Red-Scare Rhetoric Isn’t Gone From Histories of American Sport

The Cold War may be over, but its rhetoric demonizing the former Eastern Bloc and valorizing the United States isn’t. Nowhere is that clearer than in popular sport history productions like ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast Heavy Medals and the Netflix documentary Athlete A, chronicling the abuse of elite gymnasts.

National team gymnast Maggie Nichols, the titular "Athlete A" of the new Netflix documentary on the sexual abuse scandal in USA Gymnastics. (Melissa J. Perenson / Netflix)

“It is a sport in which screaming insults at children is considered an accepted motivational technique, in which competing with severe injuries is the norm . . . and in which abuse, broadly defined, is standard.”

You could be forgiven for thinking this passage was written about American football or almost any other US sport, given how succinctly it defines the exploitation and abuse seemingly endemic to this country’s athletic cultures. Yet the passage isn’t about football — it is a description of gymnastics by former national champion and producer of Athlete A Jennifer Sey.

This will come as no surprise for anyone who has viewed the recent Netflix film Athlete A or ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast series Heavy Medals. The stories depicted in both these documentaries are a shock to most Americans. Athlete A follows a team of investigative journalists from the Indianapolis Star as they chase and ultimately break the tragic story of USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University team doctor and convicted abuser Larry Nassar’s sexual assault and abuse of over 250 girl athletes. The documentary details the culture of cruelty that was created and sustained in elite-level gymnastics in USA Gymnastics — one of the most prominent national governing bodies of sport in the world — and how athletes who refused to stay silent took on this system.

Similarly, Heavy Medals, a seven-part podcast released as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 suite and reported by Alyssa Roenigk and Bonnie Ford, takes a deep dive into two of the central figures in both the Nassar scandal and USA Gymnastics itself: Romanian-American USA Gymnastics coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi. Heavy Medals explores how they tried to transform women’s gymnastics culture in the United States through the introduction of the Romanian centralized training system for gymnastics — and the creation of the USA Gymnastics training site, called the “Karolyi Ranch,” where many of Nassar’s assaults would ultimately take place.

The events detailed in these productions seem shocking to us because we remain in thrall to a historically inaccurate narrative about the nature of American sport as emblematic of American society: free, meritocratic, and just, particularly juxtaposed against the specter of Communist authoritarianism, discipline, and harm. While the stories depicted in Athlete A and Heavy Medals are legitimate and to be wholly believed, the productions also present a Cold War, anti-Communist portrayal of American sport that allows us to blame any abuses that emerge on just two groups: the Karolyis’ foreign, Communist, “other” infiltration of our sport system that polluted our sport culture by introducing abusive and horrific methods, and the few “bad apples” in the “free” United States who capitalized on the Karolyis’ abuse. Removing them from power, so the story goes, has solved American sport’s problems.

This narrative has two self-serving purposes: justifying our “American” way of doing sport, and simultaneously perpetuating a Red Scare logic that frames Communist sport as inherently totalitarian and dehumanizing in contrast to our North American version. The problem is that this tale of US exceptionalism, most heavily pronounced in Heavy Medals, doesn’t actually match the evidence in the podcast itself nor in the historical record.

At a time of fake news and massive distrust in the media and even scientists during the pandemic, ESPN’s persistent rehearsal of this inaccurate portrayal amounts to a campaign of misinformation and pro-American propaganda via the repetition of a well-established narrative crafted by the US government and sport media outlets like Sports Illustrated (incidentally founded in 1954 by staunch anti-Communist Time Inc. head Henry Luce). Propagating this decades-long false narrative and ignoring the copious historical record ensures that we will continue to abuse athletes in perpetuity.

The Karolyis and Larry Nassar

Athlete A, produced by Serin Marshall, Jennifer Sey (former national champion gymnast and author of the 2008 book Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics’ Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams), and Julie Parker Benello and released by Netflix in June 2020, traces the investigative journey in large part by centering the voices of the victims. First is “Athlete A” herself: national team gymnast Maggie Nichols, who first reported the sexual abuse she endured by Nassar in 2015 to USA Gymnastics, the national governing body of the sport. The layers of Nassar’s decades-long sexual abuse are continuously drawn out by the numerous other gymnasts who suffered from his sexual abuse from the 1990s through much of the 2010s.

