The Winter Olympics are wrapping up, although I still have a fair amount of it on the dvr to watch. I’ll miss it when it’s ended. I’ve noted elsewhere that I especially enjoy the figure skating events. This year, for the first time, thanks to the miracle of cable, I have been able to watch all the skaters, instead of being stuck with the US network coverage, where they only show the medalists and the other Americans and select Canadians. Getting to see all of it has had an unexpected impact on me.
People talk about how media packages the coverage to artificially create “drama.” There’s truth to that. Certainly the “rivalry” between the American and Canadian ice dancers was overhyped, but not to the point of diminishing their beautiful performances. But when you get to see everything, you discover there’s already plenty of drama. As the expression goes, you couldn’t write this stuff.
Just for starters, there was Evgeni Plushenko’s sudden withdrawal just seconds before he was to skate, which sent the host country reeling. Shortly after that, Jeremy Abbot had a devastating fall and crashed into the boards, lying there several agonizing seconds before pulling himself up and skating the rest of his program flawlessly. Gold medal contender Mao Asada had a disastrous short program, leaving her in 16th place and conclusively out of medal contention, yet she came back in the long program to skate one of the best routines of the night.
The eventual gold medalist, 17-year-old Adelina Sotnikova, was clearly driven by frustration at all the attention being paid to her 15-year-old teammate, Yulia Lipnitskaya, and burned up the ice with her skating to defeat the unbeatable Kim Yu-na, while Yulia, facing the pressure of the Olympics and having spent two weeks at the center of a media frenzy, fell in both her routines. The frustration and disappointment on her usually implacable face reminded us that she was, to a great extent, still just a child. (In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit now that at no time did I hear anyone refer to a “battle of the 15-year-olds,” as I had predicted. I’m glad I was wrong.)
All these stories are well known, well-covered. Indeed, the drama goes on, and many people are now apparently deeply engaged in the perennial Olympic event called “looking for conspiracy behind the medal results.”
But there were other stories as well. So I want to talk about Isadora Williams. You’ve probably never heard of her, and likely never will. She was one of the names you see briefly when they show how the stars are faring in the overall rankings. You don’t see them skate, and perhaps don’t think about them much. But they’re there, too. Isadora represented Brazil, although she actually lives in the United States and has dual citizenship. This is not uncommon. Lesser skaters who have little chance of making it to international competition when their home country has a strong, deep skating program, as in the US, will take advantage of dual citizenship to represent a country that otherwise may not even have an entrant in the World Championships or the Olympics. Thus we saw American skaters representing Slovakia, Estonia and Australia. Isadora was Brazil’s first ever Olympic skater.
She finished last.
She wasn’t bad. She didn’t fall. But she missed a number of key elements and her skating lacked energy. Only just turned 18, her career has not been especially distinguished, and she rarely finishes even in the top ten. But she competes as much as possible. As a result, she skated in the second group. The order of skating in the first round is based on competition experience, with the expectation that the more experienced skaters will be more accomplished and scores will continue to rise as we reach the favorites at the end. Isadora’s experience put her in the same group as Canada’s rising star, Kaetlyn Osmond, who finished 13th out of 30. Isadora wasn’t at that level, and certainly she had no expectation of winning a medal. But she also didn’t expect to finish in last place.
For me, the indelible moment came when she sat in the box where skaters wait to see their results, a place the commentators have nicknamed the “kiss and cry.” I fully understood that nickname at these games. As Isadora saw her scores, a good five points below the less experienced skaters who had gone in the first group, she scrunched up her face, as she put together what that meant. She looked away for a moment, her face showing her realization that there was no way her position would change. Even worse, her low placement meant that she wouldn’t even get to skate in the long program. This, by the way, is a terrible rule. Commentator and former skater Johnny Weir put it well by saying that if you make it to the Olympics, you should get to skate.
At this point people would say that there’s no shame in finishing last in the Olympics. That’s true, and I hope when Isadora goes to Brazil, she receives a hero’s welcome. Because she is one. After her score was given, her coach gave her a hug. She smiled again, a smile clearly fighting with her tears, and waved to acknowledge the audience, as skaters do at that point. And with that, we never saw or heard of her again. But it is an image that, for some reason, has stayed burned in my head. And my heart.
I can relate to her disappointment, anguish even. Skating in the Olympics is amazing, but it doesn’t overcome the pain of being last. She gave it her best, but it wasn’t enough. Of course, it’s not really that big of a deal, and life goes on. Her life holds many more opportunities. In other events the stakes have been higher, especially in the “extreme” events like freestyle and snowboard, where there have been an astonishing number of crashes and injuries. Part of the risk, I suppose. That’s what makes it exciting. It’s what people want to see, which is why the media makes sure to show you those. A few decades ago the idea of things like slopestyle being in something as serious as the Olympics would have been laughed at. Now it’s the norm. What’s next? How do we go to the next level? Would people want to watch, or even participate in, some sort of “ski-or-die” event? The biathletes carry rifles…
As though to answer my musings, in the middle of the coverage I was assaulted by a commercial for the dvd release of the latest movie in the offensive Hunger Games series, a quick-fire onslaught of images of mayhem, where even the brief shot of beauty was just the precursor of horrors to come (That mysterious mist? It kills people, horribly). There’s two more movies to come, based on a book so packed full of carnage, brutality, torture and killing (including the mass murder of small children — by the good guys!) that I can’t imagine how it will avoid an R rating. And there was also an ad for the upcoming movie of Divergent, another despair-fest, based on a book whose author was probably the same age as gold medalist Sotnikova when she began writing it.
That’s not insignificant. These sickening teen books feature girls the same age as many of the Olympic skaters. But they are not the same. They are fictional, the products of dark, ugly places in the authors’ psyches. They exist in ludicrously unbelievable worlds. They get predestined happy endings to make up for the violence they endure, and commit. But it’s empty.
Sure, these “heroines” might improbably lead the rebellion that topples some autocratic dystopia that’s too implausible to exist in reality. But they didn’t skate on Olympic ice. They didn’t finish last and then, holding back their heartbreak, smile and wave at the audience. That’s real drama. That’s the triumph of the human spirit. These are the stories we should be telling. You go, Isadora!