' ' Cinema Romantico: From the Couch: the 2022 Winter Olympics in Review

Sunday, February 20, 2022

From the Couch: the 2022 Winter Olympics in Review

When Mexico’s Donovan Carrillo, the first Latin American to compete in the figure skating long program, finished his final routine at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, he blew faux kisses to the COVID-mandated faux crowd. Then he grabbed one of those ephemeral kisses in his hand and planted it on the Olympic rings carved into the ice, evoking his having reached the pinnacle of sport. That’s how the Olympic rings – blue, yellow, black, green, and red – have come to be viewed, as a symbol of the world’s preeminent athletics competition. The rings, though, like any symbol, are eternally malleable. Even now it is generally accepted that the founder of the modern Olympics Pierre de Coubertin intended those five ovals to represent the five competing continents though a dig through history suggests de Coubertin merely meant for the rings, unveiled at the 1920 Antwerp Summer Games, to epitomize the previous five Olympics.

At the Opening Ceremonies for the 2014 Sochi Winter Games one of the five animatronic snowflakes meant to open into the fifth Olympic ring malfunctioned, leaving four rings and a snowflake, emblemizing an Olympics of substandard infrastructure. The Olympic rings became a pretext for “sanitizing the area”, to borrow the egregious code of then-Police Capt. Billy Wedgeworth for displacing homeless, in 1984 L.A. President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Thomas Bach might tell you the rings crystallize the Olympic Movement, ostensibly finding a peaceful global harmony through sport. Of course, after the Beijing Opening Ceremonies where the Ukrainian delegation marched past Vladimir Putin, appearing to playact being asleep as cocky indifference to the global mess he’s currently brewing, and host country China tended to its Nothing To See Here policy vis-à-vis human rights abuses by enlisting Uyghur cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang as one of the last Olympic torch bearers, daring viewers to bury their heads in the sand, even Bach confessed the Olympic Movement was a simple emblem. Maybe to him the Olympic rings signify nothing more than luxury living, which is why Oslo backed out of bidding to host the 2022 Games, refusing to cater to the lavish tastes of Bach (and cronies), engendering his pitiful verbal tap-dancing about political neutrality and the Xi regime in the first place. I try hard to see the Olympic rings as Donovan Carrillo sees them, but too often anymore I see them as they were in Sochi – broken.

Indeed, in declaring “my mission is to use sport as a force for unity”, the American born Freestyle Skier competing for China Eileen Gu might have been reading off an IOC-penned script. In the Big Air Freeski event, Gu admirably, thrillingly lived out the Olympic motto of Faster Higher Stronger in eschewing playing it safe on her last run to secure Silver by busting out an improbable sounding maneuver called a double cork 1620 that she had never landed in competition to win Gold. “I compete for myself,” Gu said afterwards, “and I’m the one who did the work.” It mirrored notably irritable Luxembourg skier Marc Girardelli many Olympic moons ago dedicating his medal to himself, which I always thought was funny if not astute, that despite medal counts and national anthems, the Olympics should emphasize the individuals. Girardelli also viewed the Olympics as less important than World Championships – once hilariously saying he would prefer a nice Napa red to a Gold Medal – and, in its way, he might have been on to something. Whatever Gu’s overriding intent in representing China, and she came across deliberately evasive on that topic, she inevitably became a tool of Chinese propaganda. At the Olympics, you’re never really competing for just yourself.

The Olympic Motto might be Faster Higher Stronger, but the Olympic Oath, taken right there in the shadow of the Olympic rings, references competing “by the rules and in the spirit of fair play” and in 2000 snuck in a line about committing “to sport without doping.” Of course, several years later American Marion Jones admitted using steroids in those very Games, and eight years after Russia was exposed as running a mind-blowingly extensive doping scheme at its own 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, the Russians were back at it, or the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC), I should say, since the IOC feigned punishment by not allowing the nation to compete under its own flag. And early in Beijing, after helping the ROC secure Gold in the Team Event, Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva was revealed in December to have tested positive for a banned heart medication thought to improve endurance.

Heralded by those who know such things as perhaps the greatest women’s figure skater ever, Valieva’s Gold Medal in the hallowed individual women’s competition seemed as inevitable as that glorious, relentless forward march crescendo in her long program musical score of choice, Ravel’s Bolero. Would that it were so simple. After the positive test came to light, owing to a strange lag in result reportage from the Swedish lab where it was sent, Valieva was provisionally suspended until the Court of Arbitration of Sport reversed that suspension, clearing her to compete, indicating that sanctions under the World Anti-Doping Code were unclear for what it considered a “protected person”, meaning a minor, meaning the 15-year-old Valieva. It was an appallingly ironic turn of phrase – “protected person” – revealing an extraordinary loophole a cynic might say Russia deliberately utilized, her age pointedly leaving her unprotected, at the mercy of her controversial coach Eteri Tutberidze and handlers, reemphasizing an infuriating Olympic epidemic of athletes not competing for the glory of sport but sacrificed at the altar of sporting glory. To not let her compete, the Court explained, when she had no time to mount a legal defense, might cause her “irreparable harm.” They had no idea.