While Athlete A briefly explains the role of individuals like the Karolyis and their ranch, MSU head gymnastics coach Kathie Klages, and others, the primary perpetrator is Nassar. Particular attention is also paid to marketing specialist and USA Gymnastics CEO Steve Penny, who, during his leadership from 2005–2017, furthered the abuse by prioritizing gold medals and sponsorship dollars over the girls’ health despite the victims’ increasing reports about Nassar.

Heavy Medals, released by ESPN in July 2020, takes a different format as it traces the origins and history of the Karolyis. Episode one begins with their rise to coaching Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci to perfect 10s and Olympic gold in 1976 through their defection to the United States in 1981. Each subsequent episode chronicles how the Karolyis adapted their coaching tactics and abuse to shifting terrains in America, from when they trained Mary Lou Retton to win America’s first gold medal in the sport at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, to the “Magnificent Seven” Olympic team who became the first American team to win Olympic team gold in 1996 in Atlanta, to the “Fab Five” who won the United States’ second Olympic team gold medal in 2012. Every episode takes readers through the Karolyis’ efforts to, and varying degrees of success, maximize their power and control over the gymnasts, other coaches, their coaching base at the secluded “Karolyi ranch” in Texas, and USA Gymnastics.

While Athlete A focuses mainly on Larry Nassar, and to a lesser extent Penny and the Karolyis, Heavy Medals portrays how the Romanian-American trainers intentionally used fear, systematic overtraining, body surveillance and deprivation, and other forms of emotional and physical abuse — the fundamental dehumanization and instrumentalization of athletes — in Romania and the United States to produce Olympic medals.

Both pieces show how these tactics were inflicted upon children, the latter of whom were made to think of themselves as weak and lazy. These conditions ensured that a charming and outwardly kind sexual abuser such as Larry Nassar could be seen by former elite-level and US Olympic gymnasts like Jamie Dantzscher, whose interview in Athlete A plays a prominent role, as a form of relief from the traumas that had been inflicted on them. Yet the horror that Heavy Medals in particular presents to the 2020 audience about the Karolyis also builds on a Red Scare logic. It is the story of foreign, formerly Communist enemies and culture from without who wreaked harm within.

Athlete A and Heavy Medals both make valuable contributions. The firsthand athlete testimony is outstanding in quantity and quality, particularly in Athlete A where the women’s experiences are the story being told. Athlete A allows each gymnast to introduce themself and acquaint viewers with their stories not just as victims but as individuals. It is particularly remarkable that people shared their testimony so candidly without the protection of anonymity.

Athlete A’s enormous strength is its portrayal of Nassar’s abuse strictly from the mouths of the once-repressed, once-silenced victims. Even while recalling Nassar’s abuse, the women remain the focus from start to finish. It is powerfully rooted in their voices, their stories, and ultimately, the agency they eventually achieve in their fight.

In contrast, Heavy Medals focuses entirely on the Karolyis, as recalled primarily by the duo’s contemporaries and gymnasts, with past interview clips with the Karolyis and the producers’ narration interspersed throughout. The production’s ideological agenda means that interview clips are short and really only focus on the Karolyis. At times, listeners do not know who is talking, further silencing the gymnasts and reinforcing the story’s dogged focus on the Karolyis.

Episode one of Heavy Medals details the Karolyis’ time in Romania, where their physically and mentally abusive tactics ranged from beating the girls to intensely pressuring them to lose weight, leading the girls to eat toothpaste for sustenance. Episode four details the tragedy of how the Karolyis’ relentless training, psychological abuse, and immense pressure pitted Kerri Strug and Dominique Moceanu — members of 1996’s “Magnificent Seven” —  against one another, so that they did not confide in nor serve as each other’s support systems.

