the darkness at the heart of gold

At The Heart Of Gold is a 90 minute film about the failure of US gymnastics authorities to protect their athletes from sexual abuse. The key to understanding how team doctor Larry Nassar got away with what he did is to ask some fundamental questions. What is gymnastics? Is it dance or sport, or both? What does it prize and reward? The answers may seem obvious, but the truth is that no other sport has seen its goalposts shift as massively as gymnastics has. In the early 60’s it was a sport for older women hitting their 20’s. You scored for balletic flourishes, for artistry, for emoting through movement. It was all dance and deftness, and femininity was important. The reigning champion of that era was Czech gymnast Věra Čáslavská, pictured above. She did her routine with her hair in a beehive, thighs clapping gloriously.

Since then, gymnasts have gotten younger. This shift can be traced to the early 70’s Soviet obsession with precocious sporting wins. They began training their athletes early. Peak performance was now pegged to pre pubescence, before the muscles could fill out into curves. Body lines were hard and angular, thought more suited to tougher routines that prioritised precision and agility over dance and expression. To emphasise their youth and innocence, the Soviets trotted their gymnasts out with white and red ribbons in their hair. Tiny Russian wunderkind Olga Korbut (below left) destroyed her competition in the 1972 Olympics wearing two beribboned pigtails. Were the bottom of her leotard a skirt she could’ve walked into a classroom and no one would have blinked. Other innovations in dress and appearance were calculated to stun and awe. Romanian champion and perfect 10 history maker Nadia Comaneci (below right) wore a white leotard with stripes running down the side in the 1976 Olympics. This was so you could visually measure the exact impossible angle between limb and torso at any point in her routine. The entire machinery of training took on mathematical levels of sophistication. The USSR and Romania led the way in both technique and presentation. Comaneci’s 1976 set at the Olympics included five more flight elements than Korbut’s 1972 performance, indicating tremendous raising of skill and risk profile in just 4 years.

Comaneci’s coaches, couple Bela and Marta Karolyi gained worldwide fame for their methods, in particular their aggressive training of 6 year olds. They hastened the de-ageing of gymnastics with their obsession with scouting at kindergartens. They insisted that training facilities double as hostels, so parents could leave their girls to their practice for days on end. By the time the Karolyis took on the US team, their methods were the gold standard in training. At their Texas coaching facility they forbade parental contact for the duration of the athlete’s training. These conditions were ripe for predators like Nassar.

This heartbreaking film attests to how girls’ bodies are at the heart of the sports- corporate complex, driving sponsorships, viewership stats and TV programming. The sport breaks their bodies to build them, unmakes them to make them. Gymnasts are expected to power through pain and injury as long as it isn’t debilitating, causing one former gymnast to liken her kind to wounded animals who can’t show weakness no matter what. An inside not-joke goes like this: when a gymnast plays football for a day, she’s sore, but when a footballer does gymnastics for a day, he’s dead. It is one of the few sports in the world that completely lacks a recreational element. You don’t take that sort of risk unless you’re around trainers and physiotherapists, competing formally.

Larry Nassar understood all of this intimately. He was the classic serial predator- likeable, meticulous, opportunity- minded. What is different though is his mass gaslighting of an unusual cohort. His victims were elite athletes, taught to clamp down on their pain and keep their sights fixed on gold. He used their ambition against them. Over decades hundreds were entrusted to his care, and any whispers were dealt with swiftly and decisively by a network of denier- enablers.

At The Heart Of Gold speaks not only to institutional failure, but also a cultural one. When we value politeness over safety and conformity over dissent, we tell our girls that their minds and bodies don’t matter. ‘What we really have to do is we have to start listening to our kids,’ says a child health and safety advocate in the film. ‘If a child says to you they don’t like how someone touched them you don’t say ‘But that’s one of the nicest people I ever met.’ You sit down and you say, ‘Why? What was wrong?’

It is hard to watch his victims struggle to reconcile their admiration of him with their revulsion. This is where the film shines. In letting the survivors wrestle with their feelings honestly, it lets us know that there is no singular template for survivor behaviour, that coping mechanisms must always be read in context.

Watch it if you’re a parent, a survivor or just someone interested in human behaviour. If you’re in India, watch Erin Lee Carr’s At The Heart Of Gold on Hotstar.

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