NAGANO, Japan -- To get into the figure skating short program, I had to go head to head with the scalpers. I had all these tickets to trade -- excessive hockey, a bunch of slaloms, some biathlon and a pricey little admit for the Closing Ceremonies, where children with big animal heads and mittens would sing the goddamn Olympic song another 50,000 times, thereby sealing it in mankind's mind forever. It was reported in the papers that the police were going to crack down on the scalpers starting yesterday, so I was foolishly worried that I would not be able to find one. But there they were just like always, loud and porn-theater hawker-esque as ever in the Nagano train station, giving large theatrical shrugs of "Wha'? Who, me?" whenever one of the small, ironed policemen politely approached them to knock it off.
These men are, without exception, the sleaziest, most wholly detestable pack of carrion-sucking hyenas that most Japanese people will ever lay eyes on. Since the Japanese mob, the Yakuza, is conspicuously absent from the Olympics, the scalpers are the only fishy criminal element in our midst here in scrupulously moral and honest Nagano, but they make up for that by being top-seeded crass, charmless motherfuckers. I wanted to see the ladies' skating, preferably the long free skating program on Friday night, but when I told any of them this, they just started laughing at me. Those tickets are getting over 100,000 yen (about $800) now on the black market, they informed me, often up to $5,000. I tried to bargain and wheel and deal with the rangy, death-toothed young men, whose fathers must have sold and repossessed carpeting to immigrants with bad credit for a living. I tried to trade up my excellent hockey tickets, but they would have none of it. They called me "Rusty" or "Yankee," and made sexist comments and tried to kiss me or pinch my cheeks. I jerked back like a cobra at one such swipe, and one of them said, "Watch out, she's from New York, she'll probably lay you out," and I realized I was in some kind of red-eyed state of rage and a preliminary Kung-Fu stance. "You're nauseating," I murmured back at them, and they all laughed.
That was my reconnaissance mission. I was so infuriated, I decided I needed to go back several hours later and see if the guard had changed. I did find out some valuable information though; the 26,000 yen ($210) hockey ticket I had for tonight was now only worth about 10 bucks, because Canada would be playing Kazakhstan, and that would be a throw-away game, the best against the worse. The Canucks would just mercilessly worry the Kazakhs like so many chew-toys, and this was a foregone conclusion -- nobody was terribly interested in viewing toddlers get skewered. My 5,600 yen ($45) men's skiing ticket, however, had jumped up to 20,000, which made it a viable bargaining tool. I also found out that the women's figure skating short program was that night, during the hockey game, and that the few remaining tickets were going for 40,000 yen. I hung out for a couple of hours, fuming. I figured that scalping zones must be a little like the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange: In a couple of hours, a ticket might be more important than it was previously.
As it turned out, I made another swipe at the one skunk, the most offensive, oily hair-coated dog boy, who had actually been holding the skating tickets. I leveled with him. I fanned out my tickets and said "Which of these?"
To my surprise, he wanted men's skiing (great for me; I wasn't exactly psyched to wake up at 6 a.m. and ludicrously hike up the mountain again) and my ticket to the Closing Ceremonies, for escaping which I cried tears of thanks to Jesus. The Up With People vibe is intolerable to me in any language, no matter how many tissue elves it may include. Besides, it was going to be held outdoors. Much better to view that fiasco on the TV of some nice alcoholic hotel lobby.
So I did it. I got into a figure skating event.
The shuttle bus was concentration campish. Everyone was shoulder-to-shoulder and clearly suffering for the half hour it took to get to the White Ring in Nagano (a name that will probably be changed to the White Elephant when the Olympics are over and nobody knows what to do with an ice rink that holds 25,000 spectators). But it was a big, bright venue with great sight lines, and I couldn't believe I was there. It was like having bribed your way into backstage sports-world Valhalla.
I was especially infused with the delicious poison when they played Debbie Gibson's 1989 hit "Electric Youth" over the loudspeakers. Oh yeah. It set the tone to a T -- little girls backed by big money, contorted into flashy cash cows, complete with laser lights and synthesizers, rhinestones and television.
I was sitting next to some women in pin-covered sweat suits (the pins are another scary phenomenon: All the sponsor companies practically give them out at first, then people frenetically sell and trade them and they leap in value for the rest of the Games. An ugly little Coca-Cola jobby with Olympic rings on it, which was the kind of thing you'd leave in your empty paper cup a few days ago, is now worth $10 or more. People obsessively collect as many of the ghastly little things as their clothes will bear and wear them around like plate-mail). They were from Los Altos, Calif., and they "just loved figure-skating." They were hip to all the nuances, most notably the malignant political rivalry between the international judges, a Cold War whose tensions are made clear through time-warped and biased scoring. "Since Russia broke up into all those little parts and pieces, they all gang up on everybody else. They wouldn't even let there be a Canadian judge this year," clucked the woman next to me scornfully. As paranoid as that might seem, it was obvious that something was going on with the judges, because of the bafflingly low scores given to certain skaters who, it was clear from their faces on the big TV monitor overhead, were savvily prepared to get screwed. France's Surya Bonaly was one of the first of these.
Bonaly is a blazing star, but nobody can see her very clearly against the ice, I guess because she's so black. Bonaly, wearing some fabulous lapis-colored Bob Mackie-type garment made of glass beads, kicked such preposterous amounts of ass she raised the consciousness of the whole stadium. She is Josephine Baker, and should be dragged around topless on her skates by a snow leopard to Perez Prado rhumbas. Her energy is fantastic: She's sexy in a snazzy, retro kind of way. The judges hated her, and gave her marks barely above 5.0. The other clear case of political shoplifting by the judges involved the astonishing Lu Chen, who was like a beautiful Hong Kong movie star doing incredible stunts in a tight red dress, subtly emoting the whole time in a Ginger Rogers kind of way -- a small eye-roll, a little chiffon hip-flounce. She was irresistible, and still got treated like a red-headed stepchild compared to some truly forgettable Russian kippys who could have looked safer on a cereal box. Sophisticated sexual consciousness, even when adorably tempered and retro-lite, louses it all up for the judges, for some reason. They'll find any excuse to shut the girl down who looks comfortably female in the form. For example, some of the girls used great old music, burlesque-y brass numbers from the '30s with oboes and castinets. "Ooh, they'll take points off for that," said the woman next to me. "You can hear that record popping. Sounds like a dirty needle."
No such points were taken off the overwrought, totally digitally remastered, Spielbergian Happy Meal orchestrations accompanying good little girls like Tara Lipinski. Figure skating seems to embrace the ideology of the Grammy Awards: The biggest faceless corporate Uncle Toms are going to get the medals. Artists with personal style need not apply.
There were 28 girls in the program, most of whom were nervous and janky and fell down once or twice, then slunk off to joylessly watch their bad numbers roll up on the screen like people waiting for biopsy results. Nothing is more depressing than seeing a girl in a tiny dress fall on her ass really hard to a gluey George Winstonish New Age piano number. Everybody claps really hard at the end of such a program, because they know the girl wants to eat a bottle of pills.
OK. Tara and Michelle. Both extremely competent skaters. Both experts in exactly the kind of beauty pageant smiling and coloring-inside-the-lines rigid obeisance that the judges love. They both skate really well, particularly Michelle Kwan, who is very pretty and swanlike with her long, skinny arms. Both bore the fuck out of me, really.
Give me Oksana Baiul and her sloppy, drunken blubbering any day over these mechanized, kiss-ass, teen super-chicks. At least she had a soul, even if it was a little dirty.