The Jimmy Dore Show: Interview with Robert Malone (15 September 2021) – how COVID-19 is exploited for money at the expense of public health

“The Jimmy Dore Show: Interview with Robert Malone” (15 September 2021)

For much of this 75-minute interview with US virologist / immunologist Robert Malone, the usually very talkative host Jimmy Dore is quiet while Malone explains carefully and in much detail the risks associated with the use of mRNA vaccines as the sole solution in eradicating the COVID-19 pandemic. As a contributor to the development of mRNA inoculation technologies – in the 1980s, he did studies that found mRNA could be transferred in a lipid into cell cultures to direct the production of new proteins, and later worked with others on research suggesting that mRNA could be synthesised so as to create a desired protein – Malone may be assumed to know much about what mRNA vaccines can and cannot do, and what their consequences in the short term and long term may be.

Malone is allowed to range far and wide in his criticism of the West’s reliance on COVID-19 vaccines at the expense of other treatments in dealing with the pandemic, and of the issues arising from that reliance. There are ethical issues involved in governments compelling people who work in particular industries or in the armed forces to be vaccinated with COVID-19 vaccines, the efficacy of which can wane over time, and which could also drive the evolution of the SARS-COV-2 virus in such a way (through selective pressure on the virus to change or delete that part of its genome targeted by the mRNA vaccines) that will render the vaccines useless and require the use of booster vaccines. These issues have consequences for public trust in health care generally and in doctors, nurses and other health care workers in particular. The reliance on vaccines gives power to pharmaceutical corporations who dictate to governments, public health officials, the medical profession and pharmacies as to what treatments can or cannot be allowed for patients.

The discussions that Jimmy Dore initiates are equally of value: he inquires about the phenomenon of leaky vaccines and how these enable more virulent strains of a virus to evolve, putting unvaccinated people and vulnerable people with chronic health conditions or weakened immune systems at risk; and he and Malone thrash out at length the restrictions by governments and pharmaceutical corporations on news media, social media and other public discussion about the effectiveness of Ivermectin in treating COVID-19 symptoms. Later in the show Dore goes rogue over a Rolling Stone story that went viral on social media: the story referred to a doctor in an Oklahoma hospital claiming that gunshot victims had to be turned away by the hospital because it was supposedly being overwhelmed by patients who had overdosed on Ivermectin, portrayed as livestock deworming medicine. The story was later proven false by the hospital which said the doctor making the claim was not employed there – yet the story was picked up by news and current affairs media outlets and repeated endlessly with the insinuation that Oklahoma state residents, being Republican Party voters, are too stupid to know better than to use drugs for animals. Malone’s contribution to Dore’s diatribe is that news media in the US is dominated by a small number of corporations which are cross-linked and integrated with pharmaceutical corporations which, like news media companies, have also become fewer and larger through takeovers of smaller companies and mergers with bigger companies or companies of similar size over time.

There is later discussion of possible reasons for the low prevalence of COVID-19 in Africa, among them the fact that most people in Africa are less likely to be obese and to be diabetic. The reasons are complex and cannot be isolated from one another.

The best moment of the interview comes late when Malone talks about how pharmaceutical corporations are exploiting the pandemic for profit by forcing vaccines onto governments supposedly representing billions and using their power to stop the public from finding out about cheaper, safer and/or more effective solutions and treatments. Big Pharma also funds US government agencies like the United States Food and Drug Administration, many of whose employees come from Big Pharma itself and go back there. The share prices of Big Pharma companies also rise in part due to their manipulation of news media to favour them and their vaccine narratives.

There is much Dore and Malone don’t cover in the interview – in particular, the international system of intellectual patents followed that is exploited by the pharmaceutical industry to get rid of generic drugs or drugs like Ivermectin whose patents have expired – but this interview, while heavy-going and aimed mainly at US audiences, is an informative introduction to the politicisation and exploitation of COVID-19 for money and influence.

