For the last week, I, along with billions of people around the world, have been following the pageant of the Olympic Winter Games. Every four years, we hear about Canada’s anticipated historic share of medals, and this country’s “Own the Podium” program to be a world leader in high-performance sport. As I flip from CBC to Radio-Canada, then to radio coverage and over to Internet streams, I can’t help but feel a rush as the short-track speed skaters ace those blades, and skiers hurtle down the slope of a mountain. Folks care passionately if their country’s team wins at the Olympics. That’s why some people (not me) get up at four in the morning to catch the latest snowboard or biathlon mixed relay event in Sochi.
The crowds, on-site and at home, feel the win and the glory, but equally intensely the losses. We’ve all seen the exceptional volatility of the individual sports disciplines, but that’s what makes some of these events so compelling. It’s as if we’re personally nudging those skaters around the bend or into those death spirals in pairs figure skating. There is something about the empathetic response and the pure identification during the Olympics that opens up something deep within us. For the armchair athlete this is nirvana; we’re certainly not getting the physical workout, but we can imagine that we are, which is just as good. Over a two-week period, we can revel in “our” dominance in curling, short track speed skating, freestyle skiing and whatever our favourite sport might happen to be. Yet the very nature of competition means there isn’t anything that can be called a predictable score or placement.
A perfect example of that happened today (Thursday, February 13) while I’m writing this piece. Canada’s Patrick Chan is pursuing gold in men’s figure skating. Standing in his way is the veteran and fan-favourite Evgeni Plushenko, the Russian contender and warrior, who is, in former champ Kurt Browning’s words, “the Bionic Man,” his physical frame held together with implanted nuts and bolts after numerous back and knee surgeries. Suddenly, just as he is due to perform, Plushenko, the old stallion withdraws from competition and abruptly retires, citing persistent medical problems. These tough scenarios can’t be scripted.
History shows us that dance and the world of sports intermingle on the concert stage. Vaslav Nijinsky used sports as a metaphor, tennis to be exact, in his 1913 work, Jeux, while Ted Shawn drew inspiration from the athletic male in his 1936 dance, Olympiad, which coincided with the Olympics taking place in Berlin that year. More recent examples of sport in dance include Pilobolus Dance Theater’s Baseball (1994) and A Dance Tribute to the Art of Football from Norwegian choreographer Jo Strømgren (1997). Dance scholar Maura Keefe, in an essay on men and athleticism posits, “The presence of male athletes and athleticism has worked to counter long-held anxieties about the supposed effeminacy of male dancers.” But she further questions, and rightly so, the measured space that’s afforded “the effeminate, the feminine and the woman.”
Leading up to these Games, individuals, organizations and governing bodies, protested the abysmal, archaic and intolerant Russian laws concerning gay rights and freedoms in that country. The anxieties that that country’s officials expressed in defence of “family values,” unassailably “masculine” practices of sports and the morality of their positions were perplexing and just wrong. Once the Games started, much of that fever pitch of protest subsided, though the human rights violations continue. In our country, pride flags fly at city halls across this land, shutting down the haters, and federal Foreign Minister John Baird has criticized the anti-gay law as an “incitement to intolerance.”
Nationalism, in the cloak of the Olympics, causes many to cheer. My pitch is to the heart-and-soul department. Let’s celebrate these glowing athletes and their medal haul, or for that matter all those men and women, heroes and heroines, who do their best and yet falter. Their achievements speak large in terms of spirit, determination and commitment. “The most important race is the human one,” said Denny Morrison, Canadian Olympic silver medallist in the 1000 m speed skate. Well said. Go team go!