Perfection, Drive, Dedication & Geopolitics: Why My Eyes Are On Vancouver
If you’re one of the 450+ people that follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed that I have a fairly heavy interest in the Winter Olympics.
Last week, I gave fair warning to my followers that I’d be tweeting quite a bit about them. “No biggie,” most of them (you?) thought. “I put up with tweets about other stuff I don’t care about, such as the UFC. Surely I can weather this storm.”
If my followers aren’t second-guessing it after last night’s history-making Pairs Figure Skating free-skate, they sure are more loyal and interested in what I have to say than I thought.
I’ve been obsessive about the Olympics since I was a small child. My father was particularly enthusiastic about the Winter games, and I’ve retained that enthusiasm well into adulthood. I’ve also maintained a steady interest in figure skating in spite of my steadfast heterosexuality.
Gay jokes aside, it’s a sport that deserves attention, and not just for the ridiculous outfits employed during the short program. It is a sport that combines great physicality, grace, and agility. And unlike other sports that have heats and trial runs, it is one that allows very little room for error. A fall or a slip, though more common in these games due to a change in the scoring system that encourages a greater degree of difficulty in routines, still means the difference between glory and destitution.
And, of course, there’s Shen and Zhao. The married couple that won the hearts of the world; captivating for both their personal story and also their relevance to the changing landscape of the world around them.
The two met when Shen was thirteen and Zhao was eighteen. They eventually married and spent the next eighteen years devoting their lives to the dream of Olympic gold. To fully grasp the depth of their dedication, one must remember that the sport of figure skating was not one in which the Chinese had met with any success. They’ve never won a medal in Men’s, only medaled twice in Women’s (a bronze courtesy Chen Lu in ’94 & ’98), and did not medal in Pairs until the 2002 games in Salt Lake City.
So for much of their career, they chased a dream that didn’t have the unwavering support of their country. Even to the most optimistic observers, the idea of getting onto the podium was considered a long-shot. In fact, some would say it was laughable.
It’s a contention their coach, Yao Bin, was all too familiar with.
In 1980, Yao competed in the World Championships with partner Luan Bo. Although the country had opened its doors to the West in the previous decade, China was still very much a closed society, to the extent that Yao and Luan were taught the sport through photographs and videos. With nobody to teach them the finer points or basic skills of skating around the ice, let alone advanced maneuvers and spins, the pair came in dead last and were literally laughed at throughout their routine.
Thirty years later, nobody’s laughing. China has become a powerhouse in Pairs, and one can only imagine where they’ll be in Mens and Womens Singles in the next decade.
In addition to giving China its first Gold Medal in figure skating, the performance of another pair coached by Yao – Pang Qing & Tong Jian – knocked the only viable Russian contenders off the podium. It marked the first time in 46 years that the Russians did not go home with gold, and the first time in 50 it did not medal at all.
It holds significance not only for the changing landscape of the sport, but for the respective roles of both countries in the worlds global political and economic climate as well. Russia still wields tremendous influence in global matters, but it is dwarfed by the power the former Soviet Union once held. It has taken twenty years, but we have finally seen the era of Russian dominance in the Olympics catch up with its decline and influence in the world at large. Like in the games, the country makes plays to be relevant, but for all its bark seems to be on the outside looking in as it watches China ascend to a far greater status on the world stage than it ever had before; opening itself to the world and establishing itself as an economic powerhouse.
It’s hard to say that China’s time as a closed society is at an end. Restrictions on free speech, human rights violations, and the resources the government puts behind preventing foreign influence speaks to a legacy of xenophobia and totalitarianism. At the same time, the Chinese government has allowed students and athletes to travel the world, and they’ve brought the world back with them.
Putting the exclamation point on the decline of Russian dominance to nigh irrelevance is the fact that the 4th place pairing included Yuko Kavaguti, a Japanese expatriate who revoked her citizenship in her native Japan and allowed a subsequent change in her name (owing to the Russian alphabet; it was formerly “Kawaguchi”). Her search for a worthy partner to help her achieve her dream brought her to the land that had owned the sport for so long. Tonight, she is a woman without a country and without a gold medal, a sad end to a fascinating and tumultuous journey.
And that’s just one event.The personal, the political, and the shape of the global landscape all come together for these games. It’s a shame that NBC’s poor coverage cheapens it with lame attempts at sentimental human interest stories when the far more fascinating ones are those that run parallel to history.
Those are just some of the many reasons I’ll be watching, and I’m sure I’ll be sharing more of them with you as the days progress. The games are young, and I’ll be watching, writing, feeling, and tweeting until the flame is extinguished. Hopefully, you’ll join me.