February 15, 2002
With the shooting in Afghanistan largely over, for now, and in the lull before the next big US intervention will it be Iraq? Iran? Somalia? the bloodthirsty emotional atmosphere in which we have all been enveloped since 9/11 is being kept up to a fever pitch by the latest outbreak of hostilities: the Olympic war of 2002, pitting a Canadian-US alliance against the Franco-Russian-Eastern European Axis of Unsportsmanlike Evil.
The scene of the battle: the ice-skating pairs competition, where Anton Sikharulidze and Elena Berezhnaya edged out Canada's David Pelletier and Jamie Sale by a vote of 5 to 4. Almost immediately, the New York Post alleges, "reports that Eastern European nations bloc-voted for the Russians began to swirl." The air of intrigue soon culminated in a sensational allegation, when NBC News reported that a French skating judge had been "pressured" into voting for the Russians by the French skating federation, in return for a future vote in the ice dancing competition, to be held Friday. Has log-rolling become the most important Olympic sport? In no time, battle lines began to form .
The resulting furor rivals many of the serious foreign policy crises of the past few years, at least in terms of noise level and short-term intensity: the subsequent jockeying and bureaucratic infighting involves more politicking and organizational acronyms than the UN, NATO, and the EU combined. The COA is up in arms over the ISO's decision to postpone a Board meeting until Friday, but the ISU is taking the initiative and making its case directly to the IOC or whatever. In any case, what's of interest in all this is the barely concealed nationalistic hysteria that overcomes people in this context.
The political-ideological subtext of this dispute is fascinating, and Mark Starr makes it even more so in an incisive piece, "Ire and Ice," over on MSNBC.com, wherein he explains the cultural and aesthetic roots of the dispute:
"American coaches, led by Frank Carroll, had presaged the controversy earlier in the week by insisting that the judging was always biased in favor of the Russians and against skaters from the West. Carroll, the former coach of Michelle Kwan and current coach of American Olympian Tim Goebel, was not suggesting that there was still Cold War enmity at work. Rather, the breakup of the Soviet Union created a lot more skating nations mostly former Soviet Republics like Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia with their own officials now in the judging pool. And their aesthetic taste was governed by their training in classic Soviet figure-skating styles."
Yet it isn't just a question of numbers, but of competing aesthetic and cultural stances, with the elegantly balletic ex-Soviet and East European teams, trained in the classical style, pitted against the more acrobatic and mechanical Westerners. In the bad old days of the cold war, everyone knew the Soviet judges and their allies would always favor their own, and the same for the Western allies. In the post-cold war world, however, Olympic politics become much more Byzantine.
As Starr points out, the old cold war pattern was broken by the judges' decision in the ice-skating pairs competition. Five of the judges were from the old anti-Soviet alliance the US, Canada, Germany, Japan, and France and four from the old Sino-Soviet bloc, including a Ukrainian and a Pole. The defection of the French ensured an Eastern bloc victory amid cries from "conspiracy theorists," as Starr puts it, that the vote was rigged or bought. I particularly like his take on the aesthetics of the judges' call: "Our silver medal is worth a gold," quipped Jamie Sale, clearly indicating her resentment over the decision. Starr writes:
"But the Russians' gold won't require any emotional alchemy to recognize. And there was plenty in their performance to suggest they merited it. At the very least, it was more intricate, stylized and sophisticated. In the end, perhaps the Canadians paid a price for skating to the treacly 'Love Story.' And in the eyes of one figure-skating fan who was there watching, that wouldn't be the worst thing to happen to the sport."
It's "Love Story" versus Rachmaninoff, a cultural collision on ice that won't be resolved by any Olympic committee. But it's very telling that this division almost exactly replicates geopolitical rivalries emerging on the world stage. France, always stubbornly independent, whose leaders have described the US as a "hyperpower" in horrified tones, is naturally at the center of this controversy. Just as naturally, the Americans launched a preemptive strike before the games had even begun, complaining of pro-Russian bias.
It isn't just an aesthetic gap that separates the two sides, but a cultural and political divide that operates in an Olympic context. In "The Sporting Spirit," a 1945 essay for Tribune, the British left-wing weekly, George Orwell aptly described the politicization of international sports as "typical of our nationalistic age," and went on to ask:
"And how could it be otherwise? I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even if one didn't know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles."
On the village green, he averred, in a friendly game that didn't involve a matter of prestige, except in the most personalistic way, competitive sports could be enjoyed for their own sake, for the sheer physical joy of motion. Yet just as soon as matters of supra-personal prestige, either local or national, are involved, "the most savage combative instincts are aroused," as Orwell puts it:
"At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behavior of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe at any rate for short periods that running, jumping and kicking a ball are test of national virtue."
Outside of Canada, the Wall Street Journal was the most embittered over this incident, accusing the Franco-Russian Axis of outright "cheating" and describing the pairs skating event as "a competition in which all experts say there was a clear winner" the Canadians. Yet the author of the WSJ piece, John Feinstein, turns around and admits that judgements in this case are necessarily "subjective." So much for the value of those unnamed "experts"! Feinstein's solution is stereotypically New Worldish: simply get rid of all those Olympic competitions in which there isn't a clear winner and clear loser:
"If you need judges to decide who wins, you can't be an Olympic sport. Olympic sports should be those in which a person or a team wins by going the fastest, jumping the highest or farthest, or scoring the most points. No judges. Scoreboards don't lie and they can't be bought off."