Supported and pressured by USA Gymnastics to produce a repeat gold medal team, the Karolyis then overtrained and practically starved the 2000 women’s Olympic team to ensure that they not only could win, but looked the part physically to win. Their tactics left Jamie Dantzscher and the rest of the team seemingly too depleted physically and mentally to compete in top form. Olympic team member Tasha Schwikert recalls being so hungry in Sydney that she cried herself to sleep. The episodes reinforce an argument made in Athlete A about how American elite-level gymnasts who worked with the Karolyis in any capacity were so abused physically and mentally that it opened the door for the seemingly kind Nassar, who was the doctor on hand at the Karolyis’ ranch during the monthly Olympic trainings, to sexually abuse them, too.

The framing of these interviews is also critical to ensuring their impact and the politics of their reception. Much like Netflix’s earlier 2015 film The Hunting Ground about pervasive sexual violence on university campuses, to varying degrees Athlete A and Heavy Medals prioritize survivor stories without the both-sideism, in which attempts to evenhandedly show both sides of an issue end up humanizing harmful perpetrators. Both documentaries extend the victims’ riveting testimony from the Nassar trial, thus exuding the incredible power and value of extended survivor impact statements.

Despite these strengths, both Athlete A and Heavy Medals pin the blame for the abuse on key larger-than-life figures: Larry Nassar, Steve Penny, and the Karolyis. In Athlete A, Nassar and Penny are the primary bad apples, and their sins are only barely connected to the exploitation and abuse that have become so pervasive in US sport at large.

Heavy Medals does even more damage as it paints the Karolyis as products of a Communist athletic system that infiltrated American gymnastics culture. With some careful mining of evidence from within the episodes and the addition of historical context, the narrative crumbles.

A Cold War Narrative

It begins in episode one, when ESPN reporter and narrator Alyssa Roenigk sets the narrative for the series by asserting that “Bela maintained complete control” over the girls to encourage listeners to believe that Bela was a totalitarian product of the Communist Eastern Bloc. The episode includes Trudi Kollar and Gabriela Geiculescu’s convincing and harrowing recollections of the Karolyis’ beatings and police collusion in Romania. Yet it also provides direct evidence that completely contradicts the image of Bela’s “complete control” and the Cold War narrative, such as by mentioning that the Karolyis faced governmental pressure to match or beat their results from the 1976 Olympics in order to maintain the Communist state’s favor. The coaches’ Hungarian background is also barely remarked upon, even though the Romanian state discriminated heavily against the Hungarian community from the 1960s until 1989, likely contributing to the governmental pressure they faced.

Trudi Kollar moreover recalled her relief that “we really got rid of Dracula” when the Karolyis defected. Her relief attests that, because the Karolyis were uniquely abusive in Communist Romania, she would now be treated better by other Romanian coaches, because abusive coaching was not endemic to Romania or communism.

We asked Geza Pozsar directly about this in our podcast interview with him, as he witnessed the Karolyis’ tactics for decades. Pozsar, a figure in both documentaries, wholeheartedly corroborated Kollar’s point based on his wife’s experiences, as she remained in Romania as the gymnasts’ tutor for a few years after he defected with the Karolyis in 1981. Yet ESPN’s producers did not ask these questions, instead forging ahead in order to spin the false narrative they want to tell. The audience is thus misled and misinformed by the podcast’s lack of historical context.

The incomplete and inaccurate statements barrel ahead throughout the podcast series in order to continue equating Eastern Bloc sport and coaches with abuse. As Dvora Meyers recently pointed out, Joan Ryan, the author of Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, continues to peddle the hyperbolic and false statement in episode three that equates the Karolyis’ Eastern Bloc coaching methods with exploitative commodification. Episodes five and six take the Cold War narrative further by hammering home the idea that the Karolyis copied and pasted their Communist “centralization” tactics stateside.

