As one of only two single members of the now eight-strong staff, the plan is for me to join J. (and any others who decide to leap into the fray) to cover the Olympics on this Valentine’s Eve and Day (I mean, what else am I going to do but help our group?) and again on Wednesday and Thursday. These days were not picked at random: they are the days of my favorite of all Winter Olympic events, maybe Olympic events, period: men’s and women’s figure skating.
Why do I love figure skating so? I think it’s a combination of my great admiration for people who can do things I cannot (if you’ve ever seen me on the ice rink, you would know the truth of this statement…plus I got into it when I was still overweight, and skaters are among the most superbly built athletic figures of them all) and my own personal aesthetic loves (this goes beyond beautiful women and men who, like William Holden in The Bridge on the River Kwai, I can appreciate…I’ve come to value good clothing design, and I love classical music, film scores, and Broadway music, so seeing people interpret this in a way even more daring and risky than most modern dancing…this involves wearing blades on your feet like frigging Lotte Lenya in From Russia With Love…is one of the heights of art for me. Art meets sports. Of course this was something I would be very into.)
Being a democratic man, I do intend to comment on other Olympic matters beyond figure skating. Matt Lauer broadcasted tonight, taking over from Bob Costas, so I did not get to enjoy the sixth Olympic ring. The broadcasting team also includes Dan Jansen, who I’ve always remembered as the man who won gold after continuing to fall in one race after another. The women’s speed skating team completely redesigned their suits to remove a vent on the back. Jansen compared this to a tennis player restringing a racket, which made the English Lit student in me cry fowl: you do NOT feel the tennis racket on your body, it does not impact your personal comfort, the immediacy of using your body to feel your surroundings and act. (Why I expect perfect understanding of simile and metaphor in sports broadcasters, the profession responsible for “Boom Goes the Dynamite,” is beyond me.) And speaking of uniforms, the Dutch still have incredible suits…suits in which they gained their 11th and 12th medals in speed skating, while the Americans took 7th. As someone who saw some of the Netherlands winters up close, this writer suggests they have ample opportunity to practice.
DOWN TO THE BONE: Usually the “Inspiring Olympian Story” has easily connectable dots, but Noelle Pikus-Pace’s tale had me feeling the tears. A devoted wife and mother who retired after coming in 4th at Vancouver to have more children and be with her family, she suffered a miscarriage in 2012: a baby girl lost at eighteen weeks. The collapse of her face as she described how her baby’s heart stopped for no clear reason, combined with footage of her two children watching her train, made me an instant fan. Seeing her act like my own mother with total goofiness, as compared to her ultra-clenched, almost worried-looking British arch-rival Lizzy Yarnold, cemented this rooting. Their duel culminated in Yarnold leading by half a second with two runs to go, which will make tomorrow’s run look interesting.
Let me add that Skeleton is a really terrifying sport. To be flat on your belly with your eyes seeing nothing but a frigid path ahead, caroming at 78 miles per hour, is for me akin to 100 times my childhood fear of roller coasters. (That and when you’re on your belly, you should not be moving 78 miles per hour.)
The US team also features Katie Uhlaender, whose picture makes her look like a super heroine.
And Sarah Reid of Canada has the best of helmets:
THIS STYLE AIN’T SO FREE FOR ME: Watching the freestyle skiing competition reminds me of my first experience on the slopes around this time last year: one successful run down a hill, all the others ending in me falling flat on my butt. So seeing Joss Christensen do his flying leaps is all the more incomprehensible to my sensibilities, especially the “unnatural triple,” spinning against your natural turning angle while going into the trick. The result was the USA taking all three medals, Christensen with the gold. What impressed me most was that Christensen took his second run, unnecessary as he’d secure the win, and did so in a gracious performance. He dedicated the gold medal to his father J. D., who died of heart disease in August.
