‘Little girls grow into strong women that return to destroy your world’
Last week I watched Netflix’s latest documentary - Athlete A. I wanted to collect my thoughts before I wrote about what can only be described as a story of bravery, heartache and terror all rolled into one. In short, Athlete A tells the story of the female gymnasts who spoke up against USA Gymnastics national team Doctor, Larry Nassar, and the systematic abuse in the gymnastic community.
The 104 minute documentary has countless scenes which will no doubt stick with people, however one scene I had seen previously was from the 1996 Olympics, when American gymnast Kerri Strug falls from the vault and tears two ligaments in her ankle. I remember seeing this clip as part of a YouTube ‘inspirational’ video, an example to those who watched it that despite injury, her determination to vault again and win her team Gold was greater than the pain she was facing. The clip now is a lot more harrowing to view.
After failing to execute the first vault to a good enough standard, due to her torn ligaments, Strug is ‘encouraged’ by her coaches to take to the vault again. The clip cuts from the crying and limping athlete to her coach who says ‘you can do it’. Obviously, she does and the USA team take the Gold medal. Now, with an understanding of the systematic abuse in the gymnastic community, this ‘encouragement’ as it was previously viewed, is shown as an extension of the mental abuse experienced by the athletes. It was less of a ‘you can do this’ and more of a ‘you must do this’.
Since watching Athlete A, many more gymnasts have spoken up about their experiences; including those in the Team GB team. My mum and I love watching the gymnastic competitions on the TV and I even bought us both tickets to watch the British Championships live when it was held in Liverpool. We know their names, I follow them on social media, we root for them and analyse what makes them mentally and physically strong. Beth Tweddle, Beckie and Ellie Downie, Claudia Fragapane, Ruby Harold, Hannah Whelan, Amy Tinkler, Alice Kinsella, Kelly Simm and of course the USA team Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Ali Raisman, Morgan Hurd (the list could probably continue), they were who we rooted for and followed their successes. But it all seems a little tinted now. We appeared to have been wishing these athletes into an organisation of corruption and abuse and celebrated when they were named in the national team. I have no doubt that they did too, probably not knowing what lay ahead.
In 2008 a documentary was released following the girls who were in contention for the Team GB gymnastics squad to compete in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. It followed their training regime, their home lives, their parents and finally the selection process and eventual Olympic event. Watching now, there are lines and scenes which subtly highlight what may have been going on behind the scenes. The reference to the girls as people without faces, telling them they do not look as aesthetically pretty as the Chinese national team, that they will not succeed at the Olympics, told that they will eat only what an approved nutritionalist tells them and frequent references to appearance.
Now I am not blind to the dedication, hard work and commitment that comes with wanting to be the top or compete at the top of a sport. I understand that athletes must be shouted at when they are not giving their best effort, that they will sacrifice social events, will have a strict calendar, get home late of an evening and train early of a morning. These are things which come with wanting to succeed at the top. These are thing I have experienced for the last 19 years as a dancer and these guys train in gyms double the amount of time I train in a studio. Hannah Whelan’s mother, talking of her 15 year old daughter, speaks of her 40 hour gymnastic week on top of school and GCSE revision. It is tough at the top - or so I have always been told - but it is tougher to stay there. These girls are fighting for 5/6 positions on a squad out of the 20 best in the country. So yes, I understand things are tough - but there is a line and it has been crossed too many times.
I am confident that gymnastics is not the only elite sport with abuse at the helm. There will be coaches who are driven by power, money, status and see their young talent as ways to get them into higher circles. I wonder if there will be similar stories emerging from other sports soon. As mentioned in Athlete A, the gymnasts are a marketing tool, a body who can and was manipulated into money, power, status and wealth for the USA Gymnastics committee.
Athlete A focuses on many stories, but in particular the story of Maggie Nichols, a promising young gymnast whose bravery cost her everything she had ever worked for. After placing consistently in the top 2/3 in national competitions, behind Simone Biles (who is a talent like no other!), Maggie was suspiciously not picked in the top 6 gymnasts or 2 extra reserves as part of the USA National Squad for the Olympics after she spoke up about the abuse she experienced at the hands of Larry Nassar. Is there any wonder no one else joined her until years later? I watch back the popular footage of those Team USA gymnasts, knowing that Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas and Ali Raisman spoke up about being abused by Larry Nassar too and the mental and physical abuse that came with being one of the elite. In the UK I watched a news report of a gymnast as young as 7 being tied to a pole and left to hang from the uneven bars. She was told by her coach not to tell her mother, and so she didn’t for a long time. I re-watched the 2008 documentary in preparation for this article and couldn’t help but try to search out in the face or voice of Beckie Downie some sort of pain or realisation of what was happening or what was about to happen. When she was announced as part of the 2008 Olympic squad, I cried.
I am humbled by the bravery of these gymnasts who have spoken out about Larry Nassar, their national governing bodies and their coaches. I am sure this is happening all over the world and in many sports, and maybe the example of these amazing women and men could inspire change elsewhere. But, as someone who isn’t part of the gymnastic community, I am delighted to know that they are taking a stand to protect younger generations.
In the words of Kyle Stephens during the victim impact statements at the Nassar trial 'Little girls grow into strong women that return to destroy your world’