I admittedly have not been able to follow the 2010 Winter Olympics as closely as I would like (all I want for Christmas is basic cable in my dorm room). What I have been able to glean from the very handy Olympics section of nytimes.com, however, suggests that these Games have brought new meaning to the adage that seems particularly appropriate for the Olympics: “Expect the unexpected.” We Americans have been eating it up for the last two weeks, with Tuesday’s New York Times reporting that the Vancouver Olympics are projected to be the most-watched Winter Olympics since 1994.
What do I mean, precisely? Well, think about how these Games started: someone died on the luge course and a part of the Opening Ceremony technology malfunctioned. This year, our obsession with failure and sorrow has fueled our interest just as much as our tendency toward fleeting patriotism and athlete favoritism. The underdog narrative produced exuberant reactions to Team USA’s victory over Canada in hockey, but the Olympic trope of the non-favorite pulling out a win has not been unfailingly potent. Take, for example, Evan Lysacek’s victory over the heavily favored Russian Evgeni Plushenko in men’s figure skating. This moment of triumph for the U.S. of A in the literal Cold War (ice skating…get it?) was overshadowed by Johnny Weir’s sexy faces and expressive hands. I don’t normally follow men’s figure skating, so I was surprised to learn from the final results that J. Weir wasn’t actually a favorite or even a contender. Since when does the guy who gets sixth get more attention than the winner? In the age of Perez Hilton, I suppose.
Another battle of back story versus artistry raged in the women’s figure skating competition, where Canadian Joannie Rochette skated a third-place short program just two days after her mother’s sudden death. Linda Holmes of the NPR Culture blog discussed how NBC’s coverage of her performance straddles the line between empathy and voyeurism, and correctly condemns the network for its morally iffy choice to manipulate Rochette and the audience in that way. My question is: if every athlete’s performance is framed by a narrative of violins for sadness and horns for triumph over adversity, then can we ever appreciate the performance purely for its artistry? Or, are we always waiting to see if the Joannie Rochettes of the world can conquer grief and a double axel, or buckle under the pressure of history and the media’s exploitation of it?
The Winter Olympics, more than the Summer Games, are somewhat compromised by media packaging. While the Summer Olympics, in my opinion, showcase brute strength and athletic prowess significantly more than artistry, the ratio is more balanced in the winter. Figure skating, ice dancing, snowboarding and freestyle skiing are about the formation of a routine and a narrative therein (summer equivalents that come to mind are gymnastics and diving). The undeniable artistry of these athletic forms attracts an audience, but what rivets them is the possibility of failure.
When watching Kim Yu-Na, the international virtuoso of figure skating from Korea, I realized that every figure skating performance has the same pattern–opening section with the jumps, the middle section with the spins and the glides, the penultimate section with the weird perky dancing and the final pose. Though the beauty of her lines pulls at my heartstrings, I’m particularly invested not because I’ve never seen someone extend her leg up to her face while spinning on the ice, but because I want to know if she’ll succeed on the double toe loop I know she’s going to attempt.
NBC capitalizes on this by making us care about the person, not the artist. This model transforms the art of the event into the art of suspense and minimizes the difference between the creative events and purely athletic ones. The skiing narrative of these Games, for example, has been significantly occupied with the instances in which Lindsey Vonn or Bode Miller crash off the course. It is, to a significant degree, the “car crash you can’t look away from” effect, but I do think that this is the modus operandi for the Winter Games: danger.
Maybe my memory of Torino is particularly weak (it was Torino, after all), but the unending stream of updates about finagling with the luge course, rescheduling ski races and pursuing tragedy on the ice brings an interesting dimension to winter in Vancouver. Who would have thought that I would miss Beijing?