Living in the Golden Age of Fact-Checking: fact-checking the fact-checking sites and finding fools’ gold

“Living in the Golden Age of Fact-Checking”  (ReallyGraceful, July 2020)

In an age awash with global news / information media disinformation, coupled with the increasing denigration of critical thinking in the West by governments and corporations via failing education systems and institutions, fact-checking websites on the Internet have become a necessary evil for many people. One of the most prominent fact-checking sites is Snopes.com – from here on, referred to as Snopes – originally founded by couple David and Barbara Mikkelson in the mid-1990s as an information site investigating urban legends. Over time the site grew to encompass checking a variety of stories and claims, starting with claims about the World Trade Center attacks on 11 September 2001, on the Internet, and became a go-to reference site used by many online news media outlets.

In this video, ReallyGraceful investigates the history of Snopes, what sort of company it is, how big it is, what its biases are, and how the Mikkelsens’ messy personal lives (ending in divorce) affected the company’s management and structure. RG discovers the company provides no information about its fact-checking employees or what their political biases might be. The company’s funding is equally murky: some of its funding comes from online funding campaigns but the company apparently provides no information about the breakdown of the funds raised and where the funding goes in its operations; some funding comes from advertisements on its site on the Google search engine; and Snopes’ fact-checking partnership with Facebook. Incidentally the major shareholders of both Facebook and Google include BlackRock and Vanguard investment management corporations. RG examines David Mikkelsen’s previous employment background and finds he once worked for NASA and NASA-associated companies; another Snopes employee, Alex Kasprak, also once worked for NASA; and other Snopes workers came from The Seattle Times.

The last part of the video focuses on a story in which US furniture company Wayfair was supposedly secretly trafficking missing children by using their names to advertise overpriced furniture items online. Twenty-four hours after the story became public, Snopes claimed the story was false … because a Snopes employee contacted someone at Wayfair who simply said it was untrue. There was no further investigation on Snopes’ part as to how the claims arose in the first place, or into Wayfair’s internal affairs and its management’s ties to Bain Capital, a notorious asset-stripping firm co-founded by former US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

RG summarises her video by analysing the useful role that Snopes and similar “fact checkers” play as propagandists policing the limits of acceptable discussion and dissent in a reality where information is a commodity to be bought and sold. These sites shepherd the public into particular acceptable directions of information search and narrow critical thinking and discussion to topics deemed acceptable and harmless by The Powers That (Should Not) Be. A real “fact-checking” site would resemble investigative news sites like 21st Century Wire and Mint Press.

In case USE readers are not convinced by RG’s video alone on Snopes’ dubious nature, they are welcome to read this Vietato Parlare article on the equally dubious Facebook associations of Snopes reporter Bethania Palma Markus, the official “debunker” of claims that the White Helmets group is a front for terrorists in Syria. The VP article shows that not only does Markus’ Facebook associations and friends demonstrate strong political bias but also her friendships with individuals in Syria linked to the White Helmets and their jihadist confreres. Revelations such as this and what RG has posted really make you wonder: who fact-checks the fact-checking sites like Snopes?

The Lost Greek Cities of Central Asia: a lively and brisk introduction to ancient Greco-Bactrian kingdoms

Garrett Ryan, “The Lost Greek Cities of Central Asia” (Told in Stone, 4 September 2021)

In light of current events in Afghanistan, with the Taliban reasserting its governance of the country after nearly 20 years of US-led Western domination with its attendant violence and corruption, a look at a past period of ancient Central Asian history, spanning some 400 – 500 years from the time of Alexander the Great (died 323 BCE) to the reign of Kanishka (about 127 – 150 CE) of the Kushan Empire, might be in order. The reason is that during this period, in spite of Alexander the Great’s destruction of the Achaemenid Empire in Persia to establish his own mighty sprawling empire from the Aegean Sea to the Indus River, followed by its break-up among his generals, the area of Central Asia covering much of today’s Afghanistan along with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan received considerable cultural and political Greek influence, blended with elements from Anatolian, Persian and local cultures. This part of Central Asia was ruled by the Seleucid Empire, heir to Alexander the Great’s empire – the Seleucid dynasty was descended from Seleucus I Nicator, one of Alexander the Great’s generals – which relied on local leaders to defend the Seleucid Empire’s north-eastern border regions against the Tocharians and Xiong-nu farther north and east in the Eurasian steppe region. Over time these local leaders and their descendants declared their independence from the Seleucids, established their own kingdoms and maintained diplomatic relationships with the Mediterranean region and India farther south. These kingdoms maintained Greek / Hellenistic culture and the Greek language, and built cities with sophisticated urban cultures.