According to the ESPN narrator Alyssa Roenigk, “After almost twenty years in the United States, Bela finally had control over a semi-centralized system.” Yet neither a centralized nor “semi-centralized” system are ever fully explained using sound evidence. At the very least, Jim Riordan’s groundbreaking 1980 work Sport in Soviet Society and Mike Dennis and Jonathan Grix’s phenomenal 2012 book Sport Under Communism, which provide detailed overviews of the Soviet and East German sport systems, respectively, would have filled in the gaps in the absence of an English-language equivalent about Romania.

The audience never finds out about the two kinds of systems, because the producers would rather use an unfounded, blanket term in “semi-centralized,” leaving the audience to assume that the random details they dribble out to listeners are hard evidence of a semi-centralized system. Heavy Medals therefore makes Eastern Bloc sport culture, abuse, and “semi-centralization” synonymous, thus substantiating the implicit argument that the individualistic, capitalist American sport system is the opposite: protective and safe for athletes.

Yet if Ryan or the podcast producers consulted the historical record — or better yet — placed more weight in Jennifer Sey’s consistent testimony — they would find their narrative dissolves entirely. Since her 2008 memoir Chalked Up, Sey has repeatedly stated that USA Gymnastics’ abusive culture existed in the 1970s, after which the Karolyis merely perfected and validated the existing mechanisms of abuse by winning. Roenigk makes the important point in episode six that “USA Gymnastics had bought into this new, semi-centralized system. And had no intention of going back.” But the depth of the governing sport body’s complicity very likely falls on deaf ears due to the hours upon hours of narrative about the evil Communist abusers, the Karolyis.

One of the most harmful remarks in the entire series is found in Episode 1. Tracee Talavera, a US gymnast who participated with other Americans on the Romanians 1981 US tour, described the Romanian gymnasts as “stern, very robotic.” Work by Lindsay Parks Pieper and others show how the US press described Eastern Bloc athletes using these kinds of masculine terms precisely in order to discredit their abilities — and the Eastern Bloc sport and political system — by contrasting them to feminine-looking, graceful, “free” American women athletes. The uncritical inclusion of this statement shows an unfamiliarity with the immense historical and sociological scholarship on gendered and politicized media portrayals of female athletes. In the absence of historically rooted ideas such as why Romanian girls might be overwhelmed by having to act as sport ambassadors to an “enemy” country like the United States, the seemingly offhand assessment reinforces the harmful and false narrative by contributing directly to conservative and anti-feminist Cold War rhetoric.

The Politicization of Sport

Though US gymnastics history helps debunk this narrative, the copious scholarship about sport on both sides of the Iron Curtain unveils how it is completely misinformed and inaccurate. The modern sport project as it reached the late nineteenth century was largely a Western colonial one, but with the onset of the Cold War, leaders in America, the West more broadly, and the new-Communist Eastern Bloc amplified and revised their political and colonial sporting imperatives through East-West lenses. They all sought to test out and prove the validity and dominance of their economic-political systems over the other side while also avoiding World War III on their home soils.

To varying degrees, they channeled their aims into the long-standing international sport opportunities provided by the Olympic Games and other similar arenas. Leaders East and West found that they could easily paint the other side as the enemy to home audiences, with athletes being their proxy soldiers sent to compete in Cold War sport clashes.

In order to legitimize US Cold War imperialism to a domestic public, US politicians and the mainstream media used sport to propagate and normalize the very anti-communist, pro-American, and capitalist sport narrative that ESPN still propagates in Heavy Medals. The US sport system was framed as democratic, capitalist, and, crucially, free of the political influence ostensibly characteristic of the Eastern Bloc. Central to this narrative was the now increasingly infamous notion, familiar to anyone who paid attention to the attacks former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick endured for kneeling during the national anthem, that American athletes should not concern themselves with politics, given the foundational freedom of US society.

The term “politics” itself came to be considered “Communist” and anti-American as athletes were expected to focus on playing for the “love of the game,” rather than political or financial gain (welcome to the wonderful world of “amateurism”). In contrast, the Eastern Bloc sport systems were portrayed as fundamentally abusive and inhumane: What American of the era was unfamiliar with the specter of secret police surveillance or state-directed doping programs? Athletes under communism were thus coded as either helpless victims of state repression or noble freedom-loving resisters.

