IT ISN’T ONLY ELVIS THEY SAY STUPID STUFF ABOUT (Sports Division…Occasional Sports Moment #16)

In case you want to prep yourself for this small rant, the article it refers to  (by Robert Samuels of the Washington Post) is here

Now to the confessional bit: I had no particular rooting interest in the Women’s Figure Skating competition at the Sochi Olympics this week. Busy last couple of weeks so I missed everything but the women’s long program. Usually try to catch a bit more but it just wasn’t feasible this time around.

As a rule, I have the common habit of not following figure skating any place outside of the Olympics or (maybe) the Olympic trials. I can appreciate the skill and artistry required–and, on average, its the greatest Olympic drama (which means the greatest sports drama) there is–but I’m certainly no expert.

I do follow a lot of other sports, though, and I’m always fascinated by the psychology of “judged” sports–by the sense that I’m being allowed every so often (in skating, gymnastics, diving) to look in on a very insular world with very peculiar, roiling passions.

Not having any idea of what the real technical issues are–let alone being qualified to judge them–I have to fall back on knowing what I like…and on guessing how the human aspects will play themselves out if several closely matched competitors all perform well.

Which is another way of saying I–like Samuels (who is a self-avowed amateur skating enthusiast but does not cover the sport for a living)–expected Kim Yu-na to win following her clean final skate based on one set of usually reliable, though purely psychological criteria. She was the overwhelming favorite and she had done well–certainly had made no serious errors and had been calm, composed and regal.

That’s usually enough.

Except in this instance, another set of usually reliable criteria (and one which I happen to favor and which thereby suddenly gave me a rooting interest) was in play.

The Russian teenager in question, Adelina Sotnikova, had clearly taken bold risks and, more importantly, had radiated joy.

In a judged sport that usually translates into victory, as well…all other things being equal.

Watching the event on replay (but without knowing who had won) and waiting for Kim’s final score to come up, I had what turned out to be a prescient feeling which translated itself thusly:

I watched Kim’s face in repeated close-ups and I could practically see a thought balloon above her head, which read:

“I didn’t skate well enough to beat her.”

And I watched Sotnikova’s face in repeated close-ups and I could practically see a thought balloon above her head, which read:

“She didn’t skate well enough to beat me.”

Later on, I kind of analysed it along the lines of risk/reward, daring versus caution, a triumph of strategy over tactics (admittedly one had to read between the lines, but it was pretty clear from post-competition commentary that Kim had basically built minimal risk into her own program because she assumed all those who did not would fall–as all but Sotnikova, who has evidently fallen in every other major world competition she’s ever competed in, in fact did).

But in the moment all I really had to go on–being as I said, no expert–was those reactions and those competing psychologies based on long observation of sports in the world (i.e., the athletes usually know best and are usually not very good at hiding what they know).

Even then, I thought there was a fifty-fifty chance Kim would win because, well, I’m a pessimist.

So, having nothing for or against either skater, but preferring always to see boldness rewarded, I was pleasantly surprised by Sotnikova’s win.

But I wasn’t really surprised when a fuss was kicked up almost immediately.

Or when Washington Post “reporters”–in this instance, as so often, recording opinion as fact–and other members of the crit-illuminati (journalists’ division) reported it as a “controversy.”

Or when they then reported it as no controversy at all, but simply a travesty, since “controversy” would imply a diversity of reasonable opinion and the only opinions they reported–or held reasonable–were those that mirrored their own.

Certainly from reading Samuels’ article linked above (and his was only one of many that deployed the same tactics) one would never guess that the three NBC commentators who happened to be former Olympians themselves (Johnny Weir, Tara Lipinski, Scott Hamilton, the latter two gold medalists)–that is, the people who, by virtue of their life experience, training and presence in the venue, were best qualified to make the call for American audiences–were unanimous in saying they believed Sotnikova should have won.

And one would certainly never guess that two of the three (Weir and Lipinski) said precisely what a casual fan like myself had presumed without knowing a thing about skating: that Kim had played it safe, which is its own kind of gamble.

Out of all the various quotes I read, therefore, I liked Lipinksi’s (who won a controversial decision in her own Olympics with some of the same elements in play) reaction best, even if it was only mostly true: “You cannot skate safe in the Olympics.”

Actually you can.

You just have to hope everybody who doesn’t falls down.

(NOTE: Hilariously, if you follow Samuels’ first link, you’ll find a much more balanced article by Sally Jenkins, which does not at all make the point he implies it does. But then, Jenkins is rather well known for being an actual journalist. That does tend to confuse people who live in the crit-illuminati bubble.)