Ryan’s video is a very good introduction to a period of ancient history perhaps not well known to the general public: the video is a collage of photographs showing the ruins of past Greco-Bactrian cities and some of the archaeological artefacts found in these ruins, and colourful maps of Alexander the Great’s empire, the extent of the Hellenistic world in 281 BCE when the Seleucid Empire was at its height and the changing polities in Central Asia from Uzbekistan south to northern India over time. Ryan’s voice-over narration concentrates on facts: while it’s easy to follow, the brisk narration rarely pauses for breath as it bounds from the historical setting for the spread of Greek / Hellenistic culture across Central Asia to the founding of Ai Khanoum, its ethnic mix and culture; to the depredations of barbarian tribes who set themselves up as rulers and allowed the Greco-Bactrian cities and kingdoms to continue with their traditions; to the establishment of the Kushan Empire who patronised Buddhism and encouraged a unique mix of Greek / Hellenistic culture and cultural influences from India and China. For this reason, audiences might need to watch the video a few times to absorb as much of the information as they need to know.

Ryan goes into some detail as to why Greek / Hellenistic influence declined in Central Asia after the beginning of the first millennium CE: the decision of the Kushan Empire to replace Greek with Bactrian as its administrative language distanced the Greco-Bactrian cities from their cultural motherland, and the Greek-speaking communities (probably always small) in this part of the world lost their special status and gradually assimilated into the general population. Greece’s absorption into the Roman Empire and the rise of the Parthian Empire in Persia to rival Rome may have disrupted the Greco-Bactrian cities’ ties to their motherland. Influences from India and China, especially after the arrival of Buddhism, became stronger and more prominent in the mixed culture of the Kushan Empire.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the video comes in the last couple of minutes where the narration roams over the ruins of a number of ancient cities in remote parts of Afghanistan and viewers are treated to astonishing photographs of the lost cities among bare hills and mountains. Ryan laments that many ruined cities are being plundered by treasure hunters using bulldozers and other heavy equipment; the plundering robs the cities not only of the heritage that belongs to Afghanistan but also disrupts their layers of history that archaeologists need to date them and reconstruct the cities’ histories.

This period of ancient history, in which past Western conquest of Central Asia and part of Afghanistan was followed by centuries of cultural contacts and mixing with this part of the world being a crossroads between Europe and the Middle East on the one hand, and India and China on the other, and all cultures being treated equally, surely serves as a stark rebuke to recent Western arrogance and brutality in Afghanistan – and as a model to Russia, China, Iran and other nations surrounding Afghanistan to follow.

The Chaotic Fall of Kabul in 2021: demonstrating the failed propaganda and lies of the US empire

Carlton Meyer, “The Chaotic Fall of Kabul in 2021” (Tales of the American Empire, 20 August 2021)

Using past and current news videos of the US evacuations from Saigon (Vietnam) in 1975 and Kabul (Afghanistan) in 2021, this instalment in Carlton Meyer’s Tales of the American Empire compares these two momentous events in the decline and fall of the American Empire and uses them to demonstrate how the US government not only lies to its citizens but, in detailing the apparently disorganised and messy evacuations, also exposes the United States’ incompetence in not foreseeing events and planning for an orderly departure and that nation’s cold and brutal indifference to the fate of its citizens stranded in both countries, to say nothing of the fate of those local Vietnamese and Afghans who assisted the US in its wars and might have been (or be) accused of treachery. The film then lays out the context for the US occupation of Afghanistan in the wake of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers and other locations in the US on 11 September 2001. Those attacks provided the convenient excuse for the US to invade Afghanistan and overthrow the Taliban government in spite of the fact that none of the terrorists supposedly involved in the attacks were Afghanistan citizens; the only link was that Saudi terrorist leader Osama bin Laden was living in Afghanistan at the time of the 9/11 attacks. Meyer states that bin Laden had nothing to do with these attacks: he learned about these from local news media where he was living; and that bin Laden himself and the supposed existence of his organisation Al Qa’ida were a ruse for the US to pursue a War on Terror in Afghanistan and other nations in western Asia and northern Africa whose governments had been targeted for overthrow.

