Going for Gold: Let’s Settle with Them

At first glance Going for Gold (2020) by Ksawery Szczepanik has everything that any standard TV – usually American – documentary: talking heads, archival materials and a pinch of charming special effects to make the projection pleasant. But the production of the Polish director has something more to it, which may not be immediately noticed by a viewer who has no knowledge or awareness of Polish national problems. Under the guise of a biopic of sportsman Władysław Kozakiewicz, following the classic narrative pattern “from zero to hero”, Szczepanik smuggles a subtle observation of a Polish national problem that has been happening on a large scale for many years, namely nationalism.

The film oscillates around Kozakiewicz, one of the most recognizable figures of Polish athletics, the pole vaulter who became famous during the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. It was then that Kozakiewicz not only won gold and set a new world record in a pole vault (5.78 m), but also made a triumphant – and offensive – gesture towards the Moscow audience, which henceforth would be referred to as the “Kozakiewicz gesture” in Poland. The uniqueness of the situation and this gesture came at a time of greater than usual politicization of the Olympics. In the 80s, the Soviet Union was beginning to falter, the rule of Chief Secretary Brezhnev was marked by many crises in the Eastern Bloc – i.e. The Prague Spring in 1968 and the intervention of the Warsaw Pact forces in Czechoslovakia. The USSR wanted to show its symbolic power in sports. The gesture of the Polish athlete immediately acquired totemic value, coinciding with the beginning of the “Solidarity” movement in 1980, as a sign of perseverance and opposition to the system.

Szczepanik does not only stop at reporting these events, his film is not a simple laurel of those 15 minutes of the history of sport and the fight for freedom. In conversations with Kozakiewicz, the director tries to outline the perspective of an athlete who, in his prime, bursting with youth, energy and dreams, did not think about politics, but simply about breaking new records. From one day to the next, the young athlete became one of the most important national icons, a man for whom all doors opened up in times of a deep economic crisis. The power of this figure was so great that even jealousy was covered by pride in the athlete – Kozakiewicz got everything from everyone.

The director articulates how thin the line between adoration and a sense of betrayal is, how easy it is to be hypocritical in national impulses, and how much sport can be politicized. After all, what became legendary at the very beginning was just a simple gesture stemming from the arrogant demeanor of a youngster who managed to thumb his nose at thousands of spectators in the stadium. “I wanted to settle with them,” says Kozakiewicz. As the history of the character suggests, this desire to “settle” knows no national boundaries.

Although Going for Gold targets Polish audiences, it is an interesting insight into a fragment of Polish history and mentality for international viewers. During times of breaking new records by radical nationalist tendencies – the fight of extreme right-wing circles for the complete penalisation of abortion, homosexuality, whitewashing the life records of Second World War criminals, etc. – Szczepanik’s discreetly ironic image is like a cold bucket of water on the heads of those who want to settle scores with everyone.

Mateusz Tarwacki
Edited by Amber Wilkinson