Valieva fell twice in the Long Program, finishing fourth and emotionally coming unglued while she was still skating, her real time trauma allowing the IOC to evade a mess of its own making in failing to truly punish Russia for state-sponsored doping and award a Gold Medal to someone who might eventually have it taken away. Her sobs in the immediate aftermath were so raw and stricken I could hardly watch. But to not watch felt like malpractice; this, I thought, is what the Olympics has wrought. Her teammate Alexandra Trusova won Silver and cried too, but from anger rather than joy. “I hate this sport,” she was quoted as saying. “I won’t go onto the ice again.” And Valieva’s other teammate, Anna Shcherbakova, the Gold Medalist, the nominal winner, just sort of stood there, appearing shell-shocked, tellingly alone, becoming a visual manifestation of a Russian figure skating culture that notoriously churns through these young women one Olympic cycle at a time, useful only in the service of winning Gold and once they have…forgotten. It was breathtakingly brutal, the whole broken system laid out before us. “I need to be alone for several hours just to sit in a quiet room,” Shcherbakova said, “just to ponder, just to think.”

That’s not to suggest Beijing was devoid of moments of grace. The women’s snowboarding slopestyle was a mesmerizing competition of going for broke reminding me that in vain snowboard runs often inspire me the most, like Austria’s Anna Gasser flying so far off the second jump she looked as if she was trying to leap the Grand Canyon, valiantly crashing out. And even though American Julia Marino was in first place, when New Zealand’s Zoi Sadowski-Synnnott surpassed her score, Marino embraced her. At competition’s end, the medal winners and even several others huddled, jumping up and down, cheering for...what? Everything! A celebration of life! When Dutch speedskater Kai Verbij recognized on the penultimate turn in his 1,000 meter race that he did not have enough speed to pass in front of Canadian competitor Laurent Dubreuil going from the outer to inner lane as scheduled lane changes dictate, rather than risking collision and ruining the Canadian’s chance at a medal, Verbij sacrificed his own chance and held up, allowing Dubreuil the space to roar away and win an unlikely Silver. Verbij’s explanation moved my soul: “When I exited the inner lane, I saw his higher top speed and knew: I have to get up, otherwise I would ruin his race and I’m not that kind of asshole.” At curling, American Matt Hamilton accidentally touched a stone in play during a match against the ROC, a violation he copped to it in adhering to the sport’s honor system, though rather than having the stone removed, as was ROC’s right, they let it be. It wasn’t exactly the Christmas Truce of 1914, but with the Russia/Ukraine standoff as a backdrop, it also didn’t feel like nothing. 

In another year at another Winter Games, Team Great Britain’s rivetingly bananas 12-11 semifinal victory over Team Sweden in Women’s Curling, where each team managed to stage a stupefying comeback, would have been a balm. And yet for the first time in my Olympics-watching life, the athletes could not quite redeem this Olympics, every marvelous feat of strength tempered by surrounding context, the whole competition as unforgiving as all that artificial snow, as hollowed out as the COVID bubble in which it was forced to take place. Even the fortnight’s most transcendent event, Nils van der Poel of Sweden overcoming an Olympic record by Patrick Roest from the Netherlands and a two second deficit with three laps left to set another Olympic record and win Gold in the 5,000 meter long track speed skating race, proved fraught. Afterwards, van der Poel ripped his Dutch competitors, claiming they lobbied for advantageous changes to the ice. Whether or not this was true, I have no idea (the Dutch vociferously denied it), but it spoke to a prevailing mood of outrage, underlined in van der Poel courageously calling out China’s violation of human rights. At the same time, in discussing his desire for life away from the ice and unique training methods, like joining the Swedish army for a year, van der Poel also continued the conversation Simone Biles and others began at last year’s Summer Olympics about mental health, floating the idea of retirement and drolly observing “When you are a professional athlete in a sport that sucks as much as speedskating sucks, you’ve got to find a way to make it suck a little less.”

The ROC led the Men’s 4x7.5km Biathlon Relay by considerable margin nearly the whole way…until Eduard Latypov, skiing the last leg, came to the final shoot and missed four of his five shots. Just like that, in a matter of seconds, his team was pushed from first to third, with Norway winning Gold and France the Silver. After the race, Latypov talked about the wind throwing off his rhythm, waiting for the gusts to settle but knowing he must work fast. “I tried to change things up,” he said sadly, “but here it was more of a psychological issue.” American skier Mikaela Shiffrin could relate. In an interview with the AP’s Howard Fendrich before Beijing, Shiffrin confessed that even if memories of the Olympics are “worth it”, the Olympics themselves are “not really an enjoyable process overall.” As if proving herself prophetic, Shiffrin, among the world’s best and rarely prone to skiing out of events, skied out of three. After missing a gate in the slalom, her best race, she sat down in the snow off to the side of the course for 20 minutes. 

There was some consternation about how long NBC kept its camera trained on Shiffrin, but to me, it was the most potent image of the Games. There were microphones down below all waiting to ask her what happened, and she would eventually answer, graciously and revealingly. But first, Shiffrin, like so many athletes in Beijing, like so many of us the world over in this endlessly weird and upsetting era, just needed a minute. 

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