The Winter Olympics continue, and here at SteynOnline we're taking all my two-man luge gags from decades past out of mothballs. A few weeks ago, we revived my curling cracks and shedding-brush shtick. Today's piece is anthologized in The Face Of The Tiger (personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available at the SteynOnline bookstore, he pleads with an eye to the eternally forthcoming Mann vs Steyn trial - oh, and for Mark Steyn Club members, don't forget to enter your promo code at checkout to enjoy special member pricing). It was originally published exactly sixteen years ago today:
A week or so before the Salt Lake games, the International Olympic Committee, as is traditional, issued an earnest plea that politics not be allowed to taint the Olympic ideals and sully what's meant to be a grand "festival of youth" that transcends all boundaries. Meanwhile, down the road, the international skating mafia were, as is also traditional, getting a jump on their hectic schedule by pre-deciding the results of the ice-dancing competition - a month in advance. Allegedly.
Actually, I don't know why I bothered tossing in the "allegedly". According to the head man at the International Skating Union, even if a judge leans on another judge to fix the vote, that's not necessarily against the rules. As I understand it from old skating hands, everyone knows that ice dancing's been corrupt for years. What happened this time was that the quid pro quo for the routine ice-dancing fix required them also to fix the figure skating, and unfortunately the results proved too self-evidently ridiculous for anyone not an internationally accredited Olympic expert.
On Monday night, I had the TV on in the background while I was pottering about, when suddenly my ear caught the familiar strains of the theme from Love Story, one of those tunes you never hear any more except at skating competitions. To be honest, I prefer Francis Lai's gloopy theme with its "Where do I begin?" lyric by Carl Sigman (of "Marshmallow World" fame), and the magnificently deranged Shirley Bassey recording has more drama going on in it than Jamie Salé and David Pelletier's icy re-enactment of the entire plot will ever have. To anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with ballet and show dance, the most exacting part of a serious discussion of ice routines is trying to keep a straight face. I couldn't give a hoot for your double axels, triple lutzes or even the triple triple, whatever that is, but like most guys I always enjoy the bit where the fellow propels the gal toward the camera backwards on one leg while the wind blows her cute little skirt up her back.
Anyway, Jamie did a perfect triple gusset, to use the technical term, and happily, since Monday's outrage, NBC, south of the border, and the CBC, to the north, have been replaying the moment round the clock. Before Salé and Pelletier, the Russian couple, Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze, had come out and crashed around for a couple of minutes to the Meditation from Thaïs, the perfect musical accompaniment for a sport that, as noted above, is often a meditation of thighs. Unfortunately, the guy stumbled on a double axel at the front end of a combination and, as experts agree, the one place you don't want to stumble on a double axel is at the front end of your combinations.
Nevertheless, despite this error and to the astonishment of the crowd, the judges decided that these clumsy Russkies were the winners. Well, not all the judges: just the eastern bloc plus France. Despite the IOC's public deploring of politics, in figure skating the Cold War hasn't ended and the French are still non-participating members of Nato.
Something strange happened as the week wore on. Before the controversy, Jamie and David's routine had been fine as far as it went: if you only see one Love Story On Ice this year, make it this one. But the more the networks rebroadcast the thing, the more choreographically dramatic and passionate it seemed to become, heightened as it was by fresh revelations of the great injustice, and brief talk-show glimpses of the team's off-ice love for each other. By Valentine's Day, I was beginning to choke up at the bit where Jamie and David recreate the scene where Oliver and Jenny caper in the snow; my shirt front was sodden with tears as Jamie slipped apart from David, representing the moment when Jenny first discovers she's ill. For me, of course, it represented the moment when Jamie first discovers that lousy French broad has stiffed 'em.
This apparently is why pairs skating is big business: the audience projects its own romantic fancies on to the couples, no matter how fantastical it might be, especially in the case of some of those ice-dancing chaps. It's hard to imbue any other Olympic sport with affairs of the heart. Few of us watch the two-man luge and coo, "Oh, it's so romantic! Look at how the top guy arches his back to avoid crushing the bottom guy's nuts! It's obvious they're in love!"