Be Water: a dull and over-long biography of global pop culture icon Bruce Lee

Bao Nguyen, “Be Water” (2020)

A stolid documentary, Bao Nguyen’s visual biography of global pop culture icon Bruce Lee is a conventional retelling of his life, starting with his birth in San Francisco in 1940 and his early years in Hong Kong as a child actor and his introduction to martial arts as a young teenager. Through the use of archived films and photographs, and interviews with people who knew Lee, “Be Water” follows Lee’s journey between two very different worlds that he was part of, and yet not part of, as his family sends him away to SF and then to Seattle for further education after the teenager gets involved in fighting other kids and runs afoul of Hong Kong police. Lee completes high school in Seattle in 1960 and later travels to Oakland to continue his martial arts training and to teach others, Chinese and non-Chinese alike. He is criticised by people in the SF Chinese community for teaching martial arts to non-Chinese students. He participates in martial arts exhibitions and comes to the attention of Hollywood producer William Dozier in 1964 who sees potential in Lee as an actor. This leads to a role as Kato in the TV series “The Green Hornet” which lasted one season from September 1966 to March 1967. During this period Lee meets and marries Linda Lee Cadwell and they have two children, Brandon and Shannon.

From then on, Lee continues to develop his particular style of martial arts, which he called Jeet Kune Do, a hybrid art drawing from different martial arts and combat sports including boxing and fencing. In this, he was influenced by the examples of Muhammad Ali and other rising boxers of Ali’s generation, many of whom were African-American. He also appeared in other TV shows and worked as a stuntman and martial arts instructor to actors who sought him out. After being turned down for the lead role of the television series “Kung Fu” – the role went to David Carradine – Lee returns to Hong Kong on the advice of a Hollywood producer to make a film there that he could later show to Hollywood studio execs. Lee discovers that he is a huge star in HK where “The Green Hornet” was broadcast. Signing contracts with Golden Harvest and later forming his own production company, Lee makes three films “The Big Boss”, “Fist of Fury” and “Way of the Dragon” in which he is the lead actor: these films rocketed him to stardom across Asia.

The documentary can be very long and quite dull in its chronological layout, and for an in-depth work it does contain some inaccuracies about details of Lee’s life and some of the work he did. The concept for the “Kung Fu” television series was developed independently by three script-writers and Lee had been invited to audition for the show: Lee had independently developed his idea for a similar TV series “The Warrior” based around a martial arts practitioner but, contrary to what the documentary says, the “Kung Fu” series was not based on “The Warrior” though the two shows shared similar ideas. Despite the documentary’s heavy reliance on interviewees like Lee’s widow Linda Lee Cadwell and their surviving child Shannon, and others close to Lee, the information about Lee’s philosophy that underpins Jeet Kune Do and its heterodox approach seems to have been cherry-picked and shoehorned into fitting the film’s agenda about Lee himself trying to find an identity in two societies and cultures that initially reject and then accept him. Lee’s own emphasis on being inclusive and how his adaptability and open-mindedness led him to become an innovator as a martial artist, actor, film-maker (director and script-writer) and philosopher are given short shrift. I have the impression that Lee himself regarded his path as a continuous work in progress, the “identity” of which would not and would never be complete until death, yet the film insists on imposing its own notions of what Lee was carving out for himself within the framework of identity politics.

While there is interesting information about past discrimination against Asian-Americans in US society and in Hollywood in particular, and how Asian-American people have been patronised by American culture as well-behaved and subservient minority American citizens (implying that African-American citizens are bad because they dare to protest at the discrimination they suffer), at the same time there is not enough information about Lee’s own impact on US popular culture and how his example and work influenced Hollywood beyond his death in 1973. How his work influenced his children – and many others – to follow in his foot-steps as actors and martial artists themselves is not discussed. In the wake of other film documentaries and other material about Bruce Lee’s life, this recent documentary adds very little that is new apart from pigeon-holing him as an Asian-American attempting to “bridge” two cultures..

