' ' Cinema Romantico: Rooting For A Russian Diva On America's Big Night

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Rooting For A Russian Diva On America's Big Night

Caesar: “I seem to recall some mention of an obsession you have with your divinity. Isis, isn’t it?”
Cleopatra: “I shall insist you mind what you say. I am Isis. I am worshipped by millions who believe it. You are not to confuse who I am with the so-called divine origin which every Roman general seems to acquire with his shield.” 

- Cleopatra, 1963 

I love a good diva. These days the label diva is assigned to any pop singer or vacuous minx who stars in her own Reality TV show that most likely really, really needs to be cancelled. The word diva is derived from an Italian word meaning female deity and a deity is generally thought of as some sort of being - be it natural or supernatural - with superhuman powers. And to truly carry yourself in the manner of a being with superhuman powers is more difficult than the gossips and entertainment writers who hurl this term around willy-nilly would lead you to believe.

The five young girls that comprise the US Female Gymnastics team at the London Olympics just don’t have enough diva. This is not meant as a criticism. They all come across as kind, gracious and thoughtful. I’m sure they would be good role models. Their beaming smiles would be right at home on a Wheaties Box. They are really talented – they just won a Gold Medal, for God’s sake! But I have a startling confession to make: I was not rooting for them.

On Sunday evening, after the Americans had finished their qualifications for Tuesday's team final, the coverage switched to a few other countries in competition and I was a half-second away from clicking off the TV and calling it a night when NBC fired up one of those much maligned puff pieces and said the magic word. Diva. “What?” I thought to myself. “Who’s a diva?” (I’m fairly certain NBC was calling her a “diva” simply as a means to cast her as the villain to fit their narrative, but people define things in different ways and I define a diva – a diva that properly fits genuine diva criteria – as a heroine. Maybe I’m messed up that way.)

"Oh, I'm sorry. Were you talking? Because I wasn't listening. Because I don't care." 
It was Russian Gymnast Aliya Mustafina. The piece told the story of a major competition in which Aliya all of a sudden wanted to junk her regular routine for a new-fangled routine filled with spectacular moves she had hardly practiced. Her coach said no. She didn’t care. She did it anyway. She bombed – big time. She still didn’t care because in her mind it was the only choice to make. (At the end of the team final, America’s Aly Raisman removed a difficult portion of her routine because her team was so far ahead in points it did not make strategic sense. It was completely logical, though I couldn’t help but think there is no WAY Aliya would have removed it. Not in a hundred thousand years.) But that wasn’t the point. The point was that by choosing to forsake a familiar routine for something completely different in the heat of the moment with full confidence (insanity?) that she could pull it off was evocative of someone fancying herself as having, shall we say, superhuman powers. A………diva. I thought to myself: “Oh yeah. THAT’S my girl.” So I stayed up to watch her.

Her sparkly eye-shadow threatened to overwhelm her eyelids. When she walked she didn’t bound about on her tippy-toes like she was on her way to the first day of school – no, instead she didn't walk so much as elegantly slink. And when she smiled (and she didn't smile often) it was most decidedly not all-American – rather it was cunning, the sort of smile that if you saw on the Wheaties Box in front of you would cause you to abandon your flakes in the bowl for fear this girl had poisoned them. During the team final she tragically mucked up a few times on the dreaded balance beam and in the immediate aftermath her coach approached to console her. She stared daggers and walked right past him. "She doesn't want to talk to ANYBODY," boomed the NBC play by play man. It endeared me to her far more than any handspring or stuck landing.

I went to absurd lengths to avoid the results of the team final all day Tuesday so I could watch in blissful ignorance so I could properly cheer the stars and stripes. But when the time came I just couldn’t do it. I was in Aliya's corner one hundred percent. This was no longer about nationalism. This was about emotionalism. Don’t misunderstand, I wasn’t rooting against the Americans and I wasn’t angry when they ascended the podium. It’s just that when Russia was in the thick of things and Aliya faltered on the beam, I was sad. And when she stepped off the mat at the end of her superb floor exercise routine, grief-stricken, knowing she wasn’t going to win gold, I was sadder still. It may have been an American coronation but my new favorite athlete was heartbroken, and so I was heartbroken too.

And tonight when she goes after gold once more in the individual all-around I will still be firmly on her side. If that means I'm a contrarian, if that means I'm rocking the boat, if that means not making the choice I'm "supposed" to make, well, you understand that is exactly why I have to root for her, don't you?


Anonymous said...

What a lovely post. Gymnastics is about the only thing I watch during the olympics. I watched the competition tonight. Though I must admit: I hadn't read this post. So my heart went out for the American winner. Oh, how I loved her programme, especially the final one, where she NAILED it despite the pressure. And smiling all the way through! What was most fantastic: the smile looked absolutely real.

Nick Prigge said...

Thank you! That means a lot. Honestly.

I was happy for the american girl. She actually trains in a gym in the city where I grew up. And she does come across absolutely real. Which is refreshing.

But I cannot tell a lie. I had pangs of sadness. This is why I love the Olympics. You find these people suddenly and randomly and latch onto them and get so tied up emotionally. And I hope Aliya takes that Bronze back home with pride. She rules.

blahblahblah Toby said...

Unexpectedly enjoyable post Nick. What do I care about the olympics afterall? But your writing on it so far has been great.

Couldn't help but be reminded of the Delacorta novel Diva and the Beineix movie adaptation of it thanks to the repetition of the word. Both are worth searching out for different reasons.

Nick Prigge said...

Thanks, man. I appreciate it. I'm so happy people are enjoying these posts. I didn't mean to write them this year but I couldn't help myself. They bring me too much joy.

I will admit I've never seen nor read Diva but doing quick research makes me pained to admit it. I need to rectify that. Sounds up my alley.