Friday, February 24, 2006

Silver is the color of valor

Well, the best part of the Winter Olympics - figure skating, of course - has officially concluded, and I'm still mulling over the fact that the two most impressive performances I saw began with skaters taking disastrous falls. In both cases, they went on to win the silver medal. And in both cases, I know I'm going to remember them long after I've forgotten the skaters that went on to win the gold.

Some wiseguys may snark that that's just proof that figure skating isn't a real sport. To those misguided souls, I have only this to say: Have you seen a figure skating championship recently? Have you seen this year's Olympics? Have you seen the kind of stunts these men and women are expected to pull off while gliding on a blade of medal no thicker than your finger?

And stunts is the operative word. More and more, over the past twenty years (or longer), figure skating has been turning into something of a stunt show; in ten more, it may be an X-treme sport-like event, up there with the half-pipe and the aerials and all those other events I can't remember. But this was perhaps the first Olympics where I actually found myself thinking, "They're doing too many jumps" and wondering when everyone had started doing more triples than doubles. And rubbing my eyes repeatedly throughout the various competitions as I realized that a pair was trying to land a throw quadruple jump, a woman was trying to land a quadruple jump, and that quads had become de rigueur for the men, rather than that thing that only Kurt Browning could land (and not at the Olympics). The new scoring system seems likely to reinforce that trend rather than curb it.

So it goes; after all, the motto isn't "faster, higher, stronger" for nothing. Still, I miss the days when skating was, arguably, less of a sport and closer to an art. I'm not that old, but the figure skating gold medalist I remember most vividly was Katarina Witt, in Sarajevo in 1984 and then again in Calgary in 1988. I don't recall if she even did a triple jump. Yet she skated with the kind of grace, flair, and personality that made her performances ones for the ages. (Granted, it also helped that she was stunningly beautiful.)

Which brings me back, somewhat elliptically, to 2006. Yes, Shizuko Arikawa deserved the gold, no question about it, and yes, Sasha Cohen fell on her ass. Word off the rink has always been that Sasha always chokes under pressure, she can't keep it together in the long program, she doesn't have what it takes. I thought so, too. What struck me, however, and what I found immeasurably moving about her long program, was how well she did keep it together after she knew she'd lost. Not only did she skate cleanly after flubbing her first two jumps, she skated with more beauty and expressiveness than anyone else that night. She has the best sense of music and line of just about any skater out there, and she didn't let go of it for a second, even after her dream of victory - and redemption - had crumbled to pieces. That took real courage, and it earned her the silver medal. The only thing I've seen to beat it at these games was that other surprise silver medal story - the Chinese pairs skater who crashed onto her knees after an insanely dangerous throw (that damned quadruple), but then went on to skate a near-flawless program - including more throws.

I admire a "clutch" athlete as much as anyone else - being clutch is what distinguishes the winners from the rest. But it takes a different kind of spirit to be able to pick yourself up after you've fallen, after all hope is gone, and deliver the goods when victory is no longer possible. It's the kind of spirit that you really only get to see in figure skating.


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