A plot to take down Russian political activist in “Navalny: Fake Poisoning (Part 1: The Patient)” is unravelled

“Navalny: Fake Poisoning (Part 1: The Patient)” (Soloviev LIVE / Vesti News, 24 August 2021)

Presented by Alexander Sosnovsky and Sergei Karnaukhov, this very smooth and slick investigation traces in considerable detail the chronology of Russian political activist Alexei Navalny’s journey on that fateful day 20 August 2020 when he left his hotel in Tomsk accompanied by two aides Ilya Pakhomov and Kira Yarmysh and went to the airport in that city to catch an early morning flight back to Moscow. While on the bus to the airport, Navalny is recognised by bus passengers who take selfies on their mobile phones with him. Half an hour into that plane trip, he falls ill and the flight crew divert the plane to Omsk. Just before the plane lands, Omsk airport officials receive bomb threats but the plane is cleared to land. Omsk Hospital medical personnel rush to the airport and take Navalny to the hospital.

While doctors put Navalny into an induced coma and on a ventilator, take blood samples and conduct tests, and stabilise the patient, news flashes around the world that the activist has taken ill and almost immediately Western news media speculate that he has been poisoned with Novichok, a deadly nerve agent of organophosphate origins. Over the next few days, Navalny’s wife Julia demands that Navalny be transported to Berlin for treatment and Russian President Vladimir Putin gives permission for this to happen.

With recorded video statements from various medical workers who treated Navalny while rushing him to hospital and in the hospital itself, and from a police officer, Sosnovsky and Karnaukhov posit a narrative that suggests a plan to have Navalny fall ill on the plane and the plane forced to circulate above Omsk airport while Navalny’s condition deteriorates was in place. The behaviour of the people accompanying Navalny on the plane or associated with him while he was in Tomsk and then Omsk is very odd. In particular, Navalny associate Maria Pevchikh and two others immediately make their way to Navalny’s hotel in Tomsk, break into the room where he stayed and collect various items including three water bottles after seeing Yarmysh’s tweet on their mobile phones that Navalny has been poisoned. (Later, Pevchikh is photographed at Novosibirsk airport buying a water bottle from a vending machine with the exact same labels as the three bottles collected at the hotel.) Significantly the three people who collected the water bottles in Navalny’s hotel room refused to answer police questions during the police investigation and Pevchikh flew out of Russia and back to Britain.

Meanwhile the Omsk hospital doctors, consulting with doctors in Moscow, determine that Navalny is suffering from a metabolic disorder – a high amount of sugar is found in his blood samples – and treat him accordingly. Elsewhere in the program, Sosnovsky and Karnaukhov mention that Charite Hospital doctors treating Navalny in Berlin found lithium in his system and wrote a report which they submitted to the British medical journal The Lancet. The presenters note that lithium is used to treat bipolar disorder and depression and that an overdose of lithium can lead to confusion, fainting, seizures, coma and death. Combined with other substances, lithium can inhibit the action of cholinesterase (necessary for the proper functioning of the nervous system) in the body.

The involvement of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) who apparently found toxins in blood samples taken from Navalny by Charite Hospital doctors that were consistent with toxic chemicals in schedules 1.A.14 and 1.A.15 in the Annex on Chemicals to the Chemical Weapons Convention, in contrast to what doctors in Omsk and Moscow found; and various odd discrepancies in details regarding when the samples were collected, depending on whether the German doctors or the OPCW are making the claim, not to mention that the bomb threats to Omsk airport came from a server in Germany, might suggest that a plan to poison Navalny had already been in place some time – perhaps even weeks or months before – before Navalny went on his trip to Tomsk, and that various organisations such as the OPCW among others were under pressure to adhere to the plan. Somewhere in the elaborate establishment and running of the plan, the water bottles in Navalny’s hotel room disappear and the Novosibirsk vending machine water bottle turns up instead with supposed traces of Novichok.

Sosnovsky and Karnaukhov compare Navalny’s poisoning with the dioxin poisoning of then Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko during Ukraine’s presidential elections in 2004, and how that poisoning incident led to run-off elections which Yushchenko won, with the implication that Navalny’s poisoning was supposed to have set off a train of events that would result in Navalny somehow becoming Russian President eventually. (Leave aside the fact that Navalny enjoys little popularity in Russia and has no significant political backing.) At the end of the episode the two presenters promise that Part 2 will cover Navalny’s recovery and what happens when he leaves Charite Hospital in Berlin.

