People who know me at all well also know that I have had, for the last few years, a completely inexplicable obsession with figure skating. I started following, with my mother, the season leading up to the 2010 Olympics, and somehow or other both of us got hooked. As a child, I was morbidly uninterested in watching or participating in girlish activities (ballet, dance in general, dressing up or playing with Barbies), or anything physical–figure skating of course being the ultimate convergence of these two categories. I started following figure skating after a cerebral and stationary childhood and adolescence, at a point when I was at perhaps the most cerebral phase in my life: working on a novel, gearing up for grad school, and thinking more about literary theory than I did about anything else.
So why figure skating? I still don’t know, though I do have my theories: in it I found the most compelling physical metaphor I have yet to locate for the mental rigor that I spend most of my time cultivating–in sheer difficulty, in energy and athleticism required, and finally in elegance. Skating is not just a solo sport but also a remarkably solitary one: no matter how many coaches and handlers and choreographers and sponsors and specialists and therapists have helped you in the months and years leading up to your performance, your ability to succeed in competition is determined almost entirely but what you are able to do in six and a half minutes of total ice time. You are responsible for both your faults and your victories. You are responsible for the outcome of your goals.
And, though I used to think it was unfair that skaters failed or succeeded based on a few performances–at Nationals, at Worlds, at the Olympics–now I think this aspect of the sport is one of the things that makes it so magnificent: whether or not you become a legend is not based on whether you have the capacity to skate well, is not based on whether or not you were able to skate a perfect program once or ten times or a thousand times when no one was watching you and the pressure was off. It is based on whether you are able to skate to the center of a patch of ice 200 feet long by 85 feet wide, in front of thousands of people in the stands and millions if not billions of viewers at home, knowing that what you are able to do in the next two hundred and forty seconds will decide the course of the rest of your life, and bring yourself to a place where you are able to turn fear into concentration and desire into will. It’s not a contest of ability, but a contest of performance, of power, of control. And it doesn’t get much better than that.
Furthermore, like every sport, it is a sport of narratives–and perhaps never moreso than at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. I’ll confess that it was my obsession with Tonyagate that brought me to these particular Games, but Tonyagate isn’t the only interesting thing about them by a long shot. I spent the weekend reading Christine Brennan’s The Inside Edge, a chronicle of her time following skaters on the 1995-1996 season, and she discusses at length the controversy surrounding Oksana Baiul’s Olympic victory over Nancy Kerrigan, who walked away with a silver medal after losing to Oksana by a tenth of a point. (China’s Chen Lu rounded out the podium, taking home a bronze.) People did and do debate this victory, and though, based on their skating alone, either woman could just as easily have won–both of their programs were, technically, almost unimpeachable–the clear winner, in terms of narrative alone, was Oksana Baiul. And when what happens on the ice is all but identical from skater to skater, the performer with the better story will probably always win.
For a moment, let’s go back to Tonyagate. It’s not the facts–specifically the level of involvement Tonya had in the plot against Nancy, which we may never really know–that matter here, so much as a public’s imagination of the crime, and on that level Tonya may as well have bashed Nancy on the leg herself. The collective unconscious also managed to transform a lead pipe into a crowbar and Nancy’s bruised thigh into a broken kneecap; the upshot is that Nancy, going into the Olympics was a fragile, victimized good girl who had to prove that her brush with violence had left her talent untouched; in essence, she was an underdog we were ready to root for. Her skating had always been artistically advanced, but she had struggled in previous competitions with consistency, athleticism, and grace under pressure; in her Olympic performances, she finally summoned the strength to skate clean, and so see through her fear to victory.
The only problem was Oksana Baiul–the sixteen-year-old Ukrainian orphan who had learned to skate in a rink so impoverished the students had cleared off the ice with their hands. Where Nancy was a lithe, graceful ice queen, her face stoic, her movements deliberate to the last millimeter, Oksana was a hatchling, a peanut, a brave little girl who appeared to lose herself in her performances, no matter how many people were watching her. You could see joy on her face when she completed a jump; you could see how happy she was just to be skating. Now, this idea of Oksana being more genuine was itself performance–she was a gifted performer who courted the judges and smiled at the cameras, and had a presence Nancy was simply without–but she was, for this reason, a more attractive gold medalist. Her story was better than Nancy’s, her life sadder, her victimhood more comprehensive, and her willingness to share her triumph with the audience more infectious. Even her errors suggested obstacles overcome: when, in the long program, she popped a triple lutz in the opening thirty seconds, she changed her program at the last minute to accomodate another one, which she successfully landed on tired legs (recalling Midori Ito’s last-minute triple axel in Albertville in 1992, which earned her a silver medal after a disastrous short program). After leaving the ice, Baiul burst into tears and collapsed into her coach’s arms; Nancy remained impassive as her marks were read, barely cracking a smile when she saw she had come in first. Tonya made us love Nancy, but she didn’t make us love her enough.