DAVID BIANCULLI

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How Netflix's 'Athlete A' Led to Athlete B, C, and D, and Ushered In a New Wave of Proactive Documentaries
August 3, 2020  | By Alex Strachan
 


Netflix has done it again.

There are those documentaries that enlighten and inform, but only for a moment. We feel sadness and then outrage; our buttons are pushed. But then, inevitably, we move on. Everyone has lives to lead. 

Then there are those documentaries that have a lasting effect, programs that not only enlighten and inform but galvanize people to action, that convince someone somewhere to do something.

Netflix is in a somewhat unique position in this regard, because the streaming service is global, in a way not seen before. Netflix's reach extends beyond the domestic US market, and when a documentary such as Athlete A comes along, that can have a profound effect beyond that of one program on any given night in any given week.
 
Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, set the marker.

Epstein, coincidentally or not, premiered mere days before the arrest and charging of one-time Epstein confidante Ghislaine Maxwell on charges of aiding and abetting the trafficking of underage girls for sex. No one will argue Maxwell's very public arrest, after more than a year of living in self-imposed hiding, was the result of a Netflix docuseries, but the timing spoke volumes. Netflix's exposé reminded us that there were — and still are — many unanswered questions about the entire Epstein affair. At the very least, Filthy Richgave the victims of Epstein's predations a voice that otherwise might have gone unheard. 


And now it's happened again. Athlete A, filmmakers Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk's searing exposé of Larry Nasser, team doctor for the USA Gymnastics program for many years, forces viewers to confront the sordid, squalid affair of an authority figure who violated a sacred trust — again with underage girls — and does it, once again, by telling its story from the point-of-view of the victims, teenage girls at the time who are now grown women, with the life experience and worldliness that adulthood entails.

Athlete A, named for the then-anonymous gymnast who stepped forward to level accusations against a doctor who was both respected and admired as a seemingly kindly father figure in a sport notorious for its behind-the-scenes brutality and ruthlessness, is more than just another dry recitation of facts, and that's what gives it its undeniable power. Athlete A is a savage indictment of not only USA Gymnastics but an entire system based on winning at all costs, no matter the cost to personal lives.

Cohen and Shenk do a remarkable job of laying bare the recent history of women's gymnastics, going back to the 1976 Montreal Olympics when a then-unknown young ingénue from Romania, Nadia Comaneci, scored the first perfect 10s in Olympic history — not once but several times — and caused the public profile of a previously niche sport to explode.

Gymnastics, as vaulted into the public eye by Comaneci, convinced blue-chip, deep-pocketed corporate sponsors like McDonald's and Coca-Cola to invest in a wholesome, family sport that appealed to a wide, previously untapped audience, especially women and families with young children who don't typically follow sports.

There's a reason NBC has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into securing broadcast rights for successive Olympic Games, and it isn't anything to do with the javelin or pole vault. Women's gymnastics became the anchor for NBC's prime time US Olympic coverage. After all, one can't argue with those ratings, and the ratings consistently top the charts, even in the age of streaming and personal screens. The moment wholesome household names like McDonald's and Coca-Cola became associated with the Olympics, USA Gymnastics became about protecting the brand, not the girls.

In one of many telling moments in Athlete A, Cohen and Shenk show an interview from 1976 of the then 14-year-old Comaneci being asked why she never smiles. She's focused purely on nailing her routines, she explains to the camera, expressionless. The signs were there, but no one thought to follow up or wonder whether it's normal for a 14-year-old never to smile; it was just assumed to be "a Romanian, Eastern European thing."

The ensuing rush of Olympic gold medals for successive US girl gymnasts never caused anyone to question the bruises, injuries, and obvious hidden pain of bone-crunching routines. Athlete A shows there's a thin line between sucking it up and taking one for the team and outright abuse.

So far, you can be forgiven for thinking, Athlete A has all the hallmarks of one of those documentaries that push our buttons as viewers, but is easily forgotten as we collectively move on to the next horror.

But then, in an investigative report, the UK Guardian exposed a new horror — Olympic-level figure skating this time— and a young skater in Singapore, Jessica Shuran Yu, who condemned training abuse in her native China, which she described as dehumanizing.

Yu has urged the International Olympic Committee to do more to protect vulnerable young girls. She and others suffered systemic abuse inside the Chinese system.

Asked why she chose to step forward now, Yu, now 19, replied that she had seen Athlete AAthlete A shook her to the core, and convinced her to step forward. This is the Netflix effect: A one-off documentary from US filmmakers for a US-based streaming service, about a US Olympics program, is picked up on by a Chinese born-and-raised figure skater in Singapore, who tells her story to a UK newspaper, and sees that story go global.

It hasn't stopped there, either.

Just last week, Human Rights Watch reported that hundreds of children in Japan — the host country of the seemingly ill-fated 2020-'21 Summer Games — have said they suffered abuse in Olympic training. This is on the back of claims of widespread abuse in British gymnastics.

Watching Athlete A is not an easy task, even as one can't help but respect the women who are now stepping forward. However, Athlete A is important because it has already helped change the world in ways that not even filmmakers Cohen and Shenk could have foreseen when they first set out on a project that was about giving silent witnesses a voice.

That's remarkable when one thinks about it. Like Filthy Rich before it, Athlete A is a living, breathing testament to the human spirit, and not letting a childhood trauma change who you are as a person. It's the latest, most recent example of the new wave of proactive documentaries.

 
 
 
 
 
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