Intimate, emotional, memorable—More Than Gold is more than a sports film

Dame Valerie Adams: More Than Gold tells the journey of the four-time Olympian and two-time gold medallist, one of Aotearoa’s most successful and celebrated athletes. More than a sports film, More Than Gold is also something of a collaboration between director and subject to lament on the isolation of greatness, writes James Nokise.

When Dame Valerie Adams won her first shot put competition at high school, she didn’t have any sports shoes to wear. Watching the joy with which she recounts her teacher taking her to buy a pair of size 13 men’s shoes (the only ones big enough to fit her) is one of the many memorable moments from Transition Films new documentary Dame Valerie Adams: More Than Gold.

The film takes us through her entire life, from early childhood up to retirement, showing the journey from an awkward, tall, shy girl in Mangere to the most dominant Shot Putter of the modern era.

Director Briar March (A Place to Call Home, Mothers of the Revolution) and editor Margot Francis (Yellow is Forbidden, Savage Honeymoon) use archival footage, interviews, and animation to weave together a story of mothers, family, endurance, and sacrifice.

Ostensibly the film follows Adams as she prepares to compete at her fifth and final Olympics games in Tokyo 2021. The access that Adams and her family have given is strikingly intimate.

To say this is just a sports film is like saying Lord of the Rings is just a fantasy film. More Than Gold is a record of a woman who may just be New Zealand’s greatest athlete, but also something of a collaboration between director and subject to lament on the isolation of greatness.

“No All Black ever gets criticised for going on tour and leaving his kids behind,” says Valerie in response to comments on an article announcing her impending trip to Tokyo.

The choice to spend so much focus on her family becomes clearer as we see how her complicated childhood and her adult relationships feed her motivation to not just compete but evolve and succeed.

No film of a Tongan legend would be complete without a “Ma’ate Ma Tonga” (Die for Tonga!) moment of bravery, but in a lovely twist, it comes from her small, redheaded fellow high school outcast and best friend, Erica.

Aril Liberman’s cross-cultural score does a fantastic job of shifting gears from intimate moments into Rocky-worthy physical outbursts.

The way in which the scene where Valerie holds her mother, Lilika, in her last moments as she dies in hospital transitions to her Olympic training may be, if this isn’t too cynical, one of the best emotional beats in any film this year.

What stays with me are the gasps of awe from a group of young Pacific men in the audience, when Adams hits the weight room. In what could be viewed as a Kiwi slang version of a five-star review, one of the men simply lets out a long, low, “Brooooo”. It is an entirely accurate response. The power on display in those intense sessions that create her necessary explosive power is incredible.

For all of Dame Val’s playful public persona, it can be easy to forget the effort a world-class athlete has to put in to achieve their goals. The physio sessions and counselling from her coach to tone down her grinding routine only emphasises the many injuries.

Her will may be indomitable, but this is a body of a veteran competitor who has competed in international competition for over 20 years.

“I’ve got the spine of a 65-year-old” she quips while talking about the wear and tear from her career.

And there is no sugar coating with illness or injuries. The straight-talking that has endeared her to fans all over the world is on full display as she frankly recounts the tribulations of her and her family. To go into details about them here, without the context of the film, would be to do her openness a disservice. Though sometimes heartbreaking, they only serve the incredible endurance her and her family have.

“This is greatness. This is what it takes,” says her husband, Gabriel.

In the history of modern Track and Field, only ten athletes have won championships at youth, junior, and senior levels. Usain Bolt is one. Dame Valerie Adams is another. More Than Gold certainly is not a film that glorifies being an elite athlete. If anything it simply, and sincerely, shows the human cost such a career requires. For a sports-mad nation such as New Zealand, it should be required viewing.