In less than one week, the American women’s and men’s gymnastics teams will set out for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics—the culmination of a season that has been rife with controversy and hardship for USA Gymnastics (USAG).
While the issues facing the organization are hardly affecting the success of the athletes under its purview—both the women's and men's teams are in contention for a team medal, and Simone Biles is likely to land a few individual podium finishes—they represent a continuation of the toxic culture that USAG has perpetuated for decades. With more and more gymnasts speaking up about the abuses they faced at the hands of the organization, the new Peacock original documentary Golden was created—following five gymnasts and their breaking point with USAG.
Episode one starts off by depicting the tense atmosphere surrounding the 2021 Winter Cup, the first major in–person gymnastics competition after nearly a year of COVID–19–related restrictions.
As the show highlights, because the pandemic caused multiple gym closures and ultimately a delay in the start of the Olympics, the timeline leading up to Tokyo completely changed. The panel determining the Olympic team bases its selections on the results of multiple competitions, meaning that gymnasts had to shift their training schedules to accommodate yet another year of physically demanding exercises in the hopes of landing a spot. The selection process is also notoriously stressful for American gymnasts in particular because the United States has such a deep field of talent, causing domestic competitions to sometimes be even more competitive than international ones—including the Olympics.
It's possible that if the United States were to send a completely different team of gymnasts to Tokyo, they would have just as much potential to win a medal. Although the Olympic rules prevent this from happening, it still adds extra stress to the athletes who feel like they have to stand out from their peers.
Golden's principle episode follows gymnasts back to their training gyms where many spend at least 30 hours a week practicing. While most gymnasts are homeschooled due to their demanding schedules, balancing life in the gym with family time and social life is still challenging.
Each gymnast featured in Golden trains differently. Suni Lee, a member of the Tokyo Olympic team, trains with her coach and just one other elite gymnast. But Morgan Hurd, a two–time World all–around medalist, trains with gymnasts of all ages. Coaching styles are unique as well. Susan Brown, who coached 2024 Paris Olympian hopeful Konnor McClain, openly admits that her lack of experience with high–level gymnasts makes it hard for her to balance discipline and endearment. Other coaches such as Hurd’s Slava Glazounov are both direct and understanding. But despite these contrasting training environments, both athletes noted one experience they had in common when it comes to preparing in the gym: too much stress.
Although stress is a normal part of intense training, Golden emphasizes that many gymnasts believe that USAG's leadership directly contributes to the pressure they feel. When the United States joined Russia and Romania as a gymnastics powerhouse at the turn of the century, USAG implemented a culture of relentless and demanding work that created successful athletes—at a very high cost. Under the direction of national team coordinator Marta Karolyi, gymnasts were sent to training camps at "the Ranch" where they were subject to immeasurably difficult training sessions. Many athletes suffered emotionally while their parents were oblivious to the conditions their kids faced.
An established culture of obedience played a role in former team doctor Larry Nassar’s ability to manipulate athletes, parents, and USAG directors. Golden briefly mentions Nassar’s sexual abuse charges, but it also touches on the athletes who felt that the organization had not done nearly enough in ensuring the safety of its athletes since his trial. After USAG wished Biles happy birthday last year, Biles responded with criticism, telling it to fulfill its promise of taking meaningful action against abuse instead.
This isn’t an isolated incident either: Other athletes have condemned USAG’s lack of commitment to its goal of protecting gymnasts. For many of these athletes, important competitions were broadcasted before they reached adulthood, putting a huge mental strain on them at such a young age. They were expected to be at their best performance on television, but they often faced many more challenges just offscreen. For instance, McClain said that she would throw up so many times before her routine that her coach would come with plastic bags prepared. It wasn’t until McClain began talking to other coaches that she realized that this was not a common experience and that it should be addressed. At age 16, McClain felt that USAG was not doing nearly enough to keep her mentally, physically, and emotionally safe.
Although Golden focuses mainly on the women’s gymnastics team, the men’s team has suffered its own share of USAG failures. Allan Bower, who placed seventh at the 2021 Olympic Trials and was named as an alternate to the Tokyo team, was not provided funding for practice expenses related to the world competition later this year. Given Bower’s high ranking in Trials and his demonstrated consistency in international competition throughout the years, it came as a shock to the entire gymnastics community when he was denied these funds. Over the past two weeks, former and current gymnasts have banded together to recognize Bower's abilities. 2012 Olympian Jordyn Wieber, Biles, and Hurd have all recently shared links to a GoFundMe that would allow Bower to properly train. While not a direct attack on USAG, this action is a natural result of the athletes’ mistrust of the organization and their belief that their wishes are not being heard.
Amidst all the drama, Golden does celebrate some of the firsts that have occurred this year in the gymnastics community. Lee is the first Hmong American Olympic gymnast, and all members of the team will be 18 years or older, a promising sign that coaches do not have to work their athletes too hard too early. However, Golden also shows that USAG continues to ignore the best interests of American gymnasts. Until these issues are resolved, each Team USA leotard will be associated with an organization that has failed so many young athletes.