Achieving the Perfect 10 – Parkettes gymnastics documentary (CNN, 2003)
This CNN TV sports documentary focuses on the Parkettes gymnastics club for girls and women and its quest for Olympics and world championships gymnastics glory. The club is located in Allentown, an industrial working-class city in Pennsylvania which has probably seen much better days, and I suspect this gives some context to the intense competitive culture the club fosters and the willingness of the girls and their families to submit to it. The documentary follows a number of young Parkettes girls in training, all of them dreaming of the day when they will be selected for the US national women’s team, compete at Olympic Games level and win that elusive all-round gold medal, and the ordeals they must encounter and work through: the intense coaching, exercising long hours six days a week at the expense of nearly all other activities including schoolwork, health and injury problems, and the heavy sacrifices they and their families make towards the goal.
It’s a swift-moving documentary which bounces from one topic to another – the training schedules, the demands coaches make, the competitions, health, injuries, pain, dieting and eating issues, psychological problems – with constant voice-over chatter, intrusive music, fast-moving shots of gymnasts performing, sharp cuts to close-ups of coaches’ faces as they urge the girls to work harder. This limits discussion of the various issues that arise to their most obvious and familiar aspects but prevents deeper exploration into their ultimate cause: the intense do-or-die competitive nature of modern sport in the United States, underpinned by the competitive ethos of the capitalist system, combined with the cult of celebrity worship. If girls are unable to progress as quickly as they are expected to, they must drop out and everything that they and their families have done – which might include uprooting from their communities to move hundreds of kilometres just to be closer to the gym, or mums and dads commuting up to three hours each day to see their daughters practise moves – will come crashing down and all will face a blank future. Tremendous pressure is placed on girls psychologically as well as physically and it is no wonder that a child as young as six or seven years of age as one girl, Ashley, is urged by her parents to continue performing at an important meet on a broken ankle.
It would be easy to condemn starry-eyed and gullible parents who don’t challenge the coaches, or the coaches themselves who are so dead-set on success that their minds block out everything else, but the problem is that if any one of them left the system, the space vacated is quickly filled by another so we have to look at the culture of the sport itself and how it has developed over the years to be what it is now. If we were to do this, we’d probably find that obsession with Olympic medal glory combined with zealous nationalism is at the heart of the intense competitiveness of gymnastics to the extent that the sport becomes a mass assembly line of vulnerable youngsters who risk their long-term health and mental well-being for a brief couple of years of elite performance. One notes that in China, the competition for selection to the national women’s gymnastics team is also highly intense and we cannot discount the possibility that coaches beat and bully young gymnasts into performing feats of acrobatics, strength and flexibility.
The documentary did come in for criticism from Parkettes club coaches and gymnasts who were concerned that CNN did not present an accurate picture of the club’s activities and focussed only on the negative aspects for viewer titillation. The style of presentation, not far from that of a Hollywood action thriller, does the club and its coaches, coming across as barking sergeants, no credit either. The girls are often shown in tears or in pain from injuries and I did think the documentary was insinuating that the girls weren’t as tough as they and their coaches and families claimed they were. The girls’ parents were often not presented in a flattering light and one detects a feeling of superiority towards them from the CNN presentation because of their working-class origins.
Not much new that people don’t already know about gymnastics in a general way is revealed in the documentary and a better portrayal of women’s gymnastics and its culture in the United States that gives some credit to the girls and their parents and takes a harder stand against the culture and values of commercialised sport and the wider culture that supports it and similarly competitive sports is needed.