The Christlike and redemptive powers of ice hockey

Rinkside at the Czech-Russia match, Cintra Wilson suddenly understands the Christlike and redemptive powers of ice hockey.

Published February 18, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

It is one of the strangest things to be able to get up in the morning, get on a plane and 11 hours later be way on the other side of the world in a place so foreign and tweaky and opulently unusual it feels like walking through an endless maze of arcades. Long travel experiences always end up feeling like Madeline L'Engle's "Wrinkle in Time" to me; I can't help thinking about that young adult novel, wherein a "tesseract" was a way of traveling by bending space and time -- a kind of quantum physics solution to the angst of young adolescents. In any case, it does feel like some sci-fi time manipulation, because your internal watch gets botched up and your inner animal is stoned for days on disorientation, in rotating bouts of giddy euphoria and exhaustive, narcoleptic collapse, and your body feels wrought out of twisted balloons. You become a sloppily drawn character in a surreal landscape, and nothing really makes any linear sense, and you just do your best to remain upright and prevent your luggage from exploding and get on the right trains.

So here I am, with big silver Popeye feet (snowboots), attending the world clash of the athletic elite, the Global Family of Outstanding Physical Achievement's big winter picnic days, the proudest three-legged sack races and egg toss events in human history. It is a frenetically paced, primary-colored, banner-driven, G-rated Japanimation with nonstop xylophone songs and a pathologically gentle infant jollyness reminiscent of "Barney."

I have gravitationally swirled with the legions of multi-hued fans into enormous new landscapes of the Event, all in immaculate "Logan's Run"/Neuremberg Rally proportions, and been bombarded with power-mad musical anthems and gripping Jungian insignia. You become a molecule in this context, a tiny cell in the living body of Man. We are all here to witness the deliberately remarkable in nature, and marvel at the evolution of a species, from the sprouting of legs and the slithering to shore to the flying into space. Nowhere, perhaps, is this outstanding progression more apparent than in such physically unthinkable sports as "aerial" skiing, which Gary Kamiya and I caught the main 10 minutes of in a ski lodge that was on our walk back from the women's downhill and combination skiing competitions. Neither of us had any idea what aerial skiing was when we were trying to score other tickets from the red-faced Croatian scalper thugs, but we were completely flabbergasted to witness real adult human beings with skis on their legs shoot up a horrible Evel Knievel nightmare ramp and then turn 17 or 18 gyroscopic turns in the air, then make a couple more end-over-end turns for effect, and then land gracefully somewhere else. We have come a long, long way, you realize. We have made the great athletes of the 1930s look as adorably lame as Buster Keaton.

What is now wonderfully freakish about the Olympics is the strangely specific body types all of the athletes have deformed themselves with for the love of their sport. Women's downhill skiers are thick, sturdy Valkyries compared to the fashionable smallness of most of today's women, their lower bodies having been hewn from constant shock absorption. Hockey boys are squat, flat-nosed, indestructible types with small ears like fighting dogs, who fearlessly bash into each other with their eyes wide open at terrifying speeds.

For a non-sports enthusiast insider zealot like myself, the events become interesting and important for other reasons than the two-hundredths of a second that one guy in a neon bodystocking shaved off the other guy in a neon bodystocking, or the one point separating the team from victory in the last third. All that becomes just so much academics and randomica; the best athlete in the world might just be having a bad karma day here in Nagano; his biorhythms may be critical, her Mercury may be in retrograde. The time-fragment minutiae means very little about their true ability or contagiously inspiring heroism.

The personality cults are what make more sense here to me: The little pixie-faced Japanese speed skater who dedicated his win to his recently deceased "father in heaven," Picabo Street's stunning comeback after a ghastly knee injury and a seriously punitive stint of endless, grisly physical therapy. The guy who crashed yesterday winning the gold today. This is the kind of stuff that can create a narcotic buzz for someone like me, who doesn't give a shit who held the world record or when the luge team got better shoes. Physical human greatness is a unifying thrill for everybody, which makes us all want to jump in the air.

I befriended the Russian mafiosi at the hockey game for precisely this reason: These were clearly bad people, morally dyslexic no-necked vulgarians with gold teeth and scars, loutishly frightening to the small-boned Czechs suffering with political dignity in wire-rimmed glasses a few rows behind them.

The scariest Russian bastard of them all was a 6-foot-7, ham-faced, pinky-ringed Frankenstein who looked like he would bite the head off a puppy for $10, but every time his team did anything productive, he would stand up and start singing with all of his heart and waving his arms in the air like the baby his mother once loved. We're all beautifully, divinely innocent in that second when we're jumping for joy in the air; even the murderers of the world.

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By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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