Faster, Higher, Stronger (Episode 2): an opportunity to wheel out old archived material in a sketchy way

Alastair Laurence, “Faster, Higher, Stronger (Episode 2)” (2012)

Part of a BBC TV series on various Olympic Games sports and the most prominent people and landmark events that made those sports memorable within the history of the Games, this episode on gymnastics gives a sketchy history of the sport and some of the personalities who helped define it and its direction, and who themselves were the products of trends and tendencies in that sport. It begins with the introduction of women’s gymnastics as a contestable sport and the admission of the Soviet Union as a competitor nation to the Helsinki Olympic Games in 1952. The two events are inseparable as the Soviet women dominated the new sport and were to continue their winning streak up to and including 1988. In 1956, the women’s sport got its first star Larissa Latynina (USSR) who exemplified balletic grace and athleticism, followed eight years later by rival Vera Caslavska from Czechoslovakia. Thereafter, Olympic women’s gymnastics was marked by rivalry of one sort or another: Olga Korbut versus Ludmilla Tourischeva, both of the USSR, in 1972; Romania’s Nadia Comaneci versus the Soviet Nelli Kim in 1976; Elena Davydova (USSR) against Comaneci in 1980; and so on right up to Jordyn Wieber against her own nerves in 2012 (the nervousness won). The men’s sport also receives some attention in the documentary but its status as a lesser sport is made quite clear in the documentary simply from the amount of broadcasting time given it.

Various trends in the women’s sport can be discerned: the trend towards younger competitors, the emphasis on difficult and often dangerous routines at the expense of athletes’ long-term health, the obsession with scores (understandably in a sport where the difference of gaining or losing 0.001 of a point can mean either a gold medal or a silver medal – and what does that say about the sport itself?) and the ongoing dispute between whether women’s gymnastics should preserve feminine elegance and beauty or move towards a more androgynous toughness and athleticism. The documentary treats some of these issues in a very cursory way: its remit is more about celebrating particular landmark events like Korbut’s fluffed asymmetric bars routine in 1972 or Comaneci’s perfect scores in 1976 and interviewing the gymnasts themselves about what they remember of their participation in the Olympics.

With the emphasis on interviews with the celebrated gymansts themselves and their coaches, and on opportunities to wheel out archived material in the BBC’s deep vaults (presumably to justify keeping them in a cost-conscious political climate), the documentary is very weak on investigating and analysing why women’s gymnastics has become such a crowd-puller, why Korbut and Comaneci became famous when they did, and the political and social context in which they came to public attention. The role of television and the media in making them famous isn’t explored either. Disappointingly, the effect of global political changes and upheavals on gymnastics is ignored completely: the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the resulting impoverishment of many former Soviet territories including Russia itself led to many coaches leaving the country and establishing new careers in various countries; the United States was the main beneficiary and today that country is the leading nation in women’s gymnastics. There is now so much depth in women’s gymnastics in the US that in the country’s national Olympics trials held in 2012, competition was very keen and among those who failed to qualify were Anastasia Liukin and Alicia Sacramone, stalwarts from the 2008 Olympics Games; this meant that none of the female gymnasts who competed for the US in the 2008 Olympics were in the American national team for the London games.

Issues such as the health and safety of gymnasts in performing risky routines and movements, and in maintaining fitness could have been covered but were also ignored: the case of Elena Mukhina, the 1978 World Champion, who suffered a severe accident on the eve of the 1980 Olympic Games that left her quadriplegic and battling the consequences of her injuries until her death in 2006, goes unnoticed. The bland and superficial coverage of gymnasts’ training masks a number of issues such as coaches and officials’ treatment (shading into abuse) of gymnasts and the ways in which some gymnasts have reacted, including developing eating disorders, defying gymnastics officials to go partying or posing nude for men’s magazines.

In all, nothing new is learned from this documentary that the public doesn’t already know in a general way about women’s gymnastics and its history, and an opportunity to delve into the quirks and side lanes of this history and its personalities is missed.

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