One significant feature of the film which Meyer could have emphasised more is the failure of US and other Western intelligence to ascertain that the Taliban had cut deals with sections of Afghanistan’s government and armed forces, and that Taliban overthrow of US puppet President Ashraf Ghani’s government would be swift: this failure is illustrated in US President Joe Biden’s press conference about a month before the fall of Kabul, in which Biden asserts that the collapse of Ghani’s government would not occur as the country’s armed forces were more than adequately staffed and equipped to fight and resist the Taliban, and that there would be no hurried evacuations from Afghanistan similar to those that occurred in Saigon in April 1975. This part of the film illustrates more than anything else that has been and is being written about the Biden government’s performance in the months leading up to the Taliban resurgence, that the entire apparatus of and surrounding the US government, including US intelligence and the most senior leaders of the nation’s armed forces, has utterly failed the US people in its ineptitude.

Funnily, while watching the film of the passenger jet moving down the runway at the Kabul airport, with all the people running alongside, that the film features early on, I had the impression that the crowds did not look all that desperate to clamber on board. It may very well be that the people (nearly all of whom were men) at the airport were aware of the momentous events taking place in Kabul, that the Western planes landing at the Hamid Karzai International Airport might well be the last such planes they would see; and that Western mainstream news media were imposing their own interpretations of the scenes at the airport onto the crowds and the country to insinuate that many Afghans were desperate to leave the country after Taliban victory. Even when backed into a corner, with all its lies and propaganda about Afghanistan and the failed 20-year war there, the West still needs to lie about its failures.

Karolyi: a slick example of sports propaganda whitewash

Jack Felling “Karolyi” (NBC Sports, 2016)

Here is a very slickly produced documentary made for the NBC television network as part of a series of sports documentaries made before the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The documentary breathlessly follows the careers and lives of Romanian women’s gymnastics coaches Bela and Marta Karolyi from the time they met in Romania at sports college in the early 1960s, marrying in 1963. The Karolyis started a national gymnastics school and one of their early students was Nadia Comaneci. The Karolyis trained Comaneci to the level where she and other of their students were named to represent Romania at the 1975 European Championships and the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. The success of the Romanian team and Comaneci in particular at these Olympics catapulted the Karolyis and Comaneci to international fame – but it also led to conflict developing between Bela Karolyi and the Romanian Communist government, with Comaneci becoming an unfortunate victim. After the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, the disagreement between the Karolyis and Bucharest deepened and the Karolyis defected to the United States in 1981. After their defection, the Karolyis had to struggle to re-establish their coaching careers in the US and for a time Bela himself had to work as a manual labourer on a ship dock. They were able to establish a gymnastics school in Texas and took on an eager student called Mary Lou Retton. Retton’s success at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles laid the foundation for the Karolyis’ rise to becoming the national coaches for the United States women’s gymnastics teams from the late 1980s onwards to 2016. During this period, the Karolyis (with the help of a US senator) were able to get their daughter Andrea out of Romania in the early 1980s and built their gymnastics training camp and ranch in a rural area north of Houston.

The fawning documentary depicts the Karolyis as being rugged and persistent Ayn-Rand individualists achieving incredible fame and success as sports coaches almost on their own. Bela Karolyi apparently built his training camp and ranch himself. Nothing is said of the help the US gymnastics community gave to the Karolyis to help them set up their gymnastics school in Texas. The Karolyis’ most famous students (Comaneci, Retton and US 1992 and 1996 Olympian Kerri Strug) are interviewed along with the Karolyis themselves, and what the young women say tends to be positive towards the Karolyis. There is none of the criticism that has dogged the Karolyis over the decades with respect to their training methods and psychological manipulation of young gymnasts in Romania and the US, the cult-like atmosphere fostered by the physical isolation of their training camp and ranch, and how the context of this isolated training camp combined with their treatment of the girls and their families set the stage for sports doctor Larry Nassar to be able to sexually abuse hundreds of young gymnasts.