AND SO IT BEGINS
Yevgeny Plushenko, 31, has the looks of one of Truffaut’s haphazard but passionate leading men or Balzac’s off-kilter heroes. But he is Russian, flamboyant, pulsing with excitement in footage, and dead serious…talks about the weight of responsibility to win before his hometown crowd after years of injuries, with a scarred back and an artificial disk in his spine, a married father of two in a young man’s sport. When asked what he would say to those who doubt him, he replies “Thank you very much.” He led Russia to the gold in Team Figure Skating, the only skater to perform both short and long…but the effort took its toll, and he hurt himself attempting a torque-heavy triple axel in warm-ups and withdrew from the competition. So often I see triumph or disappointment after wins and losses, but so rarely do I see the unhappiness and sorrow of not even being able to start, so rarely do I hear the roar of a standing ovation from a beloved crowd accompanied by the muted tones of the commentators, who very aptly say that his body gave all it could but too many years and surgeries wore it out.
Jeremy Abbott, whose warmup was apparently terrific, skating to “Lilies of the Valley” by Jun Miyake (Pina), and Abbott immediately falls and crashes during his first jump, wrenching his back in pain, then immediately regroups into a rapid-fire succession of triple lutz-triple toe-spin, then a remarkable triple axel. To come back from something that wrenching is excellent, and he immediately came out into the lead.
I picked the title of tonight’s post as a tribute to one of my favorite video games ever, but with all this pain, it feels like it really was the carnival of the damned.
As we return to the Iceberg Skating Palace (A co-production of James Cameron and Queen Elsa of Arendelle?) Jason Brown of Highland Park, wearing Prince’s symbol on his back and with a ponytail with its own twitter feed, adjusts his necklace, breathes in deeply, and now skates to Prince: “The Question of U,” and from the beginning he moves with the rough flow of a rock and roll star…something sexual and glorious in his poses…a skater playing to the crowd, ending with a point and grin. Usually when I think of skating I think of grace, but this was refreshingly different. “Smooth,” NBC calls it, and smooth it is. It also garners an 86, rocketing him into first place.
When the program returns, I get treated to one of the most remarkable displays I’ve ever seen, a man who outdoes Jason Brown: Yuzuru Hanyu, 19, of Japan, wearing simple black bats and a sky blue top, who starts with a quadruple, ends with a leap during the final spin, a one-foot triple axel, and making everything look so effortless. The result is 101.45, the highest short program score ever. And it was all done to the music of GARY MOORE. Irish Blues-rock guitar legend GARY MOORE…”Parisienne Walkways.” I don’t think he ever imagined a Japanese teenager would produce a three-minute blockbuster performance set to its tones, a natural progression where every leap and glide was connected.
Spain’s Javier Fernandez, who like Hanyu is coached by ex-Olympian Brian Orser, had the bad luck of following such a performance, in a silent movie comedian’s outfit, with an immediate fall to the strains of “Satan Takes a Holiday” by Larry Clinton. The bright colors and energetic skating are a delight to see, but his leaps are poorly executed. He somehow passes Brown.
Patrick Chan, 19 like Hanyu, comes out also attempting to break the 100-point barrier. Skating to Rachmaninoff’s “Elegie in E-Flat Minor,” the Canadian has the poise of a ballet dancer and starts with some perfectly executed jumps, until his body gets a bit out of sync and he flubs the triple axel, but recovers to perform at a high level, though definitely not as high as Hanyu’s, to the end.
Now let me make two general observations in regard to figure skating coverage.
1. The triple axel seems to be the biggest deal.
2. I could swear that the exact same camera tracking and edits are used in every performance! Except for different outfits and types of positions, spins, and jumps, the exact same moves of the lens follow everyone, and somehow, considering the individual nature of each program, this doesn’t seem right.
Chan finishes with a still outstanding 97.52, second to Hanyu. He is followed by another veteran, Daisuke Takahashi, who finished 5th at Japanese nationals but was named to the team at age 27, a sign of reverence and love from his hometown fans. His music, “Sonatina for Violin,” was attributed to a famous deaf Japanese composer but it turned out the composer paid someone else to write it. Takahashi is as expressive as his younger teammate but more reserved, less leaping, his quadruple having too flat a landing. His jumps are great but he truly shines in the smaller moments, using his body to strike one Renaissance art pose after another. The work finishes with him in 4th, which is weird because he was better then Fernandez in my opinion. But I’m no judge.