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.