Review: ‘Heavy Medals: Inside the Karolyi Gymnastics Empire’

Review by James Lindorf

Since 2009 ESPN’s documentary series 30 for 30 has been the pinnacle for reliving the most significant moments and illuminating the darkest corners of the world of sports. In 2017 they expanded beyond films by creating 30 for 30 Podcasts to share even more stories. 30 for 30 Podcasts, in association with espnW, presents their latest exposé Heavy Medals. An in-depth look at the rise and fall of the Karolyi gymnastic empire. The multipart podcast series takes a comprehensive look at the influence of Romanian-born coaches, Bela and Martha Karolyi, from Nadia Comăneci to the transformation of USA Gymnastics over the past four decades. All seven Heavy Medals episodes are available now on ESPN.com, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, and all major podcatching apps.

Podcasts are relatively universal, thousands already exist, and more are created every day. Anyone with a smartphone can dip their toe into the podcasting pool. The success stories are few and far between, which decreases the medium’s validity in the eyes of some people. The assumption is that podcasts can’t be art like paintings, sculptures, movies, or plays. However, art is simply the expression of human creative skill and imagination that can be appreciated for its beauty or emotional power. With that in mind, there is no other way to describe Heavy Medals than to say it was artfully created on every level. Astonishment, frustration, sadness, lots of anger, and even a little joy are present in every minute of the series.

The Karolyis are, without a doubt, the most decorated gymnastics coaches ever. Since they made a splash at the 1976 Olympics with Nadia and her six perfect tens, they’ve taken multiple teens and turned them into icons. After defecting from Romania, they took USA Gymnastics from the bottom of the barrel to the most dominant organization in the sport’s history. They were in charge of ten Olympics teams, which resulted in three gold medals, three silver medals, three bronze medals, with 1988 being the only games their team failed to medal. What was the cost of all that glory? Countless injuries, enough tears to fill a swimming pool, and the sexual assault of nearly 500 girls and young women.

It can be difficult for some to decide if the ends justify the means. When Tasha Schwikert, a 2000 Olympic bronze medalist, World Gymnastics Championships gold medalist, the 2001 and 2002 U.S. senior national all-around champion and the 2005 and 2008 NCAA all-around national champion, was asked if she would do it all again, her answer was “no, I don’t think I would.” When a woman who captured nearly every detail of her gymnastics dream says it wasn’t worth it, there is no longer a reason to ask that question. It becomes clear that over the last 40 years, the Karolyis, USA Gymnastics, and maybe the nation failed thousands of girls and young women.

Heavy Medals is fantastic and easily ranks in the upper echelon of all 30 For 30 productions. The personal stories from gymnasts, choreographers, coaches, and parents elicit a wide range of emotions. Thanks to the thorough reporting of Bonnie Ford and Alyssa Roenigk, the is no doubt about the validity of the timeline or facts presented. You can’t ask more of a documentary than to leave you with a better understanding of the subject and to move you emotionally. In both cases, Heavy Medals earns a perfect 10.

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