The XXIV Winter Games start today, or rather, by now, they have already started. In the midst of a pandemic, with political squabbles overshadowing the host and their rivals, it might be called the Subdued Olympics. But this is an international competition invented by the subdued, invented by the Swedes and Norwegians. After all, Aloof is Swedish for “downhill.” It was only later co-opted by the IOC, the Alpine chalets, the X Games, and every stir-crazy athlete who suggested a new game just to get outside when it was five degrees. (I was kidding. Aloof is Dutch for windward, but I don’t think Hans Brinker was all that chatty either.)
So, as we prepare to cuddle up next to our screens and our apps, to see how the stones are pebbling and the skis are schussing, to watch the Salchows and the Double McTwist 1260s, it’s the perfect time to pause and consider how the games got here.
Victor vs the IOC
The engine behind the idea of a winter games was Victor Balck, a Swedish sports enthusiast who was an original member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Balck also spearheaded the original International Skating Union (ISU) and brought the summer Olympics to Stockholm in 1912. But his biggest legacy is probably the first rival to the Olympics, the Nordic Games of 1901. At the time, the summer event was still finding its way, having had one successful turn in Athens (1896) and an unsuccessful staging in Paris (1900).
The Olympics start in nine days, but this is not–strictly speaking–a post about the Olympics. This is a reflection prompted by seeing the movie, I Tonya, which cleverly insinuated itself into movie screens early enough to put itself in Oscar contention for 2017 but late enough to be seen right before the start of the Pyeongchang Games. The mockumentary-style film is worth seeing as a drama even if you’re not a skate fan. It also reveals the quirks in skate judging that result in odd results, perhaps to Harding, but to so many more that Olympic skate results are practically a conveyor belt of unfair outcomes.
Bashing Someone’s Hopes
Margot Robbie is terrific as Tonya Harding*, the powerful but feisty skater who won the U.S. Nationals but wanted more. Her manipulative and abusive husband launched a plot to scare her competition and his cretinous cohorts improvised with a crowbar to Nancy Kerrigan’s knee. Harding became a national joke and an international disgrace. I thought the film clearly showed Harding’s culpability in covering up the plot after the fact, lying to the FBI, and suing to keep her Olympic spot.
But afterward I heard some say that they thought the movie showed Harding was robbed, that she should have won a medal, shouldn’t have been pilloried by the press, and deserved more. Harding’s interview with the New York Times this month suggests she still thinks she was mistreated. The film–assuming its accuracy–does make one thing clear: when you are abused by your loved ones, as Harding was by her mother and husband, you come to feel that the world is against you and that you bear no responsibility for whatever happens. Continue reading “Figure Skating’s Trail of Broken Dreams”