In the wake of the US gymnastics sexual abuse scandal that erupted in September 2016, this documentary now looks quite creepy especially in the scenes depicting the training camp and its isolated surrounds. It still has some value though as an example of propaganda that whitewashes its subjects in a very favourable light (of a softly golden glowing kind) and would be suitable for propaganda studies looking at how sports celebrities are created and moulded to push particular ideologies that celebrate rugged individualism and heroism.

The American Retreat from Vietnam: an example of how the US is detached from reality and lies to its people

Carlton Meyer, “The American Retreat from Vietnam” (Tales of the American Empire, 2020)

In the wake of the American retreat from Afghanistan in August 2021, the apparent parallel collapse of the Afghanistan armed forces and the concomitant swift rise of the Taliban back to power in Kabul, this episode in Carlton Meyer’s ongoing series Tales of the American Empire is worth a watch for possible similarities between US loss in Afghanistan over 2020 – 2021 and US defeat in the Vietnam War in early 1975. Certainly images of the Chinook helicopter hovering over the US embassy in Kabul, similar to images of a Chinook hovering over the US embassy in Saigon in April 1975, cannot just be coincidental. As it turns out, there are many similarities and parallels indeed, so much so that not only does the question of whether the US learned anything at all from its Vietnam defeat arise but also the question of whatever good the US might have learned from that defeat was either worthwhile or wasted.

One obvious parallel is that just as the US threw money, equipment and weapons at the Afghanistan army, so it did the same at the South Vietnamese army from 1969 onwards, after Richard Nixon became US President as the second half of Meyer’s film details. The South Vietnamese army was much larger and better equipped with advanced military hardware than the Viet Cong. At the same time, morale and loyalty towards a corrupt government in Saigon within the South Vietnamese army were low, just as soldiers in the Afghanistan army were disloyal to the corrupt governments of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani in Kabul. South Vietnamese soldiers were apt to sell weapons and equipment to the Viet Cong secretly, just as their Afghan counterparts did more recently to the Taliban and their supporters. As well, in both Vietnam and Afghanistan, the armies were heavily dependent on US “advice” and communications: in both countries, once the advisors left, the armies collapsed. (This bodes ill for the armed forces in countries like Australia and others that coordinate their activities closely with US armed forces, to the extent that these other nations’ armies are unable to act on their own initiative.) In addition, senior generals in the South Vietnamese army were corrupt and amassed fortunes for themselves from US taxpayer money, and surely decades later their equivalents in the Afghan armed forces and the government did the same: news that Ashraf Ghani secretly fled Afghanistan by car with another four cars and a helicopter all filled with cash (and having to leave some money behind at Bagram airport) has been circulating on the Internet.

A second parallel is that just as sections of the US government knew that the Vietnam War was unwinnable as early as the early 1960s yet lied to the general public and continued to throw money and men into a giant black hole, so half a century later some elements in the US government must have also known that the war in Afghanistan was also unwinnable for the US yet allowed the lies to continue. A major difference may be that most politicians and the news media in the early 2000s were so divorced from reality that they persisted in pushing more trillions and more troops into the quagmire in Central Asia, even though they must have known (or at least their gut feeling must have known) that the war in Afghanistan could not be won and that sooner rather than later the US and its allies would have to leave the country in defeat and humiliation. Whether the general public in the US and the West generally in the early 2000s was as naive as it might have been in the 1960s and 1970s and accepted the lies and propaganda is another matter.

Whether South Vietnam was a safe place for its people to live in during its existence, I do not know, though the violence (especially violence against women and girls) that follows the establishment of US military bases in places as far-flung as Iraq, Japan and South Korea suggests that in Afghanistan during the US occupation from 2003 to 2021, the casual violence and brutality dished out by US and other Western troops to civilians in Afghanistan, collectively and individually, must have been considerable. The wailing of Western human rights organisations about what the Taliban might do to Afghan women and girls now that the movement has reasserted itself, when for the past 20 years most Afghan women and girls living outside Kabul and other major cities (they constitute about 75% of the country’s female population) experienced little of Western largesse and much of Western violence, is more than a little hypocritical.

By itself, Meyer’s film is a very informative introduction on the way the US prosecuted the war in Vietnam during Richard Nixon’s presidency, demonstrating how the US cause was a lost one due to its arrogance and failure to understand the Vietnamese people and their aspirations for independence. In light of the recent US defeat in Afghanistan, the film becomes a warning, a part of the ongoing narrative of US hubris, belief in American exceptionalism and over-dependence on technology and fire power.

Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 6: Building a World-Class Gymnastics Team) – how athletes become fodder for nationalism in team events

Bess Krugman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 6: Building a World-Class Gymnastics Team)” (2020)

The final installment in this fascinating and informative documentary series follows MyKayla Skinner as she aims to do what very few other US gymnasts before her have done: leave the US national team to concentrate on collegiate gymnastics which helps her regain her original love of the sport and then attempt to break back into the elite level and win a place on the US Olympics team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Previously Skinner had been an alternate for the team at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro: she still had to practise and work on all her routines for those Games in case she had to replace a team member; unfortunately for her, no-one on the team got sick or injured enough that she was needed. After years of hard work and struggle, and periods when her motivation was flagging, Skinner retreated into collegiate gymnastics (which makes different demands on gymnasts) and rediscovered the joy and her childhood dreams. Moving back into the elite however demanded more exacting standards from her so, with the help and advice of her coach, Skinner changed and upgraded her routines, began the strenuous conditioning and practice again … and somehow, in 2019, got engaged and married to her boyfriend.

The episode explores the politics and sometimes powerful nationalism underlying the team event in major women’s gymnastics competitions like the Olympic Games and the world championships, and how geopolitical events and issues can have a deep influence on the young women competing for Team USA in gymnastics. The boycotts that affected the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, both political in nature, had a huge impact on the team and individual competitions in both men’s and women’s gymnastics: the Los Angeles competitions will always be seen as lesser compared to the 1984 Friendship Games gymnastics competitions organised by the Communist nations in eastern Europe. The example of the team competition during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, in which US team member Kerri Strug famously performed her second vault with a badly injured ankle and collapsed after hitting a perfect vault with no hops and saluting the judges, is described in considerable detail by fellow team member Amanda Borden with archival video film to illustrate her words. Borden also talks about her self-doubts even after making the 1996 Olympic team and the psychological uplift she got when all the other girls on the team voted to make her team captain.

Other gymnasts like Jordyn Wieber, Aly Raisman, Dominique Moceanu, Samantha Peszek and Betty Okino describe their experiences as US Olympic team members and how at some point in their careers they mentally switched from performing for themselves and their families to performing for the other members of their teams and ultimately for their country at team competitions. Svetlana Boginskaya remembers her time as a member of the Unified Team (formerly the Soviet Union team) for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics as bittersweet, as she and other team members won their gold team medals and then went home to new individual nations, never to perform as one team again.

While much screen time is devoted to how changes in team competition rules and scoring affects coaches’ strategies in selecting particular gymnasts for national teams, very little is said about how nationalism might have a pernicious effect on gymnasts’ psychologies and add extra pressure on the girls to perform to the expectations of not only their coaches and team officials but also of the news media in their countries, the corporations that sponsor them and the general public who follow the girls’ progress. Competing at the Olympics, especially if held in a country the gymnasts are unlikely ever to visit again, should be a fun experience where they meet new people and come in contact with new cultures and different ways of thinking and seeing things; instead it becomes an experience often filled with dread, anxiety, even fear and pain, or a reinforcement of ugly chauvinist attitudes and stereotypes about other people and countries.

As the last episode in the series, this installment might have gone out on a high note with various gymnasts and ex-gymnasts interviewed for the series saying what they believe gymnastics has done for them: has it improved their lives, given them opportunities to discover what talents and strengths they have, led them on career paths they might never have had otherwise? What do girls like Skinner, Jade Carey, Sunisa Lee, Morgan Hurd and Jordan Chiles think on their present journeys through the sport – what do they believe will open up to them in their future careers by gymnastics when they finally hang up their hand-grips and leotards for good? Apart from this, the series has been an interesting if perhaps very US-oriented exploration of the recent history and culture of the sport.

Since this series was completed, Skinner succeeded in her dream to represent the United States at the delayed 202o Tokyo Olympic Games but as one of two non-team individual gymnasts, the other being Jade Carey. Consequently Skinner did not compete in the team competition but performed as an all-round competitor in the qualification rounds. She did not qualify to compete in the all-round final but did compete in the vault final after fellow US gymnast Simone Biles dropped out of that competition; Skinner ended up winning a silver medal for vault.

Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 5: Abuse and Healing in Women’s Gymnastics) – how a toxic culture obsessed with success enabled sexual predation on minors

Bess Krugman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 5: Abuse and Healing in Women’s Gymnastics)” (2020)

A major theme of “Defying Gravity …” has been the dysfunctional culture of the sport obsessed with success and winning medals at all costs to the detriment of the health and well-being of the athletes involved. The competitive and exacting nature of women’s gymnastics and the willingness of young female gymnasts to please their superiors has led to individual coaches, officials, judges and others to manipulate, shame and abuse young women. A toxic culture is created that further attracts manipulative, often sociopathic individuals who may have their own agendas with regard to the gymnasts – agendas that include the sexual abuse of under-age girls.

This episode explores the sexual abuse scandal that rocked US gymnastics in the 2010s when gymnasts and former gymnasts like Jamie Dantzscher, Jordyn Wieber, Kyla Ross, Dominique Moceanu and others exposed Larry Nassar, a sports doctor employed by Bela and Marta Karolyi at their gymnastics camp in Texas during summer holidays, as a sexual abuser. Dantzscher and Wieber describe the camp and the competitive, often abusive atmosphere created by the Karolyis which pitted girls against each other and made them afraid to complain to their parents or other significant adults. The Karolyis did not allow parents to attend the camp and this made for a cult-like ambience where girls were cut off from people who could have challenged the Karolyis and their treatment of the gymnasts. Moceanu points out the qualities that Nassar had that endeared him to Marta Karolyi in particular – among them, his eagerness to please her and flatter her – and how he was able to take advantage of her friendship towards him to assault the girls in his charge.

Unfortunately Nassar is not the only person in the gymnastics world to have abused numerous gymnasts: former US national women’s gymnastics coach Don Peters was also found guilty of sexually abusing gymnasts and many coaches in the US have been put on a banned list – although as sports journalist Blythe Lawrence observed, the criteria for banning a coach are not clear as so many coaches who should have been banned were not on the list. Former Soviet star Olga Korbut speaks bravely about the abuse her coach Renald Knysh inflicted on her and on other gymnasts he trained back in the 1970s. There is no mention of whether sexual abuse occurred in other countries’ gymnastics programs though the physical abuse Romanian coaches meted out to gymnasts (and of which Romanian gymnasts themselves have spoken to the press) is well known.

Driven by interviews with Dantzscher, Wieber and other gymnasts, the episode climaxes in trial hearings at which the gymnasts testify before judges and speak about their abuse. The court case against Nassar climaxes when he is sentenced to 175 years’ jail time. For this, the gymnasts are awarded the 2018 Arthur Ashe Award for bravery.

Ironically perhaps the very qualities instilled by their coaches into these young women – persistence, grit, grace under pressure – are the qualities that enable them to stand up to their abuse and their abusers and to speak out against a culture and organisation that for too long have condoned abuse and allowed abusers to prey on succeeding generations of young gymnasts. However, as long as gymnastics and other sports continue to prize a winner-takes-all attitude, and derive their values from a competitive and combative neoliberal capitalist ideology that winks at bullying and abuse, the potential for a sports culture that enables physical abuse, psychological manipulation and sexual predation on minors will always exist.

Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 4: Unlocking Gymnastics’ Most Powerful Event: The Vault) – not the most powerful episode in the series

Bess Krugman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 4: Unlocking Gymnastics’ Most Powerful Event: The Vault)” (September 2020)

Compared to previous episodes in this six-part series, this fourth installment is not nearly as fascinating and the human stories featured seem rather superficial. The vault, its history and development, its place in gymnastics as an exacting and often the riskiest and most dangerous apparatus for gymnasts, and the experiences of various gymnasts, past and present, with that apparatus dominate nearly the entire episode.

