' Cinema Romantico: Nine For IX: The Diplomat (A Pseudo-Review)

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Nine For IX: The Diplomat (A Pseudo-Review)

In 1988 The Berlin Wall still stood, dividing the communist German Democratic Republic from its capitalist neighbors in the West, and East Germany specifically employed its sports programs as a means of socialist pride, to show themselves off to the world in a particular way – finely-tuned and triumphant. The face of this system was 1984 Figure Skating Gold Medalist Katarina Witt, and at the heart of my Olympic conundrum, without a doubt, stands Katarina Witt. In fact, I used to pinpoint Gwen (that is, Stefani) as my first Diva. Katarina, though, the more I contemplate it in my advancing age and in the attempt to compute my unrelenting Kylie and Gaga obsessions, was my first Diva.


The 1988 Winter Games in Calgary were the first Olympics I ever watched, or, at least, the first I remember watching. I had a subscription to Sports Illustrated – which my parents gave me as a Christmas gift a year or two earlier – and I read those voraciously, and in the lead-up to Calgary I read several articles establishing the female figure skating narrative as Witt vs. Thomas. This was to say, Katarina Witt of the GDR vs. Debi Thomas of the USA. As the competition commenced, I naturally sided with Thomas. But Calgary would teach me the Olympic Rule as I practice it – namely, I root based not on nationalism, but on emotionalism.

Katarina and Debi’s Gold Medal duel was trumpeted by ABC and SI as the “Battle of the Carmens” – both would be skating to music selected from the opera “Carmen” by Georges Bizet. I had no idea what the hell “Carmen” was or who the hell Bizet was but I knew what I was watching. Thomas’s “Carmen” on ice was triumphant and cultivated by someone raised in California. Witt’s “Carmen” on ice was sorrowful and cultivated by someone raised in a city named after Karl Marx. Thomas finished standing up, grinning, arms aloft. Witt finished by “dying”, Nina Sayers 22 years before Nina Sayers. It probably goes without saying that I immediately switched my allegiance from USA to GDR. Which sounds really, really, really weird. (These were not things I talked about publically at the ripe age of 10. You don’t go around small-town Iowa, a town generally rampant with conservative republicans in feed caps, talking about that badass figure skater from East Germany.)


I have conflicted feelings toward the Sochi Winter Olympics. This is not simply on account of the LGBT issues nor on account of Putin spending eleventy billion dollars to create a Black Seaside spectacle to himself. No, this is because I have conflicted feelings toward every Olympics. The Olympics themselves are conflicted.

Their “amateurism” stance is nonsense and their “ideals” are hogwash. Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, was a sexist. The Olympics as we mostly know them today – the pageantry, the torch relay – stem directly from the Nazi Olympics, the 1936 Summer Games held in Berlin, which were born of Hitler’s ego much like the Sochi Games were born of Putin’s. That’s difficult to square with, and so America, somewhere along the line, concocted the myth that der F├╝hrer snubbed the famed Jesse Owens upon winning his famed 4 Gold Medals in Berlin. (Hitler did snub Owens but only if you also admit that he snubbed every other athlete – Germans included – that day.) Thus, we good feel good about ourselves, our American hero responding to the “snub” by symbolically snubbing out the swastika with his athletic feats of strength. Of course, this was also 1936 America, which was not all that welcoming of black people either. As Owens himself said: “I wasn't invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn't invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either.” USA! USA! USA!

Olympic history is chock full of boycotts and protests and steroids and doping and violent atrocities, from Munich’s terrorism to Atlanta’s Centennial Park bombing, to smoggy air that NBC wouldn’t let America see (Beijing) to gonzo debt inflicted on the host cities (Montreal) to displacement of its own residents in the name of "Potemkin-izing" (Atlanta again). Hell, even an Olympics that wasn’t an Olympics left a tarnished legacy. Denver gave back the 1976 Winter Olympics upon winning the right to host them to avoid a financial crisis, yet this was still the impetus for carving out highways through untouched Rocky Mountain landscape and commercializing much of it to kingdom come.

The Olympics can be a vile competitive behemoth and they can cause countries to go berserk. East Germany became, after the fact, notorious for its regimented athletic program, literally titled State Plan 14.25, feeding its athletes – wittingly and unwittingly – performance enhancing drugs. Of course, I knew none of this when I switched allegiance to Witt, just as I did not truly understand everything as a 10 year old that was going on behind the GDR’s side of the wall.

Jennifer Arnold and Senain Kheshgi's film for ESPN Nine For IX series, "The Diplomat", focuses on just what Witt meant to her home country, how it held her up as the face of its politics, how she prospered from her status, even as so many suffered, and suffered from her status, her every movement monitored by the Stasi. And when the wall fell, she took significant PR broadsides.

The documentary, interestingly, tellingly, does not dwell overmuch on Witt's ice-skating ability nor the competitions that she frequently won. The Gold Medal in Calgary is revealed as a means to an end - that is, the GDR government cut a deal that Witt must win in '88 in order to be allowed to turn professional. The phrase “(insert term here) is overused” is overused, but even if the term “pressure” is overused in sports, that is pressure - what you want to do with the rest of your life riding wholly on victory.

As an Olympian, you are required to recognize and accept dire contrasts. You don't compromise. To compromise would suggest Olympians participating are making some sort of moral concession, and that is spectacularly wrongheaded because that fails to take into account to whom the Games truly belong. Putin thinks they are his, and they are to a degree just as every Games to a degree belong to their host city and country, but they are also not his at all. No less an authority than Mark Pavelich, member of the US hockey team responsible for the Miracle on Ice, the underdog Americans sticking it to the Soviets in 1980 in the thick of east/west tension, said: “If people want to think that performance was for our country, that’s fine. But the truth of the matter is, it was just a hockey game. There was enough to worry about without worrying about Afghanistan or winning it for the pride and glory of the United States. We wanted to win it for ourselves.”


Sports have become more non-partisan over the years, but Sochi is perhaps the most politically incendiary the Olympics have been since my introduction to them. In 1988 I was innocent (ignorant), drawn to Katarina because of what she did on the ice and how she did it, nothing more. I have aged twenty-six years since then and have learned the story of "The Diplomat" and seen how the world works and had my social and political idealism shattered, and so I feel as if watching the Winter Olympics in Sochi should make me so much more impassioned about their global backdrop.

Yet, I feel as if the individual and each individual's event has never been of greater importance.

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