From TLD, Whole Number 20 (April 13, 1998)


A Clutch of Nettles
By Virginia Dare


Sanctiloquence of Nagano


I am not a fan of sports, O Best Beloved, with the possible exceptions of baseball (which is less a sport than a philosophy), bullfighting, and tossing the caber. Ordinary contact sports, in my opinion, are less enjoyable contests than they are organized thuggery. But when winter comes, and the figure-skating circuit starts, my schedule is dictated by the weekend competition listings. That has been true for many years, so I don't want to hear any snide remarks about Tonya Harding's turning the ladies' freestyle into a contact sport.

When the Winter Olympics opened, I resolved to avoid, insofar as possible, everything except the figure skating — including the opening and closing ceremonies, which have become so bizarre in recent years as to be virtually mesmerizing. It took real willpower for someone like me, so mindlessly fascinated with Japanese animated film, to pass up the sumo wrestlers and the Snowlets. Especially the Snowlets, the latest in an increasingly weird progression of totemistic "mascots" of the Games. Snowlets were Japanese animation gone surreal, little cartoon owls with Jewish noses. I'm not sure what an Olympic mascot is supposed to accomplish, exactly, since most sports mascots seem to have definite emotional ties to one side or another in the competition, while these critters just represent the Games in general, or the essential spirit of the host country, or the fever dream of some public relations second-stringer who needs to get a life. Or something.

I took the pledge against the ceremonies and the mindless in-depth biographical maunderings about various competitors. I can't see why having a dying sister or a wealthy father under investigation for tax evasion, or even being the crown prince of a small exotic principality, makes an athlete more deserving of winning a medal. And having intended to be out of the room for everything but the skating coverage, I laid in an ample supply of chips, dips, salmon mousse, and Dove bars; commandeered the remote; and assumed the Couch Potato position.

It quickly became apparent that no Olympic event would be televised in its entirety, from start to finish. Every 20 minutes of compulsory ice dance was purchased at the cost of an hour of Alpine skiing and 35 minutes of bobsledding. After a while, I surrendered to the inevitable and decided to see what, if anything, I could learn from total immersion in winter sports. And here, in more or less random sequence, is what I found.


First of all, the entire Olympic premise is silly. While certain countries, notably the Oriental countries and what's left of the Communist bloc, may still regard Olympic competition as a matter of national honor, I saw no real evidence that national reputations rise or fall on medal counts. While a few athletes may get teary-eyed when their national anthems play and they stand on the winner's podium, few of them, surely, see their medals as representing their country's hope and glory. An entrée into sneaker-endorsement contracts, maybe; patriotic fervor, not bloody likely. Exceptions were the Japanese ski-jumper whose personal honor was reviled in the press when he failed to place well in the pre-Olympic competitions, and who became increasingly stressed and drawn as the competition wore on; and the Chinese figure skater whom Beijing wrenched away from her training sessions in California and virtually condemned to internal exile in China, making it clear that her 1998 Olympic competition would be her last.

Despite the mercenary nature of much of the competition, the publicists insist on making the Olympics into a post-Western religious observation, reading pieties into every athlete's personal history. The opening and closing ceremonies (all right, I did read about them even if I didn't watch them) are always drenched in a sort of folkloric, mythic fictionalization of the belief structure of the host country. Thus we had gnomes and kobolds in Norway, Native American glop in Atlanta (but no references whatever to Miss Scarlett), and sumo wrestlers in Japan. While there's no reason for a Christian overtone to the proceedings when they're held in non-Western countries, it does seem odd that a commemoration of a Greek athletic celebration is, at all costs, so doggedly multicultural. I wonder how the Mormon heritage (in a religious tradition that until recently denied leadership to Negroes) will be presented in the Salt Lake Winter Olympics in 2002, or whether the whole thing will be given over to a horde of Indians and seagulls.

Two bits of evidence of the mawkish piety with which the games are viewed come to mind. The first is the earnest clamor with which various world leaders implored Clinton to postpone bombing the bejaysus out of Iraq until the Olympics were concluded. Had Monica Lewinski's attorney failed to block her testimony before the grand jury, or had the Second Iraq War gone ahead, the Games might have been interrupted before their time; we can never guess on what a delicate balance the fate of the international athletic community depends.

Second, Olympians apparently have grandiose ideas of their effect on world peace. The competitors in Sarajevo in 1984, for example, seem to be unable to bear the thought that the numen of their temporary brotherhood on that occasion has not perdured to cast a spell of clemency over the Serbs and Croats, who want to eradicate each other today. The athletes' self-absorption would almost be touching if it weren't so disassociated.

A lot of sports are recreational versions of life-supporting activities — cross-country skiing, for example, is one way Scandinavians and Canadians get around in the winter. And the biathlon is the way they get around and fill up the pantry besides. But the real irony in the Olympians' soft-headed peacenikism is that some of their sports find their origin in — war. Let's not forget the deployment of Finnish ski troops against the Soviets during the Winter War, 1939-40. One somehow suspects, too, that during the Jerries' extended visit to Norway, 1940-45, some of the natives practiced their biathlon skills in a manner that was as traditional as it was inhospitable.