The gymnasts who are the primary focus here are Grace McCallum and Jade Carey (both of whom later competed at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games after the series was made): McCallum comes from a large family with limited resources and Carey is coached by her father. The episode could have made much more about these families’ involvement in their daughters’ training and gymnastics careers, including the sacrifices parents and other family members have had to make, and covering the social and economic contexts (even if in a very general way) in which families are often forced to make decisions to forgo things or experiences to put their children into private sports clubs to get the opportunities to develop their talents. What sort of neighbourhood or town do these families live in, that compels them to enroll their daughters in gymnastics and not any other sport? Why do some families support their daughters in pursuing gymnastics, knowing the sacrifices they have to make and the perils that might await their children in the sport, while other families with equally talented daughters do not? There could have been references to families pushing their daughters to continue training even when the girls have lost motivation or are in pain, and the pressure and guilt gymnasts may often feel knowing that their parents and siblings have given up or denied themselves opportunities so that the girls can continue with gymnastics. The issue of whether gymnastics and other popular sports other than team sports like football or baseball should be subsidised by state or federal governments or charities – so that Grace McCallum’s family would not have needed to pay private fees for her gymnastics and maybe one or more of her siblings could also have opportunities to excel in a sport or creative activity also supported by government or charity money – would become a theme underlying the episode.

As usual, the episode is driven by interviews with past and current gymnasts who often provide good, even penetrating insight into the sport and the often toxic and cult-like culture surrounding it. Kathy Johnson especially is an excellent commentator and critic of practices within the sport that have harmed gymnasts in the past. Unfortunately though there is not very much information given about reforms and changes in the sport with regard to safeguarding and improving young gymnasts’ self-esteem and general mental health.

There is brief mention of the tragic story of Julissa Gomez who suffered brain damage after botching a vault at a competition in Japan in which she hit her head and injured her neck, and was later starved of oxygen while being treated in hospital in Japan. This incident is passed over very quickly. There is no mention of the pressure Gomez was under to perform the type of vault that led to her catastrophic injury and later death.

I rate this episode as a lesser entry in what otherwise has been a fine series so far.

Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 2: Uneven Bars – The Closest Thing to Flying) – not all smooth sailing in this episode about bars and bulimia

Bess Kargman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 2: Uneven Bars – The Closest Thing to Flying)” (September 2020)

Of the four apparatus used in women’s artistic gymnastics, the uneven bars (also known as asymmetric bars) apparatus is the most spectacular but also perhaps the most punishing with regard to its demands on gymnasts’ hands, body types and limitations, and the consequences that arise and which can have devastating effects on the athletes’ psyches and overall health. Originating from the men’s parallel bars with the aim of demonstrating balance, poise and balletic or static moves, the apparatus has undergone tremendous and radical changes: starting in the 1960s, the emphasis quickly shifted from routines of linked static poses to exercises of near-continuous fluid moves based on kips, beats, wraps and release moves from one bar to the other. From the late 1960s on, uneven bars started being manufactured separately from the parallel bars and their design was changed with the addition of tension cables that allowed the bars to be adjusted for width, allowing them to be moved farther apart. Such a change enabled experimentation with new skills, especially release skills, and elements borrowed from the men’s high bar apparatus that stress continuous movement approaching flight (and which put pressure on gymnasts to maintain a particular body / weight ratio to remain light). Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut pioneered the Korbut flip, the first upper bar somersault release skill at the 1972 Munich Olympics and Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci followed suit at the 1976 Montreal Olympics with her famous forward somersault release from top bar to top bar and her dismount.

As in other episodes of this series, interviews with various US-based gymnasts and ex-gymnasts drive the episode’s themes which encompass not only the uneven bars’ evolution and the demands it makes on gymnasts’ bodies but also the issue of eating disorders in gymnasts and how the gymnastics culture has encouraged, at times even demanded unhealthy eating, with disastrous effects for individual gymnasts. Former gymnast Vanessa Atler’s personal story in battling her bulimia and personal hoodoo with the uneven bars, and the unsympathetic treatment she received from gymnastics coaches (not necessarily her own) and officials, is shocking; likewise Cathy Rigby, a former gymnast herself before becoming an actor, recounts her experiences with eating disorders. Kathy Johnson correctly identifies the toxic culture surrounding gymnastics as a leading if not the main contributor to gymnasts’ eating disorders though she could have gone further (she probably did but the harsher criticism might have been edited) in condemning international and national gymnastics organisations and their officials for doing very little about the issue and closing their eyes to individual girls’ suffering.

