Monday, February 22, 2010

Where Have all the Flowers Gone?

Watching the Olympics this past week has conjured up a lot of memories of various moments in sport that I have found particularly moving. One of my favorite moments was one you probably do not remember.  It was 1994, at the Nagano Winter Olympics.  This was the much-anticipated Olympics of the Nancy Kerrigan-Tanya Harding drama, when skating had reached new high in the amount of attention from the public by hitting a new low morally and emotionally. 

Under the radar was two-time Olympic champion Katarina Witt, who had just come back to figure skating that year.  Coming into the long program, she -stood in 6th place.  Witt dedicated her long program performance to the city of Sarajevo, where she had won her first gold medal 10 years before.  (Sarajevo in 1994 was under siege in the midst of the genocidic Bosnian war.)  In an elegant and simple dress (in contrast to a lot of the gaudy sparkle-fests worn by her competitors) Witt skated her program with soul, grace, and fluidity:

I especially love the ending, 4min into the video--I find it visually stunning and powerful.  I think it is noteworthy that the crowd was so taken by the performance, they were throwing flowers onto the ice.  Even more telling are the boos and hisses from the crowd when Katarina's abysmal scores were announced.  She came in eighth in the long program, because she just didn't do enough triples to impress the judges, like her upstart competitors did. 

Why has this moment stuck with me for so long?  I think it is because even then, when I was 16, I could sense the irony expressed by Katarina's performance.  There was the explicit message that in an age of war and aggression, we should seek peace and beauty.  There was also the implicit message sent to the sport of figure skating--in an age when skating had become little more than a triple-axle competition mixed with a reality TV show, Katarina was expressing that it had come at the expense of honesty and elegance. 

I think the sport of figure skating has tried harder and harder to become an "objective" sport, under the assumption that the more objective it is, the more you can prove through measurement that one performance was better than another, or that one skater is better than another.  I think Katarina Witt's performance at the Olympics in 1994 was one of the most telling reminders for me that the most important things cannot be measured.