Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Second Mark: Courage, Corruption, and the Quest for Olympic Gold

But the largest source of the confusion by far is the fact that both teams were simply so very good. "The Canadians sang better on that night," one choreographer says. "But the Russians have better voices." A year from tonight, some of the most outspoken advocates for both sides will soften their stances and say that intelligent people could disagree about who should have won. Some will even argue that it should have been a tie for first place. Because it came down to the second mark, and the second mark is about culture.

I worry that some of you will see this book and think "oh another figure skating book" or "a sports book" and pass this review by, but you really shouldn't, as it is simply one of the most excellent books I've read this year. Even if you aren't particularly interested in figure skating, the book is about so much more.

Do you remember the figure skating judging scandal of 2002? Basically what happened is that a judge came forward and admitted she'd been pressured to judge a certain way. A pair of Russian figure skaters won the gold medal somewhat controversally. They skated a more difficult program, but it wasn't as clean the Canadian pair skated. These two teams had been vying for first place at various competitions throughout the year so it wasn't like any outcome was determined. The Canadian Olympic Committee pressured the ISU to issue a second gold medal, and all was settled.

But in this book, Joy Goodwin delves into the histories and stories of all three pairs contending for gold that night. She lays her story first by describing the events of the warm-up on the night of the free skate. Admittedly, I do love figure skating and I find it to be a very dramatic sport. I think part of the reason is because it's a sport that combines artistry and athleticism in a way few other sports do and yet it's that very element that makes its results so controversial. Because sometimes it DOES come down to taste and preference and most of all as the above quote says, culture. And even though the scoring scandal led to an overhaul in the scoring system, the second mark just got labeled as different things that the judges still use to kind of..."cast a winner." This was very obvious in Sochi to me with the ladies competition. But maybe more on that later!

She starts out by describing the warm-up which is always a very interesting time. All eyes are on the skaters as they warm-up and run through some of their ~tricks. It's a chance for them to see how the ice feels to them that day and how their bodies are doing. And it can be very dramatic. Goodwin really effectively builds suspense by describing each pair, what they hope to accomplish, their weaknesses, stating that many think they are three of the finest pairs ever to skate, a bit of their history, etc. There can be collisions, etc. Which is what happened on that night when Jamie Sale collided with Anton Sikharulidze. This was obviously very disruptive and surprising and prevented Jamie from practicing an important jump.

She then delves into the stories of each of the skaters. It's kind of amazing when you think about it...Russia, China, and Canada are three very distinct cultures with three very different histories with the sport. And what an elite figure skater goes through to get to their level is kind of amazing. Elena Berezhnaya, the Russian woman, had a particularly dramatic past. When Russia was still the USSR, skating development was very different. Skaters were hand picked and then trained for years at a center, away from their families. Elena was chosen to be a pairs skater because she was small. She had a series of very abusive male partners, however, and an accident with a blade that almost ended her career (and life!). But she came back. It's truly amazing and inspirational. I also felt that the reasoning that being a figure skater in Russia was easier--because the government paid for everything made so much sense. This sport is so strange in some ways, because in a country like Canada or the US only the really privileged can partake, but in China or Russia, the skaters didn't necessarily love skating!

The Canadians background was perhaps the least interesting to me, David Pelletier has anger problems and a series of disastrous relationships which make me hope the rumors that he had a relationship with Tessa Virtue were just that. He is fiercely competitive and also moved away from home to practice more but it was his choice. And aw poor Jamie Sale! She was hated all her life for winning easily and her attitude, I guess, but she grew up with a single mother who also sacrificed greatly for her daughter. It's funny because after I read the book, I went back and watched the videos of the competition and I can see why she got on people's nerves, but it's one of those intangible things that is really not important or a marker of character. Anyway, David Pelletier was kind of a jerk to her, but when they got together they really clicked and started winning easily. I thought it was kind of funny, because one of the Russians complains about how they train for years and years and that's what they rest on, but this pair got together and it was just raw talent. But then the same thing happened for Russia, after failing to medal in the 2010 games in this event (which they previously dominated), they took the stronger partners for two pairs and put them together and in one quadrennial they went on to win Olympic Gold in Sochi!

But my favorite was by far the story of the Chinese Bronze medalists, Shen and Zhao who you may remember won gold in Vancouver in 2010. 2010!!!! I cannot tell you how happy I was to know that reading this book because their stories really touched my heart. It was really hard for me to not to secretly hope history would rewrite itself as I was reading, I so wanted them to win! But the history of figure skating in China is fascinating. Due to communism, it went through periods of being outlawed and then accepted, the skaters were made to suffer during the times it was outlawed. And they taught themselves by watching video tapes. Yao Bin, the main coach, competed at a World's Championship and they came in dead last and were laughed at. He vowed to make China a winner and Shen and Zhao were his top pair who slowly climbed that ladder.

Shen's father worked actively on her behalf to be accepted to skating school and the little girl would skate and skate even when she was very sick or her boots didn't fit right and her feet were bleeding. She wasn't particularly talented, but she had such amazing work ethic that she was eventually chosen to be Zhao's partner. Now Yao Bin knew they had to have something to set them apart, so the Chinese focused on athleticism..big strong jumps...because they were lagging behind in the second mark. What was artistic and beautiful to the Chinese was almost...grating and awful to the West. By the time the 2002 Olympics rolled around, they hired Western costumers and choreographers, but they still knew they needed more...they needed the quadruple throw. And so Shen worked hard to perfect it, falling several times, but eventually starting to land it. And it was on this throw they were pinning all their hopes for the Olympics.

I have to admit when I read about how Western culture didn't value Chinese art, I sensed some of the..tension and problem that will always exist in figure skating for me. Even this year, one of my friends said about the French ice dancers that their free dance might be "too French" but it seems like artists should be able to express the fulness of who they are.

Anyway! Goodwin describes how things unfolded at the infamous Olympics, including some of the past problems with the judging. At a previous World Championships, for example, the judges cheating was caught on tape and nothing was done about it! The direct victims? Shen and Zhao. So you can imagine how unimpressed they were with the ruckus surrounding what happened in Salt Lake City. What was really sad to me about this section is that Goodwin clearly believes if Canada had pressed harder, the ISU would have to have been investigated. But Canada settled for a second gold medal and all the problems with the ISU and judging and remained. (there was also some craaaazy stuff like about a gangster involved that the FBI was investigating and everything!)

Basically, The Second Mark is an excellent book about the meeting of different cultures around sport, about the strength and courage of athletes, and it really just sums up all the things that I love and hate about figure skating. Figure skating can be so beautiful and such a triumph of the human spirit (the epilogue made me cry) but its system is so small and corrupt. And..not easily fixed? Like after Adelina's win in Russia, there was lots of statements about the judging panel, but it's almost impossible to have judging panels that aren't biased because the world is just SO SMALL.

Still, it would be nice if they'd try! I feel like the sport is dying more and more because it's small and insular and uninterested in engaging with the general public.

Anyway! Highly, highly recommended! I bought a used copy for myself.


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