(NOTE: Extra booby prize to The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson, who called Russia’s fifteen-year-old phenom Yulia Lipnitskaya an “apprentice assassin” and referred to American Ashley Wagner’s smile as a “Dick Cheney-like crooked grin,” which I’m guessing is a much greater insult at The New Yorker than merely comparing a fifteen-year-old who skates to the theme from Schindler’s List to an assassin.)

As always, I ask you to remember that those who provide this sort of commentary on sports and pop culture are from the same gene-pool as those who “report” on politics and news.

And, as always, I leave you with my usual cheery thought…Goodbye us.

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (In Which I Tackle the Age-Old Question Which I Just Now Thought of: Can We Thank Two Egg For the Decline of Western Civilization?)

Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Two Egg is a small town in the Florida Panhandle. At least I think it’s still there. If it is, then it’s probably still about thirty miles from where I spent my high school and ju-co years–and still about eighty miles from where I live now.

When I moved to the Panhandle in 1974, it took about five minutes to have the significance of Two Egg transmuted by cultural osmosis.

Faye Dunaway was from there.

As far as I could ever tell, that and the fact that Dionne Warwick’s grandmother lived in Cottondale were not things anyone–newcomer or native–were ever specifically told. You hit the county line (or the hospital delivery room) and within no more than a handful of heartbeats you acquired the knowledge.

Neither fact was as much a point of pride as a source of amazement.

Sort of like: “If you can make it from here, you can make it from anywhere!”

Faye Dunaway “made” it in 1967 when she starred in–and discombobulated–a relatively unpretentious (though highly effective and well made) art film called Bonnie and Clyde.

I hadn’t realized just how thoroughly she discombobulated it until this week when I saw the film for a third time (the first having been somewhere near the dawn of the video age in the eighties and the second having been about ten years ago), and then watched the “making of” dvd extras (where Dunaway specifically states that she drew on her North Florida roots for her interpretation of Bonnie Parker) for the first time.

I suppose I always “recognized” her Bonnie on some level.

She’s a fairly common southern variation on a fairly common type. I haven’t spent any real quality time in Texas, where the real-life Bonnie Parker was from. But every place I have spent quality time–Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina–I’ve known versions of her.

And Dunaway nailed her. Even down to the fake southern accent real southerners learn from Hollywood.

Normally, that would have meant nothing more (or less) than a great performance in a Hollywood movie. But Bonnie and Clyde resonated far beyond any of that–and, to judge by fairly recent reactions here and, in a supreme example of maroon logic, here, it still does.

Since I’m sticking to my own “impressions” I won’t delve into the culture wars that developed around the film in its own time. Fun stuff, but beyond the scope of this post (though it was interesting to discover that Pauline Kael, in her famous New Yorker review, which just about everyone agrees turned the movie’s critical and commercial fortunes around when it seemed headed for the oblivion of cult-hood, was as convinced of the real and irreversible cultural damage done by 1964’s Dr. Strangelove, as conservative blue-noses were of the damage done by Bonnie and Clyde).

Kael didn’t think much of Dunaway’s performance. I can’t say I blame her.

Wherever you happen to find her, that girl is always disruptive. I think what Dunaway got about her was that for her “character”–unlike everyone else being portrayed in the movie–the only real perdition is boredom. And that she always thinks (or at least hopes) that the next bank she robs or the next man her Clyde shoots in the face or the next visit to the old home place, will be her ticket out.

She got that Bonnie Parker wasn’t sorry so many people ended up dead in her wake–that her only real regret was that the path she took didn’t get her where she thought she wanted to go. I suspect Dunaway–unlike everyone else in the highly skilled cast–also got that the person she was playing would have cared less for what big city intellectuals thought of her.

BONNIEPARKRE

Just so long as they were paying attention.

And–like her real life counterpart and like almost no one else in the history of the movies (including, for the rest of her career, Faye Dunaway)–she radiated sex (what Americans are really afraid of though, of course, like most blue-noses, we just love porn) the while.

FAYEDUNAWAY

Whatever was disorienting about the movie at the height of the Viet Nam disaster–whatever was read or mis-read into the film’s portrayal of events that had already been blurred by mythology–Dunaway’s performance, straight out of Two Egg, is the only element that hasn’t long since been swallowed up by the ever-receding, porn-and-gore edges which have rendered Bonnie and Clyde‘s once shocking violence tame and its identification with murderous psychopaths routine.

What was really shocking about Bonnie and Clyde then and now is that it scraped just far enough below the surface to reveal that the essential glory of democracy is also its abiding horror.

Practically anybody is liable to get the idea they are worth something….if only they can grab a headline.