Tag Archives: Isadora Williams

It’s About the Performance

I have received an astonishing response to my recent article about Isadora Williams, far more than to anything else I have written so far.  Most of the traffic has been, not surprisingly, from Brazil, but elsewhere as well.  It seems that Isadora ran across my article.  That’s an interesting experience for a writer, especially the first time it happens.  You write about a person, perhaps at length, but it’s someone you never met, an abstraction.  In a strange way, there was little difference for me between Isadora and, say, Sally Draper from Mad Men.  A character on a popular TV show.  And, in the US at least, that’s a fair description of the Olympics.

I suspect writers who write about real people regularly kind of need to keep that distance.  Certainly I’ve written about others.  I’ve done little to disguise my contempt for the people who write things like Hunger Games, but I doubt Suzanne Collins loses any sleep over it.  Like Ranier Wolfcastle, she sleeps just fine, on a big pile of money (look it up, kids).

I wasn’t anywhere near as critical of Isadora, painting her as more a hero than the characters in those books, but I didn’t exactly paint her performance, or career, in glowing terms either.  So how would she react?  She liked my article, linking it both to Facebook and Twitter, referring to it as “great,” and quoting a particularly meaningful passage, the one about how making it to the Olympics should mean you get to skate.  And her fans responded, bombarding my site with more hits in a single day than I’d gotten in the entire past year. And they liked it too.  Almost as much as they like her.  I’m not sure they even noticed her ranking.  They certainly don’t care.

And that’s when I realized that, while I think I had a good point in the article, it wasn’t really the right one.  I said I hoped Isadora would get a hero’s welcome.  She already has, ten times over.  Her countrymen love her, and are filled with pride in her accomplishment.  And, I think, so is she.  After the brief moment of disappointment in the box, I see no trace of despair.  Nothing but joy in what she got to do.  I’m sure there were private tears.  But they were ephemeral.

I realize now that the sadness in her face wasn’t from placing last.  The fact that she quoted that one particular passage makes clear that her sadness was from knowing she wouldn’t get to skate again.  She didn’t care where she placed as long as she could skate.  Okay, I’m sure she cared, but not as much as, well, the top finishers.

I’m referring to the high ranking divas who got caught up in the whole conspiracy controversy that was, mercifully, short-lived.  People insisted that Adelina Sotnikova’s gold medal finish was rigged by the Russian hosts, that Kim Yu-na deserved to win.  But a cursory examination of the objective standards showed that Sotnikova had the more proficient skate.  Yet people complained.  Ashley Wagner, of whom I have been a fan, diminished a bit in my eyes by weighing in and demanding a change to the way the judging is done.  To which I can only say, “Oh shut up.”  Take a cue from Michelle Kwan, who said of her second place finish in 1998, “I didn’t lose the gold, I won the silver.”  Where were all these sour-grapers when the Russian audience was booing Isadora’s surprisingly low score?  The commentators agreed she was better than the score reflected.  But in the end, it was the score.  Isadora accepted it with grace.  No one has raised a hue and cry.  Maybe because, perhaps, Isadora has reminded us that it’s not about the medal as much as it is about skating on Olympic ice.  And, ultimately, about skating for the joy of skating.

Just as people tell me I should write for the joy of writing.  But I think there’s a bit more.  I don’t think I’m wrong to want to be read.  I have no doubt skating is fun, but it’s more fun when you are putting on a performance.  That’s the question the skaters should ask themselves.  Did they put on a good performance?  Did the audience enjoy it?  If those are true, how much does the medal matter?  Look no further than the irrepressibly crowd-pleasing Jason Brown for proof that it’s about the audience, not the medal.

That’s why I’m not all that concerned about being a bestselling author.  That would be nice, sure, but what I really want is to get my book out there.  If that means giving up on traditional publishing and looking into self-publication, which I am on the verge of doing, so be it.  I want it read.  I want people to have a good time reading it.  It’s an alternative to all the dark, violent garbage burning up the shelves.  And movie screens.  I know there are people who want what I write, if I can just get past the barriers of agents who seem unable to look past the familiar and easily-marketable.  They say dark dystopias are running their course.  But what’s replacing them?  Not breezy, humorous science fiction like mine.  No, the latest big thing is realistic thrillers.  For teens, remember.  More darkness.  More violence and fear.

Really?  Does the world need more of that?  Don’t we have enough?  I’m sitting here reflecting on Olympic figure skating, and my new favorite skater.  But I can’t pretend the real Olympic postscript is not unfolding right in front of us.  Just look at Ukraine.  If you can bear to.  People being killed for standing up to tyranny.  But they aren’t being put in torture chambers or being boiled alive.  Their children aren’t being pitted against each other in combat.  That’s fiction, and overwrought fiction at that.  What’s happening in Ukraine, and Syria, and Central Africa, that’s all real.  Perhaps not as imaginative, not as cinematic.  But every bit as horrific.  Anybody tuning in to the coverage for entertainment?  No?  Because, maybe, just maybe, that sort of thing isn’t entertaining, and never should be.

In any case, thanks for visiting.  While you’re here, look around a bit.  There’s stuff on all sorts of subjects, from Star Trek to Sinatra, from Disneyland to nudism.  Next time I promise to write about something else.  In the meantime, want to be entertained, to feel good about something?  Watch some figure skating. 

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Triumph of the Spirit

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. isadora1 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.isadora2 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. isadora3She 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!isadora4

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