Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Badly Dressed Drama of Athletic Competition

The Winter Olympics is the one time every four years that figure skating spends most of its energy trying to convince the world it's a real sport -- as normal and red-blooded an athletic endeavor as, if not NASCAR, than at least the luge.

None of the other athletes in the Games listen. There are two kinds of sports at the Winter Olympics, the really, really dangerous ones and figure skating. When a figure skater falls, all that's hurt is their pride. So they get no respect from their frequently X-rayed Olympic peers.

The average sports fan doesn't believe the figure skaters either. For one thing, a "uniform" that looks like Cirque de Soleil meets Project Runway outtakes doesn't shriek of honest sweat by man nor woman, although in all honesty figure skating costumes are no more illogical an outfit for playing a game than the ones baseball players wear. There's also the little issue of the figure skating that's on TV when its NOT the Olympics.

A couple months ago, I watched in hypnotized horror/fascination a "Tribute to Smokey Robinson on Ice." And it had Smokey in it! He and a band were set up on one side of the rink doing his greatest hits while what passes for former greats of skating did interpretive routines based on each song. There's really no other human athletic activity where such a seamless transition to pathetic cheesy show biz is possible.

So the skaters overcompensate. They emphasize the rigors of their discipline -- although only TV sports/newscasters getting paid to do so seem to believe them. The hell of it is, the skaters are right. I know. I once spent three weeks doing nothing but watching figure skating and thinking about figure skating and I saw enough of it, good and bad, to realize these men and women are astonishing athletes full of both physical ability and all those supposed sporting virtues like work ethic, poise, etc.

I also saw figure skating when it was the biggest story in the world. It was the Lillehammer Games of 1994 a/k/a "Nancy vs Tonya." Kerrigan and Harding were the first of the newsless news tabloid frenzies -- the precursor to O.J., Bill and Monica, and of course, Tiger. The first night the two women skated head to head got higher ratings than many Super Bowls and you can look it up.

It was pretty cool in a perverse way covering the biggest story in the world -- especially because it was so meaningless as well. The only problem, and I freely admit it was mine, was this: figure skating itself put me into indifference, followed ennui, followed by coma. On TV, they don't show you the 25 out of 30 Olympic skaters who fall down a lot. I saw them fall. I saw them practice.

Sequined guys and gals, relax. You're athletes in a sport. Congratulations. You're also athletes in a dull sport.


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