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.

Achieving the Perfect 10 – Parkettes gymnastics documentary: a shallow presentation on gymnastics culture and practice

Achieving the Perfect 10 – Parkettes gymnastics documentary (CNN, 2003)

This CNN TV sports documentary focuses on the Parkettes gymnastics club for girls and women and its quest for Olympics and world championships gymnastics glory. The club is located in Allentown, an industrial working-class city in Pennsylvania which has probably seen much better days, and I suspect this gives some context to the intense competitive culture the club fosters and the willingness of the girls and their families to submit to it. The documentary follows a number of young Parkettes girls in training, all of them dreaming of the day when they will be selected for the US national women’s team, compete at Olympic Games level and win that elusive all-round gold medal, and the ordeals they must encounter and work through: the intense coaching, exercising long hours six days a week at the expense of nearly all other activities including schoolwork, health and injury problems, and the heavy sacrifices they and their families make towards the goal.

It’s a swift-moving documentary which bounces from one topic to another – the training schedules, the demands coaches make, the competitions, health, injuries, pain, dieting and eating issues, psychological problems – with constant voice-over chatter, intrusive music, fast-moving shots of gymnasts performing, sharp cuts to close-ups of coaches’ faces as they urge the girls to work harder. This limits discussion of the various issues that arise to their most obvious and familiar aspects but prevents deeper exploration into their ultimate cause: the intense do-or-die competitive nature of modern sport in the United States, underpinned by the competitive ethos of the capitalist system, combined with the cult of celebrity worship. If girls are unable to progress as quickly as they are expected to, they must drop out and everything that they and their families have done – which might include uprooting from their communities to move hundreds of kilometres just to be closer to the gym, or mums and dads commuting up to three hours each day to see their daughters practise moves – will come crashing down and all will face a blank future. Tremendous pressure is placed on girls psychologically as well as physically and it is no wonder that a child as young as six or seven years of age as one girl, Ashley, is urged by her parents to continue performing at an important meet on a broken ankle.

It would be easy to condemn starry-eyed and gullible parents who don’t challenge the coaches, or the coaches themselves who are so dead-set on success that their minds block out everything else, but the problem is that if any one of them left the system, the space vacated is quickly filled by another so we have to look at the culture of the sport itself and how it has developed over the years to be what it is now. If we were to do this, we’d probably find that obsession with Olympic medal glory combined with zealous nationalism is at the heart of the intense competitiveness of gymnastics to the extent that the sport becomes a mass assembly line of vulnerable youngsters who risk their long-term health and mental well-being for a brief couple of years of elite performance. One notes that in China, the competition for selection to the national women’s gymnastics team is also highly intense and we cannot discount the possibility that coaches beat and bully young gymnasts into performing feats of acrobatics, strength and flexibility.

The documentary did come in for criticism from Parkettes club coaches and gymnasts who were concerned that CNN did not present an accurate picture of the club’s activities and focussed only on the negative aspects for viewer titillation. The style of presentation, not far from that of a Hollywood action thriller, does the club and its coaches, coming across as barking sergeants, no credit either. The girls are often shown in tears or in pain from injuries and I did think the documentary was insinuating that the girls weren’t as tough as they and their coaches and families claimed they were. The girls’ parents were often not presented in a flattering light and one detects a feeling of superiority towards them from the CNN presentation because of their working-class origins.

Not much new that people don’t already know about gymnastics in a general way is revealed in the documentary and a better portrayal of women’s gymnastics and its culture in the United States that gives some credit to the girls and their parents and takes a harder stand against the culture and values of commercialised sport and the wider culture that supports it and similarly competitive sports is needed.

Taris, Roi du L’Eau: swimming is the gateway to a world of freedom and beauty

Jean Vigo, “Taris, Roi du L’Eau” (1931)

Sports documentaries don’t come any more poetic, beautiful and experimental than this early short by Jean Vigo about the 1930s French swimming champion Jean Taris. In just 10 minutes, Taris imparts lessons on how to swim freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke, and how to change direction using the swim blocks. There’s actually nothing about Taris’s early life, how he came to swimming, what made him decide to strive for championship natational glory and what he hopes to give back to society: the usual structure of sports documentaries, at least those made in Australia. As swimming lessons go, the film is not remarkable and is out-of-date, butterfly-stroking being all but unknown at the time, and possibly techniques are demonstrated in that film that are no longer being taught.

No, the true glory of this sports documentary lies in the fact that Vigo has made it and has brought avant-garde filming technique and narrative to make of the swimming lesson a poem in how humans can be at home underwater and fly freely about in a medium ┬álike a bird. A link between this documentary and Vigo’s other films exploring rebellion and freedom in a repressive society might be made here. The diving instruction is the key and the swimming lessons are the gateway into another world. The highlight of the film is the sequence of silent scenes in which Taris wriggles, turns and flies towards the camera and away from it like a flirtatious flighty creature, enticing the viewer to come follow him where he will.