The value of an investigation such as this conducted by the television show “Soloviev LIVE” is in showing how an incident is conceived and planned, with propaganda supporting the plan is created and repeated across news media outlets, and how the plan depends on the various actors involved and/or drawn into the incident behave … and how the plan can rapidly fall apart when some of those actors don’t play their part as ordained. Whichever parties make such plans seem arrogant enough to assume that people will behave in certain patterns and follow certain paths, simply because those patterns and paths would be what the planners themselves would follow. Apart from a few technical details – the constant flashing of “Patient” throughout the program is annoying, even though this title card is used to help structure the program’s chapter-by-chapter presentation – this episode is very professional and appears thorough in its investigation. The presenters put forward facts and details with no apparent visual or audio bias (though they finger the lithium as the cause of Navalny’s poisoning and collapse) and leave viewers to make up their own minds.

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.

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!

Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 3: The Aggressive Mentality of Balance Beam) – an insight into the psychology and history of gymnastics

Bess Kargman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 3: The Aggressive Mentality of Balance Beam)” (September 2020)

In spite of the popularity of gymnastics and women’s gymnastics in particular with the general public (at least in Australia), there haven’t been very many documentaries made about the sport or the individuals involved so when a documentary series like “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics” comes by, my interest is piqued straight away. Even though this episode’s focus is on the balance beam – one of the four apparatuses used in the women’s sport – and the demands it makes on gymnasts and their coaches (and the consequences of those demands that arise), it ends up being as much about the individual stories of the gymnasts themselves as they relate to the balance beam itself.

The major individual stories featured in the episode are those of Sunisa Lee, a current member of the United States national team, and former US team member Kathy Johnson who competed for her country at the World Championships in 1978 and 1983, and the Olympic Games in 1984. Lee and Johnson talk about how they became attracted to the sport as young girls and Lee in particular tells of how she was encouraged by her father John to excel and compete in the sport. Old photographs and videos of Lee and Johnson as children and teenagers show their dedication and the quality of their work. The episode also portrays the difficulties and obstacles both Lee and Johnson had to overcome: Johnson’s career was affected by geopolitical events of the early 1980s that led to the US boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the USSR and various other Communist nations boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics; and Lee’s father suffered a fall that paralysed him from the waist down in 2019 just before the US national championships. Both Lee and Johnson are visibly emotional as they bravely recount the turmoil they must have experienced and how they overcame their fear and upset, and achieved their childhood dreams of being the best in their sport.

Interviews with Lee, Johnson and other gymnasts in the US, including former world and Olympic champions like Svetlana Boginskaya, Nadia Comaneci, Phoebe Mills, Dominique Moceanu, Betty Okino and Jordyn Wieber not only demonstrate what mental qualities gymnasts need to succeed on the balance beam in spite of the often ridiculous pressures their coaches, the judges, the administration of the sport itself, the media and the public exert on them but also the psychological abuse they have had to endure from coaches like Bela and Marta Karolyi. Archival film footage illustrate how the Karolyis manipulated their pupils into intense competition against one another and their own psyches, to the point where the girls would train and compete even with major injuries and internal fractures, in what seems like an insane goal to turn them into super-athletes. Significantly, former choreographer Geza Pozsar (who worked with the Karolyis in Romania and then in the United States) refers to Bela Karolyi’s former training in sport as a hammer thrower.

Although the episode is 37 minutes, it goes very quickly: it’s full of interesting information about the balance beam, a bit of its history and how the equipment has evolved over the past 50 years, what is required of gymnasts competing on the apparatus and how gymnasts and their coaches mentally as well as physically approach and deal with it. Along the way viewers learn something of how the balance beam and its demands help mould a gymnast’s character and either strengthen or weaken her relationship with her coach / coaches, her parents and other significant people in her life. We get some insight into the psychology and strength of character the balance beam demands of gymnasts if they are to succeed on the beam and away from it.

This episode is a fine example of how sports documentaries should be made: they should be as much about the individuals (athletes, coaches, officials and those who support them – or maybe oppose them – and other significant people involved), the experiences and stories they bring, and perhaps also teach a lesson that can be carried over into other areas of endeavour, not just in gymnastics or even other sports.

Since the documentary was made, Sunisa Lee has become the all-round Olympic champion at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. A dream has been fulfilled – but at the same time, Lee and her family face new challenges, expectations and pressures.