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.