The filming itself is quite extraordinary: in closing scenes, Vigo makes clothes appear suddenly on Taris standing by the edge of the pool; the swimmer then walks across the ground away from the camera in a scene superimposed over the pool itself. Taris looks back at the viewer, doffs his hat and continues to walk into the background, all while water is lapping and rippling behind him. It’s as if having given us the key and the directions to his world, the swimmer now expects that we will follow and enjoy the freedom (and presumably the equality and quality of life he enjoys also) that he has. The experimentation is not limited to the narrative structure and visuals: the voice-over swimming instructions alternate with the sounds of choppy water and this call-and-response soundtrack sets up a rhythm that can be hypnotic in effect.

Of course the short isn’t to be taken entirely seriously as demonstrated by the chirpy music, the diving scenes which include shots run backwards and a hilarious bit near the beginning where a man attempts to swim in a chair.

A minor work in what could have been a long and illustrious career in film-making for Vigo, this short is still outstanding for its treatment of a sport as an art-form in itself and a way of life that promises freedom.

D Zyuz’kov’s Natalia Yurchenko documentary: a contemplative and poetic TV sports special

D Zyuz’kov, Natalia Yurchenko documentary (1984)

A curious little 20-minute gem on Youtube, this Soviet television documentary about the gymnast Natalia Yurchenko, made about the time when she was World Champion, is notable for its style of cinematography, its respectful and sombre approach to its subject and the sometimes eerie music soundtrack, created by N Mitrofanov, which seems more appropriate to an avant-garde science fiction / fantasy film of the 1970s.

Surprisingly the film begins with the worst experience Yurchenko had at the 1983 World Championships where she won the all-round individual title: a couple of days after that high, she competed in the vault final, injured her knee on landing and had to be carried off. The film then deflects to scenes of Yurchenko training in the gym under the watchful eye of coach Vladislav Rastorotsky, doing warm-up exercises, fussing over other gym pupils training under Rastorotsky and idling in the spare time, playing a tune on a piano or looking at the scenery outside her room. There are actually very few shots of Yurchenko performing her routines and those that appear are bunched up near the end of the documentary and are not shown in full so it is hard for viewers who know her routines to be able to work out when and where she performed the routines and place a date on the documentary. The film’s narrative, unfortunately without English sub-titles, is provided by Yurchenko herself in voice-over and by Rastorotsky in an interview.

Yurchenko’s voice is very girlish and makes her sound younger than she was when the film was made. She appears to talk about her life in training and how it consumes her every moment; the value of the film as a historical document of Soviet gymnastics and sport generally would appear to be minor (my assumption). The film features many close-ups of Yurchenko’s face which have the unintended hilarious effect of highlighting the heavy fringe of hair over her forehead. Her expression is usually very serious and contemplative. Rastorotsky during his interview and training sessions comes across as a gruff bear of a man who expects to be obeyed and is stern and unyielding towards his charges, even his star gymnast.

The style of the film is what makes it stand out: the cinematography is slow-paced for a sports documentary with long shots of its subject looking thoughtful. The film has many shadows and the lighting seems poor in parts, making the film look more sombre than the film crew might have intended. The highlight is a psychedelic dream sequence about halfway through the film, in which bright white lights edged with blue-green colours are superimposed over a scene of Yurchenko performing on the beam. The music ranges from Frederic Chopin’s Prelude, Op. 28, No.4 – a curious choice since the music has an ambience of despair – to a space-ambient lounge music piece played on cheap synthesiser to more conventional orchestral music; the space music has such acid tones that one expects the film to bleach its colours and turn into shades of bleached baby-blue, sickly lime-green and lemon yellow. For a TV sports special, the film has a lot of visual and sound poetry which may have suited the personality of its star.

The film comes across as a snapshot of a gymnast at a particular moment in time, no more, no less, and if viewers are looking for information about her life up to that point of time when the documentary was made, they will be disappointed. As it turns out, the 1983 World Championships were perhaps Yurchenko’s greatest moment in what became a long tenure (for the period) on the Soviet national women’s team: Yurchenko anchored the team almost to the end of 1986 when she retired from the sport. Years later, she emigrated with her husband and daughter to the United States where she coached gymnastics in Pennsylvania for several years. She is the current head women’s gymnastics coach at Lakeshore Academy in Chicago. As far as I know, Rastorotsky taught gymnastics in France and China after the break-up of the Soviet Union and returned to Rostov-on-Don in 1999.