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.
I came to Dr. Sheth’s by way of the internet, which sometimes has a way of landing you on life- changing things. This dermatologist- led Indian brand claims to have distilled the knowledge of three generations of dermatologists into a tightly edited bunch of potent brown glass bottles. The skincare market is still eurocentric; even though the Koreans seem to be changing that with exciting formats like sheet masks and their uniquely kawaii take on packaging, their slant on skin lightening muddies the waters a little bit. Melanin- rich Indian skin, the product of generations of vegetarianism and protein- deficient intake, is unique. Today, rising incidences of PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome), associated hormonal wonkiness and type 2 diabetes are wreaking havoc on our skins, causing complications like patchiness, oiliness and hyper pigmentation. The urbanite’s skin responds especially badly to environmental stressors- pollution, long commutes bookended by hasty, poor dietary choices, punishing workdays that leave little room for mindful eating or exercise. We’ve always needed homegrown solutions that straddle kitchen science, naani ke nuskhe, heavy duty Ayurveda and a modern understanding of formulations. This is why Dr. Sheth’s works.
Their Pure Olive Squalane is a light, colorless olive oil- derivative that subs beautifully for moisturiser. A small lick spreads easily and evenly on your skin, and is best applied to a freshly cleansed face spritzed with natural rose water, which has astringent properties. For those wary of the heaviness and low absorbency of facial oils, this product is perfect. Because squalane is a version of a compound produced naturally by our sebaceous glands, it is a skin- safe emollient that is capable of squeezing into the interstices of skin cells and deliver instant smoothening. I love how visibly my face comes alive when scrubbed clean and slathered with the oil. It’s an all- weather moisturiser that works best on dry and combination skin, though I’ve read reports of people with oily or inflamed skin thrilling to how natural and barely-there it feels even hours into application and yet how efficient it is.
I’d recommend it for anyone working in an airless, heavily air-conditioned cubicle farm. Keep a bottle on your dresser and you know you have an ally that won’t let your skin feel or look wrung out by evening. I’m on my second bottle and can’t get enough.
Available on the Dr. Sheth’s website.
Everyone knows boys are farm machines.
Seed drills and tractors first-
sow your oats. put your seed in her. plow that.
Combine harvesters after,
when they winnow through throngs of women then reap plush spoils.
And everyone knows girls are flowers
showered with sweet botanical metaphor when little
saddled with grim agricultural metaphor after and
lascivious, fruit- based innuendo in between. Observe the ages-
फूलों सा चेहरा
कलियों सी मासूम
ओस सी कोमल
full and luscious
आँगन की तुलसी
then to be beautiful and powerful and ruthless
and some parts giving and some parts selfish
and some parts self- pitying and some parts conceited
and some parts brave and some parts terrified
and some parts tired and angry and bitter
and all parts determined
is to say
I am neither fruit nor flower
nor soil nor earth.
I am sky, you may go through me but you will not touch or thwart me.
I am above you, both shelter and curse,
and you can not, shall not know when I will turn.
When I am unremarkable, you will forget I am there
to your own detriment and downfall.
I resent and defy expectations of pleasantness or predictability.
I will roar often, turn grey and sombre, threaten to fall
to be heard.
I will smite you,
soak you in your own misgivings,
drown you in your worst fears
freeze you out of comfort and familiarity
blow grit in your eyes so you are left panicked and scrambling.
I will not be ignored, or dismissed, or forgotten
not even when I’m quiet.
to think that I am tame or tameable when sunny
is to walk into a trap.
There is no knowing the shape of me
there will be calm,
there will be mornings of generous light
the air so clear you want to dance and give thanks.
I am capable of unexpected kindnesses- good weather that lasts,
good weather that won’t trick you into misery or disappointment.
The great, oppressive sulk just before I give in to the thirst of the earth
is me hoping you’ll notice
that it is my greatest wish
to be feared and to be loved
to be deferred to and to be befriended
to both blend in and stand out,
to be trusted, but never, ever taken for granted,
to give, but also to take away,
to reward and to punish,
to be just but also, to respect my inner barometer
to never have a man pin me to a green screen
and point smugly with his wand at my contours and declare
‘Light showers expected.’
And this is why it is important that I defy your greatest wish
for me- to be invisible.
Not in your wildest dreams
am I a thing you can know or wish away.
While the men guffaw and slander in their pinewood chambers
while they jab a finger at us in Parliament, show us our place
while they plot our demise on colossal mahogany desks covered in green baize and lies,
while they mock and belittle us and our clothes and our hair and our bodies and our youth even when it is long gone,
(even as their own chins slacken and wag, or stomachs strain their buttons with their wanton spillage),
while they watch phone porn or hurl chairs and abuse at each other
or bless the circulation of gossip, suggest indiscretions where there were none
we do not cower
we contain our grief when we must
we thunder when it is time
we plot vengeance when it is inevitable
Do you realise
that we are all skies?
Let no indulgent auntie or uncle
tell you that you are a flower,
that you await a sowing, or a reaping.
Ask only to be compared to the sky.
to be both special and nothing special
to be both un-remarkable and hard to miss
to be both vital and unknowable
to be capable of anger both righteous and self- preserving
to be capable of forgiveness but also revenge
to be known for your kindness and also for your power
to shine sweetly, but also flash warnings
to contain within you a multitude of weathers, entire climates that shape terra firma to their will
to defy forecasts in ways that make men shake their heads and groan and reach for their umbrellas and look silly clutching at spring- loaded scrunched up nylon on a sunny day
to never have a man pin you to a green screen and point smugly at your contours with his wand and declare
‘Light showers expected’.
Images, from top to bottom and left to right- Sonia Gandhi, Mayawati, J. Jayalalitha, Benazir Bhutto, Indira Gandhi, Phoolan Devi, Mamata Bannerjee, Meira Kumar, Mayawati, Smriti Irani, Sushma Swaraj, Vasundhara Raje, Rabri Devi, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Sheikh Hasina.