Anyway, biathlon is one of those sports you feel compelled to love because it's so outrageously politically incorrect. The Japanese, with their paranoia about firearms, really ripped themselves to bits over this one, counting the bullets that came into the country and recounting them at every conceivable interval during the competition. Although the physical ability to schlep a loaded rifle many miles on skis is part of the sport, the Japanese insisted that the rifles be handed to the competitors when they got to a target, and taken away and transported safely to the next target. It appears there were no records set in this year's contest, but had there been, the previous record-holders could have made a strong case for disputing the validity and comparability of anything that happened in the 1998 Olympics.


The whole question of records, in nearly any competition these days, is problematic. When one race can see a "new world record" set and reset three or four times, and when those records are measured to three decimal places, the viewer has to wonder how much of what's going on has any meaning at all. First-place standing is determined now by the brand of ski wax used, or how many coats of the stuff go on the skis, or whether or not wind-resistant strips are sewn onto a jacket. That's not individual athletic competition; it's technobabble.

About the only speed sport that really displayed a strong differentiator was the exception that proved the rule. It seems that about a year ago, the speed-skating world was taken by storm by a revolutionary skate design, in which the skate blade is attached by a slide mechanism to the heel of the skating boot. I've had the reason why this design is so superior explained to me at least three times, and I still haven't got a clue. Suffice it to say that these "clap skates" (named for the gawdawful noise they make during competition) shaved real time, not imaginary milliseconds, off previous racing records. And every speed skater in the world was using them in the Olympics. Except for the North Koreans, who were so isolated from the routine gossip and trade talk of the competitions that they never heard about the innovation. North Koreans used to be respectable competitors in speed skating, but this year, everybody ate their lunch. Watching countless people almost win because clocks can be calibrated more finely than ever before isn't much fun; watching somebody get good and honestly creamed by several seconds yields a certain satisfaction.

And then there was curling. Curling was declared an Olympic sport for the first time this year. A charming Celtic pastime, curling is the bastard offspring of pub darts and spring cleaning. A large stone with an iron handle welded onto its topside is slid across a stretch of ice while people on skates rub the area it's approaching with push brooms. The rules and scoring are as fully incomprehensible as that other British sport, cricket. There wasn't an awful lot of curling coverage, but the color commentary was a hoot.

Generation X, whoever and whatever the hell they are, had their moments of questionable glory also. Three of the new Olympic sports were brought into being to accommodate those pampered oafs. Free-style skiing boasted aerial skiing and the Moguls, and for pure loutishness, there was snowboarding. Aerial skiing is high-diving on short skis (with a helmet, for all the good it does). The point of the exercise seems to be to execute as many flips and twists as possible, while ending up on one's feet. Moguls borrows from the principle of pinball machines, with the competitors bouncing around bumps, banks, and barriers, becoming airborne for frequent short periods, and pivoting their hips and waving their legs a lot. In the Olympic event, fluidity and grace seemed to have relatively little to do with approved style. All the competitors seemed to sport earrings and tattoos. And the gold medalist in the snowboarding event flunked his marijuana test and had his medal briefly taken away. He later got it back, after asserting that he had inhaled but hadn't smoked. Somebody needs to shoot that kid on sight, before he becomes a contender for political office.

In another collaboration between hell and winter, ice hockey has somehow become the Winter Olympic sport. Before the Games ever started, we were bombarded, to the point of nausea, with the concept of the Dream Team. Teams, actually, because this sport, renowned for grace, beauty, and civility, fielded a women's team for the first time this year. As if high-fives in women's basketball weren't enough to turn our winters sour, now we get to watch them whomp each other into the boards with their hockey sticks. It was a new low as the century neared its close.

The real joy, however, was the men's hockey teams. Both of the North American teams incorporated professional players from the major-league teams and brought them together for Olympic competition. There was some underlying strategy of bringing new glamour to a sport that is failing at the box office by making its stars into Olympic heroes. That strategy didn't fare all that well. The U.S. and Canadian mixed crews of pros never did get the hang of playing together, never made it to the semifinals, and left Japan in disgrace after trashing several hotel rooms as a finale. Let's hear it for the gentlemanly amateur sportsman. Or something. Makes you proud to be an American, doesn't it?

Oh. About the figure skating. None of the skaters whose careers I've followed and whom I've applauded at countless competitions made it higher than third place. The one whose artistry and personality I love most dearly didn't even get that far. I comforted myself with the Dove bars and sought consolation in the salmon mousse, and when I emerged into the sunlight 10 days later, I wasn't even sure that the Olympics are a real event, as opposed to a made-for-TV construct. Sort of like Princess Di but with a happy ending. And Snowlets.

Virginia Dare writes from the Old Dominion, where a lot of folks remember that the Yankees who nowadays more or less run the Olympics have a long history of promoting peculiar sports, such as Barn Burning, Hog Stealing, Skedaddling, and Falling Off Your Horse.

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