BBC America’s Going for Gold Is a Moving Tale of Triumph Over Hardship. I Hope Nobody at NBC Sees…

A Blog About the Olympic Games
July 25 2012 4:20 PM

BBC America’s Going for Gold Is a Moving Tale of Triumph Over Hardship. I Hope Nobody at NBC Sees It.

Going for Gold—The ’48 Games
Matt Smith (left) and Sam Hoare in BBC America's Going for Gold.

Photo by Laurence Cendrowicz/BBC America.

Going for Gold—The ’48 Games, which airs Wednesday night on BBC America, is a sort of Chariots of Fire with rowboats. It tells the story of Bert Bushnell (Matt Smith, better known these days as the Eleventh Doctor) and Dickie Burnell (Sam Hoare), who represented Great Britain in the double sculls event at the 1948 London Olympics.

Bert and Dickie were a chalk-and-cheese pair. Bert, the middle-class son of a boat builder, is unimposing and bespectacled; Dickie, a former captain of boats at Eton and an Oxford blue, is a perfect specimen, confident and accomplished. Bert rides a bike; Dickie drives a luxury motor. They’re brought together just five weeks before the games by Jack Beresford (James Frain), who medaled in five consecutive Olympics and won gold in front of Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Games. Beresford is a man with a vision of a meritocratic Olympic team, in which the best rowers are paired together, even if that means Dickie must ditch his longtime boat mate and Bert must put up with a toff in the front seat.

Advertisement

Although Going for Gold includes the requisite number of training montages, writer William Ivory has focused the five stages of the sporting biopic—conflict, insight, reconciliation, setback, triumph—on the class conflict between the two leads rather than competition with other nationalities. Bert is driven by a nonstop series of personal insults—although he will represent his country in the Olympics, he is forbidden from entering the rowing team’s Leander Club headquarters through the front door, because he isn’t a member. The pair’s big breakthrough comes after a blazing row, in which Dickie tells Bert: “Rather than blaming the silver spoon you forever see in my mouth, you [should] take a look at the chip on your own shoulder. And ask yourself, honestly, whether it and blind ambition are really enough in themselves to make a good oarsman.” It’s the worst dialogue of the movie, but at least thereafter we’re spared more studies in contrast between the two men’s status and circumstances.

After that, the focus shifts to their commonalities: They both have daddy issues. Bert’s old man is a frustrated athlete who drives his son mercilessly because he had to give up his own Olympic dreams when he could no longer afford to retain his amateur status. Dickie’s father, who won rowing gold in the 1908 London Games, represents the old guard, showing up at regular intervals to remind his son that rowing is a gentleman’s sport and to tut-tut Dickie’s training regimen or accuse him of “showboating” when Bert and Dickie win a race by what he deems an excessive margin.

Because stories of sporting triumph follow such a familiar arc, the film’s most compelling scenes come not on the Thames but in the Cabinet Room, where politicians struggle to convince Prime Minister Clement Attlee that beat-up postwar Britain can succeed in mounting such a high-profile international event. When the final credits note that the London Games produced a profit of £29,000, that result seems more worthy of celebration than Bert and Dickie’s sporting exploits. More moving still are the glimpses of Austerity Britain, where rationing and food shortages mean that even Olympic athletes sometimes go hungry. The most tear-jerking moments come when the proud Brits who have sacrificed their own meager rations to feed the American rower billeted with them see the contents of the food parcel he delivers, packed with steaks, rice, cheesecakes, and bananas—food they haven’t seen for years, if ever.

When NBC televises the 2012 London Olympics, I hope they minimize the behind-the scenes stories of training traumas and sick relatives and instead show us the darned sports. But here, while the rowing is exciting enough, the tales of hardship and family drama are emotional gold. I hope Bob Costas doesn’t get any ideas.

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Television

See Me

Transparent is the fall’s only great new show.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

  News & Politics
Damned Spot
Sept. 30 2014 9:00 AM Now Stare. Don’t Stop. The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 10:44 AM Bull---- Market America is overlooking a plentiful renewable resource: animal manure.
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 30 2014 10:10 AM A Lovable Murderer and Heroic Villain: The Story of Australia's Most Iconic Outlaw
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 10:59 AM “For People, Food Is Heaven” Boer Deng on the story behind her piece “How to Order Chinese Food.”
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 10:48 AM One of Last Year’s Best Animated Shorts Is Finally Online for Free
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.