Last night, PBS’s Independent Lens aired a 2015 documentary about Claressa Shields, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist in middleweight women’s boxing. Entitled T-Rex: Her Fight for Gold (dir. Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari), the film has its share of problems. The process of Shields’s qualification for the Olympics is not explained very well, and the film for some reason completely skips over the semifinal bout of the Olympic tournament. On top of that, the filmmakers set up a number of potential story threads in the first act, such as Claressa’s relationship with her sister, that are never fully developed by the end.
Indeed, had the film ended with Shields’s victory in London, I would have thought it a disappointment, a work with lots of promise but with little accomplishment. But the film has another twenty-five to run, and in those final scenes it finds its most compelling story: what does an athlete do after success?
Normally in a sports movie, if this question comes up at all, it gets answered with some expository text before the credits roll. This holds whether the film represents the end of an athlete’s career or just the beginning: when victory is itself the denoument, who could possibly be interested in the days and weeks after? Whatever happens, it will surely be lit with the afterglow of a championship.
But in T-Rex, the post-Olympics period is filled with uncertainty and frustration. For starters, Shields faces a difficult career decision: does she continue to compete as an amateur and defend her gold medal at the 2016 Olympics, or does she become a professional boxer and try to make a living for her family? As it happens, she chooses the former route, but that only becomes clear to audience in the closing expository text. Shields has plenty of reasons to consider the alternative path.
To further complicate matters, her relationship with her coach, Jason Crutchfield, becomes strained when she begins (openly) dating her sparring partner, which goes against Crutchfield’s principle of not mixing the personal and the professional (never mind that Shields lives with Crutchfield as a quasi-family member for the majority of the film). Considering how central his voice is in Shields’s life, seeing the two at loggerheads has an added sting beyond mere conflict.
The wrinkle that I find most interesting, however, is Shields and Crutchfield’s efforts to obtain endorsement deals following her gold medal triumph. Shields’s family has plenty of financial worries, struggling to pay for basic utilities, so she needs an income stream to subsidize her unpaid amateur boxing. One might assume that being among the first ever women’s boxing gold medalists would get the sponsors lining up to sign her, but such is not the case.
According to USA Boxing officials featured in the film, Shields faces far greater difficulty in getting sponsorship deals than someone like Gabby Douglas, 2012 gold medalist in women’s gymnastics. For starters, gymnastics gets covered during primetime on a major network, whereas boxing is shown midday on a cable channel. People, and by extension potential sponsors, are far more likely to have seen Douglas perform than they are Shields.
Yet there is also the problem of American cultural attitudes. Douglas, with her cheerful presentation and her achievement in a sport associated with traditional femininity, is an easy sell to corporations. Shields, on the other hand, has a more brash personality; in a clip from The Colbert Report shown during a montage, she says she got into boxing because she likes punching people. It’s at least partly in jest, but it’s that sort of thing, the boxing officials say, that can make sponsors wary of signing athletes.
As a black woman, Shields detects racial and gendered assumptions behind that reluctance, and while the filmmakers do not explore that particular line of thought in great depth, it’s hard not to reach the same conclusions. Given how much Shields has accomplished and how little she has to show for it financially, there must be something unfair in the system of American athletics.
Honestly, I would have loved to see a cut of this movie that stretched the post-Olympic period over two acts, giving more time to explore an athlete’s life once the dream has been realized. As is, T-Rex is a fine documentary that doesn’t reach its full potential until the final bell has rung.
Currently, T-Rex: Her Fight for Gold is available for streaming at its Independent Lens episode page (link). The 2016 Olympic women’s middleweight boxing tournament begins August 14.