The Golden Girl
(Romania, 94 min.)
Dir. Enisa Morariu-Tamas and Adrian Robe
The question of whether hardware alone defines one’s status as an Olympic champion fuels The Golden Girl. This portrait of Romanian gymnast Andreea Răducan looks at the personal and emotional tolls accompanied by sacrificing all for golden glory. The Golden Girl recounts Răducan’s hard-fought path the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games at the tender age of 16. The gymnast recalls how her dedication, training, and technique paid off with a gold medal win in the all-around category as Romania took all three top spots on the podium with her standing tallest. However, the frustrated Răducan explains how her euphoria was short-lived when a positive doping test stripped her of her medal and, worse, her title. 16 years after winning the title of all-around Olympic champion, Răducan wants her medal back.
Răducan’s case is indeed peculiar. She tells how Romania’s team doctor gave her a seemingly innocuous pill for a headache on the day of the all-around competition. However, that drug, pseudoephedrine, was a banned substance at the time, yet the gymnast, her doctor, coaches, and journalists agree that the substance could not have enhanced her performance. The Golden Girl positions Răducan as a victim of circumstance with many interviewees suggesting that she simply tested positive at a time when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) wanted to make a show of cracking down on sports doping.
The Golden Girl raises valid questions about the flawed nature of the Olympics’ efforts to control performance-enhancing drugs fairly and accurately. Besides being dubiously labelled a banned substance—the IOC removed pseudoephedrine from the list of performance-enhancing drugs following Răducan’s case—the doc examines the integrity of the Games if the IOC chooses to leave the gymnast without her medal or title. It seems that IOC officials simply can’t be bothered to overturn Răducan’s disqualification despite reversing their stance on the drug that caused it.
The niggling question that The Golden Girl doesn’t quite answer, though, is why the officials should bother now. Răducan’s plight, valid as it is, comes 15 years after the events and the documentary arrives on the 20th anniversary of her disqualification. (The film was shot in 2015 and 2016.) Even some of the parties who are sympathetic to her cause state that the statute of limitations for arbitration was ten years and expired in 2010. Răducan doesn’t account for the delay in her fight and the film lacks a sense of urgency when the outcome feels inevitable. Her fight is one of principle.
After putting in the work and being the best in her field, Răducan arguably deserves her glory. One wishes the film were more about the cost of Răducan’s quest for gold, rather than her quest to reclaim the gold she lost. Even a quick glance at Wikipedia reveals a fact that the film omits: Răducan won two other medals in Sydney and remains an Olympic gold medal champion despite her disqualification in the all-around category. This doc portrait is perhaps more for Răducan than for audiences as an undercurrent of egoism goes unchecked. Interviewees that include doctors, Olympics’ officials, and journalists state that the Olympics have wider problems about doping than a case that happened 20 years ago.
The Golden Girl hints at the emotional and psychological tolls of the Olympians’ training with the gymnast’s face-saving interviews. Răducan obviously (and rightly) feels cheated, and observational scenes with her therapist illustrate how the gymnast has spent more than half her life marinating in her frustration over the Sydney Olympics. Similarly, the doc offers archival footage of the Romanian team’s intense training regime in which Răducan’s coaches continually berated the young women sacrificing their adolescence to win gold for their country. Even footage from Răducan’s much-lauded return to Romania shows a nation and a team gaslight a young woman by adorning her with fake gold medals. They tell Răducan that she’s a champion in their hearts, but seemingly do nothing to seek justice and reverse the IOC’s decision. These elements are fascinating material for another film.
Her teammate at the Sydney Games, Simona Amânar, gives the film’s most revealing interview—or “non-interview”—when the directors ask her to revisit the disqualification. Amânar speaks of Răducan as a friend, but completely shuts down when asked to share her feelings about the doping scandal. She, like Răducan, clearly clings to the title, having received the gold and the status of Olympic Champion following her teammate’s disqualification. When the camera fades to black in its interview with Amânar, it speaks volumes about the individual versus collective grandeur of the Olympic Games.
The Golden Girl is available on VOD beginning Sept. 1.