with the survivors as they were getting ready for the trial and we watched that unfold, which was an amazing thing to witness.”
At the centre of the film is Maggie Nichols, who was the first athlete to report Nassar to USA Gymnastics (USAG) in 2015, and was dubbed Athlete A.
After she made allegations against the doctor, she fell out of favour with USAG and failed to make the US team for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“As you see in the film, Gina Nichols, Maggie’s mother, made the victim impact statement on behalf of Maggie,” adds co-director Bonni Cohen.
“She makes reference to the fact that USAG was referring to Maggie as Athlete A and then there was Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney, who were Athletes B and C.
“They were willing to come forward in the courtroom and it was very dramatic because the public wasn’t necessarily clear on who they were, even though they were incredibly well-known gymnasts.” Nassar had been abusing girls all over the world – in London at the 2012 Olympics, at the USA Gymnastics training centre in Texas, the Karolyi Ranch and at gymnastics events in Rotterdam.
“It was exposed during a legal deposition that USAG actually had a policy of not going to the police and not going to the authorities when they were notified about a staff member, usually a coach, that had been abusing children, sexually abusing children,” Shenk says.
“And unless they had a written letter from the actual victim or their family, they would brush it under the rug and sometimes they would move the coaches around, a lot like the Catholic Church did with the priests that were accused of abusing young children in the church.
“And meanwhile this organisation was a giant money-making machine – starting in the 1980s and really accelerating in the ’90s, they became a giant machine of sponsorships.
“Winning medals was a priority for them, so if they could go out and continue that business, it was a simple case where money and power came above the safety and protection of these young people.”
But how was it that abuse could thrive at such an elite level in such a high-profile sport?
The film traces back the history of gymnastics in the US to offer some clues – landing when Nadia Comaneci won gold at the Montreal Olympics in 1976.
“She hadn’t even gone through puberty, she was 14 years old, she wins gold,” Cohen says. “And everyone around the world, certainly in the US in particular, wanted to replicate that for themselves, for the home team, and they wanted to bring in whatever methodology allowed that young girl to succeed all the way to her gold medal.
“All of a sudden there was a situation where younger and younger girls are in the gyms with coaches and no parents, and no oversight, and they don’t have a developed sense of themselves – they are not mature enough to know necessarily right from wrong in a coaching scenario and so abuses just started to build and build.
“And more and more was asked of them. There was poor nutrition, there was psychological abuse, they would be shamed publicly in the gym in front of other gymnasts, they would compete on broken bones, they would be forced to wrap up ankles that shouldn’t be run upon or jumped on.”
Shenk nods. “And if you complained, you were complaining to the people who had the power to place you in competitions, so it really was a worst case scenario in terms of power dynamic – the girls had none while the coaches had everything.”
Some of the girls described Nassar as a refuge, the one person who would be nice to them and slip them snacks.
“Can you imagine a scenario where that’s true?” Cohen asks. “How bad it would have to be for that to be true?”
Now the pair are horrified that there has been so little accountability across the sport.
“There have only been a couple of indictments,” Shenk says. “Steve Penny (former president of USA Gymnastics) was originally arrested for tampering with evidence in relation to the case but that trial really has not been set or gone anywhere.
“Then there was some legal action at Michigan State with the athletic directors there, but this scandal in general is really quite wide and, as we say at the end of the film, the US Justice Department is looking into potential corruption within the FBI, the US Olympic Committee, certainly within USA Gymnastics, and of course there are other Olympic sports that also have problems like these, so the world is waiting, the survivors are waiting for justice to be served.
“There has been some satisfaction, Nassar of course is in prison, but there is a lot more that needs to happen.”