This narrative was not only espoused repeatedly during the Cold War by outlets such as Sports Illustrated and Life magazine. It has persisted through anti-communist, pro-American popular film portrayals such as Rocky IV’s Ivan Drago, Disney’s 2004 Miracle, and the 2014 documentary Red Army about Soviet hockey star Slava Fetisov. Scholars Michael Silke, Jamie Schultz, and Bryan Bracey have argued that with Miracle, Disney — ESPN’s parent company — adapted the infamous 1980 Soviet-American hockey match to portray the heroic, pro-American Cold War past through the lens of American and Western concerns about the post-9/11 world. By focusing on individual responsibility for harm in gymnastics and the subtle framing of the Karolyis as products of communism, Heavy Medals further normalizes this narrative of Eastern vs. Western sport: capitalist freedom “winning” against Communist misery.

The Cold War sport narrative certainly does not align with the complexity of the historical record in the United States. Indeed, top echelons of the American government were actively involved in spinning Cold War propaganda. As historian Toby Rider has documented, the American government took a very active role in the politicization of sport and the promotion of this anti-Communist, pro-American sport narrative as early as the 1950s. During this time, our government established “state-private” networks primarily funded by the CIA to influence sport in a way that would cover up their political involvement. The US government actively concealed its involvement in sport so that it could avoid appearing “Communist” and thus contradict its very own narrative and propaganda.

One famous example detailed by Rider is the CIA’s covert Operation Griffin that helped thirty-eight Hungarian and Romanian athletes and coaches defect to America after the failed 1956 Hungarian Revolution and Melbourne Olympic Games. Prompted by Hungarian-American émigrés, and the anti-communist Time Inc. and Sports Illustrated — whose owner, Henry Luce, had direct ties to President Eisenhower, CIA director Allen Dulles, among others — the CIA helped bring the athletes over, and several government officials worked to grant the defectors asylum. Sports Illustrated then funded a propaganda “Freedom Tour” to parade the athletes around the United States as “symbols of freedom” and anti-communism to audiences and used its pages to continue peddling the narrative to readers.

Although Sports Illustrated and the government conditioned us to celebrate such events as allowing oppressed Eastern Bloc athletes to flee communism and find liberation stateside, our research shows the very political and manipulative way the United States deployed the athlete-defectors to legitimize itself in global geopolitics. The athletes and coaches were led to believe that they’d be able to enjoy their careers for decades precisely because the United States wanted their help in defeating the Soviets. Athlete-defectors met with university officials and coaches on the Freedom Tour to find scholarship opportunities.

But no one explained the drastic differences between the American capitalist sport system and its Eastern Bloc counterpart. If someone had, the athlete-defectors would have known that college sport was the only real opportunity to train in the absence of independent wealth. Only one defector, water polo player Miklós “Nick’”Martin, knew any English upon arrival. Imagine the defectors’ shock at learning firsthand that to sustain their sporting endeavors outside of college, they needed to work full-time, squeeze in short trainings, and win gold medals for little-to-no pay.

Coaching in the American Sportscape

No wonder that only a handful of athletes continued their careers in the United States. László Tábori, the third man in the world to run a sub-four-minute mile, did his best to keep running competitively. From 1957 until 1962, at various times his labor (janitor, groundskeeper, factory worker), living (with twelve men in a three-bedroom place), and training (hopping fences to practice at high school tracks) conditions reduced him to poverty. These were shocking conditions for a man who had placed fourth at the 1956 Olympics compared to those he had enjoyed in Communist Hungary prior to his defection.

Coaching in the American sportscape was a minefield as well, as evidenced by Tábori’s coach, Mihály Iglói. Once stateside, Iglói’s repeated attempts to establish a financially stable team fell short. Despite being the only coach in the United States to train three additional male runners to a sub-four-minute mile by 1962, Iglói was forced to leave America for greener, more humane coaching pastures in Greece in 1970.

