Netflix recently released a gymnastics documentary by the name of Athlete A which covers the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal. The film achieved widespread success and even gymnastics fans who have spent the last two weeks living under a rock can’t deny they haven’t heard about it. But I don’t think most are aware as to just how much success Athlete A is having.
Athlete A currently has a 100% critic aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes, the review-aggregation website whose ratings carry significant clout within the film industry. It is incredibly rare for a film to hit a 100% threshold. Yet surpassingly, Athlete A is not the first gymnastics documentary to accomplish this feat in recent years. In 2017 a gymnastics documentary by the name of Over the Limit featuring rhythmic gymnast Margarita Mamun scored 100%. In 2019 HBO released At the Heart of Gold which also hit the 100% threshold.
In a span of just four years, there have been three major gymnastics documentaries that each take a hard hitting look at the sport and promote conversations of athletes enduring abusive conditions. While it has not been unusual for a gymnastics documentary to hit 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, it was the way Athlete A accomplished that score that is significant.
The critic aggregate score works by taking the reviews from established movie critics and counting them as reflectively positively or negatively towards the film. Films with fewer reviews are at a natural advantage as the more reviews the film receives, the higher the likelihood a critic reviews the film poorly and ruins its 100% average. For this reason Wikipedia requires films to have a minimum of 20 reviews before listing them. Athlete A is only the fifth film to have hit this threshold in 2020. In one of its editorials Rotten Tomatoes required a minimum of 40 reviews before adding a film to its list of movies that scored 100%. Here’s how many reviews the three gymnastics documentaries obtained:
|Over the Limit||9|
|At the Heart of Gold||26|
At 47 reviews, Athlete A is in the 85th percentile amongst films listed in Wikipedia for the highest number of reviews. In other words, Athlete A isn’t just highly acclaimed, but ranks in the 85th percentile specifically when measured against the most highly acclaimed films of all time. But mere percentage numbers feel trivial and irrelevant compared to where the success can truly be seen. The wave of British gymnasts who were inspired by Athlete A to come forward with their own stories of abusive training conditions. Athlete A triggered an immediate reckoning within British gymnastics as dozens of high profile British gymnasts spoke out against abuse culture existing within the program, including numerous Olympians.
Athlete A also serves as a valuable education tool drawing on the direct connections between the brutal Eastern Bloc sports machine and USAG’s Karolyi-era. It also highlights the Cold War history of women’s gymnastics pivoting away from older gymnasts and prioritizing young gymnasts, ushering in the “little-girl” era. These details may sound rather basic to passionate gymnastics fans, but are little known details amongst the general public. Thanks to Athlete A, these niche details that are vital to understanding how gymnastics developed an abuse culture are no longer niche. They are now being widely circulated on the Internet and discussed by those who are only casual observers of the sport.
Athlete A is also empowering other anti-abuse advocates and drawing awareness to their contributions as well. Nearly every major forum discussion about Athlete A also mentions At the Heart of Gold and encourages readers to watch that film as well.
Gymnastics has a long-standing history of producing classic documentaries ever since the rise of Olga Korbut. But what makes Athlete A unique is the sudden and immediate impact it appears to be having on the sport.
Over the Limit, At the Heart of Gold, and Athlete A are all amazing films. All three films share a common interest in working towards spreading awareness of the internal workings of the sport. There are essentially on each other’s team. At the Heart of Gold, and Athlete A left the bar high very high if Athlete A wanted to achieve similar levels of success. Athlete A simply channelled its inner Simone Biles and raised the bar even higher.