In 2016 the world watched in awe as Simone Biles stormed to Olympic success but no one had any idea of the storm that was heading towards the world of USA gymnastics, threatening to destroy everything in its path. The new documentary, Athlete A, is a moving, thought-provoking insight into just how dangerous the world of gymnastics can really be. Whilst the focus of the documentary is the USA, the rest of the world is not immune – this week, reports have surfaced from gymnasts in the UK who said they experienced similar emotional and mental trauma during their time as elite gymnasts.
For someone who knows little to nothing about the world of gymnastics, and honestly has never really been that interested in learning about it, I was slightly sceptical as to whether or not this documentary would be able to hold my interest, but it certainly did. One of the main, and less obvious, problems with the world of gymnastics that the film highlights is how young the athletes are. When you watch Usain Bolt sprint over the finish line in the 100metres, or Michael Phelps swim to a first place finish in the pool, rarely does their age come to mind – but when Simone Biles snatched gold in Rio 2016 she was only nineteen. Gymnastics is a sport that favours the young, making it, as Athlete A highlights, a breeding ground for lifelong mental and physical problems.
The documentary focuses most of its attention on one athlete in particular – a girl called Margaret Nichols, a young gymnast with an abundance of talent and drive who was on course to live out her olympic dreams in Rio. Nichols discusses her experience with USA gymnastics, painting a very dark (and all too familiar for many American gymnasts) picture of what life is like at an elite level.
We all watched in disgust as allegation after allegation surfaced against Team USA doctor Larry Nassar – accusations of sexual assault and other inappropriate behaviour piled up (not for the first time) before he was arrested and deservedly given two 60-year prison sentences for his crimes. What I should imagine most of us, myself included, were unaware of were the other horrors taking place behind the scenes. Gymnasts were forced to perform on injuries until they physically couldn’t anymore – being told that they weren’t really hurt or that they were just imagining it. Being body shamed and verbally abused for their weight – Nichols tells a story of when she had the flu and lost six pounds only to be praised on her return to training and forced to make sure she kept the weight off.
Nichols was among the athletes who had had their complaints against Nassar brushed under the rug and faced a lot of indirect backlash as a result, which involved her not being selected for the 2016 olympic team despite having finished almost every competition in previous years second only to Simone Biles. A clear example that USA gymnastics knew about, and were trying to cover up these allegations against their beloved team doctor.
One quote that really stood out to me in the film came from a former olympic gymnast from the 1980s, who said “We love winners in this country [America]”, and Athlete A really speaks to that sentiment. It highlights Americans’ desire for success, no matter what the cost. In this case though, the cost was the safety and health of these young athletes. This is a point that Athlete A proves consistently throughout the documentary.
Overall, whether you’re a gymnast or interested in gymnastics, or even sports in general, this documentary is a must see. Even if you have no interest in any of these, I would really encourage you to watch – it highlights the challenges faced by victims of sexual assault (not just in the gymnastics world) in a respectful and interesting way and is a really thought-provoking watch.