It did not help that Life and the anti-communist Sports Illustrated seemingly turned against Iglói at the peak of his US success. Sports Illustrated compared the Hungarian to Oregon coach Bill Bowerman in 1960, describing Iglói as “a humorless man who is fanatically devoted to teaching the art of running far and fast.” Life took the “fanatic” characterization even further, likening Iglói to a computer that calculated winning results, while another report called his methods “autocratic.” This is precisely the kind of imagery used in the overtly anti-communist Rocky IV about the Soviet villain Ivan Drago, especially in the scene when he is shown as a mute but stern athlete, hooked up to machines that calculate the weight and power of his punch for the Western press. The same image of Eastern Bloc, autocratic coaching is also seen today in the most recent treatments of the Karolyis.

Distorted Propaganda

The ample historical research, moreover, disproves our Cold War sport narrative that Eastern Bloc sport was characterized by abuse. Each Eastern Bloc state had their own histories and contexts, leading to the development of different sport systems in each country.

Take Hungary as an example. From the 1960s to 1980s, it developed one of the softest forms of socialism in the region compared to East Germany, the USSR, and the Karolyis’ Romania. Our research shows that after enduring a combination of severe political repression — exemplified by the secret police setup and execution of footballer Sándor Szűcs for trying to defect in 1951 — and state-granted equitable pay and other privileges to athletes of both genders, many athletes lived the veritable good life in socialist Hungary from the 1960s to 1989. This was due to the disastrous impact of the labor, brain, and “brawn” drain following the 1956 Hungarian Revolution that left the state and sport community reeling.

In addition to the thirty-four Hungarian sporting defectors who came to the United States, more than 275 other Hungarian athletes left alongside the over two hundred thousand Hungarians who fled westward. Seeking to persuade — and not coerce — athletes to remain home and win medals, the Hungarian sport leadership softened its oppressive tactics and offered athletes more privileges and opportunities than before. Hungarian athletes also learned about the West’s harsh, poverty-inducing sporting conditions experienced by Tábori and others, and deduced that socialist Hungary, and not the “free” West, offered them the most beneficial sporting conditions.

Pentathlete Attila Császári recalled to us in a 2015 interview that the 1970s to 1980s were “beautiful years,” in which “Sport could protect me, sport could give me a nice target, sport could [allow me to] develop myself. So I have to thank, in general, sport for almost everything.” It was the sporting conditions in socialist Hungary — not the United States! — that allowed him and others to live these beautiful years.

That this situation existed in socialist Hungary simultaneously to East Germany’s state-controlled doping program shows the vast political and sporting differences across the region, as the available evidence indicates that doping in Hungary and other countries was much less centralized than in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Moreover, as Thomas Hunt and others have shown, athletes and coaches worldwide got information about doping from one another so they could do it themselves. Nations East and West participated in what Hunt calls a “pharmacological arms race.”

Frustratingly, not a single historian is shown or heard in either documentary. This is particularly glaring in Heavy Medals due to its relentless mischaracterization of Eastern Bloc and Communist Romanian sport. The absence of historical context completely misinforms and misleads the audience in what amounts to pro-American, capitalist propaganda. With additional context, our Cold War sport narrative easily collapses, laying bare our specifically American sport system that is grounded in abuse.

By continuing to spread an anti-Communist, pro-American narrative of Cold War sport, such productions ignore the United States’ abusive sport structures and sustain the harm that young athletes endure today. These sport history productions aren’t fair tellings of the history of sport in the East and West — they’re distorted propaganda.

A previous version of this article misquoted a statement made by US gymnast Tracee Talavera in Heavy Medals and misattributed it to ESPN journalist Bonnie Ford.

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About the Author

Johanna Mellis is assistant professor of history at Ursinus College.

Nathan Kalman-Lamb is the author of Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport and co-author with Gamal Abdel-Shehid of Out of Left Field: Social Inequality and Sports. He is a Lecturing Fellow at Duke University, where he teaches on social inequality and sports.

Derek Silva is assistant professor of criminology at King's University College at Western University.

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