Curiously the tragic story of Christy Henrich, who died from anorexia nervosa at the age of 22 years in 1994, is not mentioned. One result of the publicity around her death was that Johnson, Rigby and others came out publicly about their struggles, TV stations in the US and outside stopped commenting on gymnasts’ weight and educational programs on proper eating and nutrition for gymnasts were launched. The episode also does not mention these changes which I consider quite a serious oversight.

The rest of the episode focuses on current US gymnasts Olivia Greaves and Riley McCusker on their personal journeys in the sport and their particular relationships with the uneven bars. Other famous athletes like Comaneci, her husband Bart Conner, Laurie Hernandez and Olga Korbut add their own insights and perspectives on uneven bars and the issue of eating disorders. As in the other episodes I have seen, there’s a lot to take in (the use of archival film footage to illustrate interviews helps) and directors Kargman and Walker do a good job of segueing smoothly from one topic to the next … almost like a bars routine!

Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 1: How Gymnasts Find Their Voice on the Floor) – a riveting introduction to a world of intriguing personalities and human stories

Bess Kargman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 1: How Gymnasts Find Their Voice on the Floor)” (September 2020)

As the first in a six-part documentary series on women’s artistic gymnastics, you’d think this episode would present an overview of the current state of the sport, its history and its most outstanding champions and personalities. Maybe the episode would have time to dig deeper into the sport, explore how the different apparatus used first developed (and what the original reasons for their development were) and their evolution into something far beyond what their creators had intended. The episode would introduce the major international and national bodies governing the sport and explain a bit about what the major competitions are, what they consist of and what gymnasts are required to do in their routines. The Code of Points used to judge and score routines would be explained somewhat so that viewers can see how controversial it has been in pushing women’s gymnastics in a particular direction that not everyone in the sport (and outside) agrees with.

Instead what we get is a series of interviews with well-known US and international gymnasts like Nadia Comaneci, Morgan Hurd, Olga Korbut, Katelyn Ohashi, Carly Patterson, Aly Raisman and Laurie Hernandez talking about why and how they fell in love with the sport, their experiences in competition including international competition, and the pressures that come with winning and becoming famous. Ohashi especially details her precocity as a talented young gymnast with the result that she burned out young and came to resent the sport and the pressure that others’ expectations and her own desire to please people put on her. Eventually back pain and a potentially serious spinal problem forced her to give up elite gymnastics – while also affording her the opportunity to rest and gain a new perspective on the sport that allowed her to return to it on her own terms. Comaneci, Hurd, Raisman and Hernandez speak of their respective introductions into the sport, what motivated them to push themselves to elite level, and the challenges, disappointments and (in Raisman’s case) the heartache they had to battle through.

While the episode supposedly focuses on the floor exercise, its demands as well as the opportunity for gymnasts to express their personalities and individual style in dance and acrobatics – there’s even a small part in the documentary about how the equipment for the floor changed over the years and the effect the changes (such as the addition of extra foam layers and the use of springs) had on increasing the acrobatic and technical aspects of the floor exercise – it’s even more about what gymnasts need to excel as all-round gymnasts on all four major apparatus and the prestige that is attached to being the all-round champion.

The coaches of some of these gymnasts and former choreographer Geza Pozsar (who worked with Comaneci’s coach Bela Karolyi) are interviewed as well if only briefly. Disappointingly perhaps the gymnasts’ parents are not interviewed – Aly Raisman’s mother Lynn, who declares after seeing Carly Patterson winning the all-round competition at the 2004 Olympic Games: “I’m so glad I’m never gonna have to experience that. I can’t imagine what it would be like to watch your kid compete at the Olympics” (and then later watches her daughter compete in the 2016 Olympic Games!) provides the episode’s funniest moments – and an opportunity to see how gymnasts’ families are affected by their daughters’ sport, and might feel pride or resentment in their daughters’ achievements, is lost.

By using interviews with gymnasts to explain what their sport is about and what it means to them, this episode ends up exploring women’s artistic gymnastics in much more depth than it would have done using a narrator churning through its history and reeling off a list of its champions and their achievements. It draws in viewers and immerses them in the finer, deeper points of the sport straight away. You almost live and breathe gymnastics the way these gymnasts do and have done. When the episode is over and done with, you just can’t wait to see the next five parts in the series.

Well done to Kargman and Walker for such a breath-taking introduction to a sport featuring very human individuals with intriguing histories and motivations, and a passion for what they do!