Romantic projection seems as sound a judging method as anything else. After Monday's fiasco, there were half-hearted attempts by the experts to attribute it to "cultural" differences: the Russians, Chinese et al would have preferred something classical rather than a sappy Seventies movie score. It was mooted that Jamie and David had made a big mistake by wearing sober, stylish, non-risible grey without any sequins or tassels. In other words, the judges are looking for high-toned symphonic music interpreted by guys in spangly pink bolero jackets. By interpreting cheesy music in serious clothes, Jamie and David had given the fatal impression they'd been reading the instruction manual upside down.
There's something to be said for this theory. I thought in the men's competition Tim Goebel's American In Paris routine was tops, but the judges hammered him in the "presentation" marks. By "presentation", it seems they resented the way he didn't flounce around twirling his arms and waggling his hips. The experts argue that the public doesn't understand the "technical" considerations, but in this instance the technical considerations boil down to mandatory screaming campness: you don't stand a chance unless you queen about like some bitch waiter at Miami Beach enraged at being told to hold the curly endive.
When it was pointed out that even these technical considerations didn't quite cover the outrageous farrago of the pairs results, the officials, privately and publicly, offered various explanations, all of which were notable for the almost insouciant lack of pretence that there was any integrity to the judging process. There were those who tried to pass it off as some sort of typing error on the memo: the mandatory ice-dancing fix had somehow erroneously got extended to the freestyle pairs. Asked to respond to rumours that the French judge, Marie Reine Le Gougne, had been pressured into voting for the Russians, the French Skating Federation said Mme Le Gougne was "emotionally fragile". They should know. By the end of the week, when she was ejected from the judges' panel, it emerged that they were the ones pressuring her to switch votes. Who, in turn, was pressuring the Federation was less clear, at least officially.
Five months to the day after September 11th, another sinister foreign conspiracy had struck on American soil, and once again underestimated American resolve. Had Skategate taken place in a foreign city before a foreign audience and been broadcast over here in the middle of the night, they might have pulled it off. Instead, despite IOC President Jacques Rogge's insistence that this is a new Olympic era, the usual corrupt officials blithely assumed they could get away with "victimising a North American pair on North American soil", as Cam Cole put it in The National Post – and live in US primetime, to boot.
For all that pious guff about not tainting the "Olympic ideals", the best Games have always been those infected by politics: a racially inferior Negro driving Hitler nuts by whupping the Aryan boys and taking four medals in '36; the mad-as-hell Magyars who, a month after the Hungarian uprising, trounced the Soviets in a brutal water-polo match in Melbourne in 1956. Alas, the USSR went belly up and those genetically modified east bloc lady shot-putters with facial hair even Mullah Omar might find a tad excessive faded from the scene. And, to be honest, in the last decade the Olympics hasn't been what it was.
But what happened this week was, like the 1980 US-Soviet hockey match, not just a clash of sportsmen, but a clash of the dominant political philosophies of the day: on the one hand, the moral clarity of post-September 11th America; on the other, the principal challenger to that vision - the multilateralists who insist that any international deal is worth going along with: Kyoto, Durban, the quickstep round of the ice-dancing competition. In the week before Jamie and David hit the ice, you couldn't pick up a paper without seeing something from Chris Patten or Lionel Jospin deploring the Americans' lack of "sophistication". Hubert Védrine, the French Foreign Minister, disdained what he called the "simplistic" approach of the Bush Administration.
Jacques Rogge's ISU conceded on Friday that "public opinion" – i.e., Americans - had persuaded them to award a belated gold to Salé and Pelletier, implying that once they're on the plane back to Europe the skating establishment can resume business as usual. Maybe they can. But for now they've learned that, at least on US soil, the new Bush Doctrine applies not just to rogue states but to Rogge states, too.
~from The Face Of The Tiger, personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available at the SteynOnline bookstore. For Mark Steyn Club members, don't forget to enter your promo code at checkout to enjoy special member pricing.
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