No judges, no art, and forget about subjective values such as visual beauty and purity of form: let's make it all as mechanical, and cut-and-dried, as a profit-and-loss ledger. Whomever scores the most points, wins. Such extreme reductionism is to be expected of the Wall Street Journal, but I can do them one better. I say why not get rid of the Olympic Games completely and strike a small but meaningful blow for world peace?
In making the case for the abolition of the Olympics, I harken back to Orwell a man who is no longer alive to defend himself against the idolatry of certain well-known warmongers, but who really bore not the slightest resemblance to his frothy-mouthed latter day epigones. The author of 1984, and the conscience of his generation, saw "the sporting spirit" in the international arena as "war minus the shooting," and found the spectacle of the booing hissing crowds disgusting, and politically disturbing:
"There cannot be much doubt that the whole thing is bound up with the rise of nationalism that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige."
In the present atmosphere of hysteria generated by 9/11 and the war, this tendency is even more pronounced, as was evidenced by the preliminary brouhaha over the role of the WTC American flag and the disgraceful behavior of the audience (including elements of the Western media) when the Canadians lost. Orwell made the point that "there are quite enough real causes of trouble already," without artificially manufacturing any more, and certainly nothing has changed much since 1945 in that respect except for the worse.
Orwell was dead on right about this whole nasty business being bound up with the rise of nationalism and groupthink. Why, this ice-skating incident has even stoked the previously somnolent fires of Canadian nationalism, with a commentator for the CBC shrieking that this is "the Enron of umpiring, the frozen Watergate of the Olympic Games" and demanding just punishment of the judges that "We should turn them all over to Donald Rumsfeld."
Yes, isn't it just like our allies to casually assume the American military is at their disposal? This we don't need, nor do we need the Olympics. Let's ditch the Games, without dousing the torch which can burn somewhere in seclusion until it is ready to be carried into a more peaceful world.
There's something mighty suspicious about the decision of the International Olympic Committee to award the two Canadian skaters gold medals and the story we're hearing about the suspended judge, Marie-Reine Le Gougne, doesn't quite add up. To begin with, the exact nature of the "pressure" brought to bear on the judge is maddeningly vague and accounts are rife with discrepancies. For example, an earlier version of the above-linked Reuters story tells us:
"[ISU president Ottavio] Cinquanta said le Gougne had 'practically admitted' she had been put under pressure during a meeting at which the American referee Ron Pfenning had been present. Earlier this week, Cinquanta said Pfenning had handed him a letter containing 'certain allegations.' He added if a judge received pressure at any time the referee had to be informed. 'This did not happen in the case of Mrs. Le Gougne,' Cinquanta said."
But Pfenning is the referee, and, if he was present at this alleged meeting, then he was informed. The loquacious Mr. Cinquanta, a voluble Italian, talks a lot, but reveals only his own confusion. There is, it seems, a lot more to this controversy than meets the eye.
A little research into the judge in question is revealing, to say the least (thank the gods for Google.com!). Here is an interesting item from the January 20, 2001 issue of l'Humanite, newspaper of the French Communist Party, a compilation of critical quotes that target the sport of ice-skating as "sexist" and "misogynist." Cited therein, Mademoiselle Le Gougne characterizes her career as an official as:
"'Ten years of hell! When I started to judge, with the beginning I was used as substitute. During years, one called me the one public holiday day before to go to judge where nobody wanted to go. I accepted all the missions. Because, to succeed, one must prove reliable twenty times more than one guy. I know a multitude of girls who stopped because they did not have the force to continue to fight. Me, one did everything to eliminate me, and of course the attacks were very often at the lower part of the belt. I received anonymous telephone calls. Idem for the person with which I lived, moreover. One enters your private life and one tries to massacre you on all the plans. That was ten years of hell to impose to me. On the bench of the judges, one hears remarks much rawer, even cruel, on the skaters that on the skaters. Style: "large cows" as soon as they have two kilos of too, whereas if it is a boy which goes one well never does not treat it 'large pig'."
Anonymous telephone calls? Really? Either this lady has a persecution complex, or else the spirit of machismo is much more alive and active in France than anyone ever suspected. What are we to make of this "person" she lived with and why does she bring it up? This weird stuff about how nameless persecutors somehow interfered with her "private life" what's up with that? Scrape away the veneer of feminist rhetoric, and it looks like we have a real nutball on our hands. Is this why earlier news stories depicted Le Gougne as "fragile"? Unless, of course, it was a euphemism for batty.
So the American referee, Pfennig, heard Le Gougne complain that those evil sexist Frenchmen had, in some mysterious manner, pressured her to vote for the Russians. But Le Gougne clearly has an axe to grind, and is less than reliable. Returning to France, she will come out as the victim in all this: and will no doubt use her newfound celebrity to elaborate on her theme of feminine victimology.
In the meantime, the Olympic Committee has made the worst possible decision: caving in to Western pressure, while allowing the Russians to retain their supposedly ill-gotten gold. But if the Russians cheated, as is being alleged, then why are they getting to keep their medals? No matter which side one takes, this attempt to pull off the miracle of the loaves and the fishes can only generate ill will on all sides. Justice, in any case, has not been done. It's politics as usual.
This pathetic result only underscores and confirms my original thesis the Olympics, far from promoting international brotherhood, are simply an occasion for an orgy of nationalism. It's high time to retire what has become an increasingly volatile, and even dangerous, tradition. Don't mend it end it.
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