Tara and Michelle

Cintra Wilson on the Kwan-Lipinski showdown.


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Cintra Wilson
February 24, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

I take it back about Michelle Kwan, all the nasty things I said about her not having a soul. She's great, and I'm mean and bad. I'm having a crisis of conscience here in Godforsaken Saku, alone in my hotel room with the bottle of whisky Gary left me. I'm a malicious person who has nothing nice to say about anybody, particularly not legendary athletes. Even my friends are angry with me. Japan and the Winter Olympics have exposed me as misanthropic, with deep reserves of snideness.

Christ, I wouldn't even talk to the desperately lonely middle-aged expatriate lady, some woman in a filthy pink coat who'd married a Tokyo businessman years ago and spoke at me in English all quickly and greedily like she was trying to score sex or crack off me. She kept following me around the train station and inviting me to take a public bath with her and inviting herself to look me up when she got to New York.

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"Oh, we'll have LOTS to talk about on the train. I'll have to tell you all about my accident, in detail. I haven't told many people about it, but I'm sure that YOU'LL understand," she said, grasping my arm.

"Sit here," I said, when I found an open seat on the full train.

"But ... can't we find seats closer together?"

"I'll talk to you in Nagano," I said. I lied. I ditched her at Nagano Station. I ran like hell. Although generally harmless, she scared the shit out of me. I am unavailable for such friendship. If I really loved mankind, wouldn't I at least have given her my e-mail address?

You think that's bad: In the rain, I tried to snake a nice Japanese guy's taxi by running down the street and flagging it before it got to the taxi stand. I didn't think the taxi stand mattered. I had been out there for a while and it was raining like hell. I was going to make the taxi stop for him, I told myself, and ask him if he wanted to go to Nagano Station. Everybody wants to go to Nagano Station. The taxi ended up passing me by and picking him up anyway. I ran back to the taxi stand, realizing that jumping the order was futile. At the taxi stand, an old lady tried to snake me out of the next cab by crowding it and edging toward the door.

"I was here first," I said to an old lady in the rain. She peered at me through the water-streaked window after I got in, like I was some kind of purse-snatcher in the back of a squad car. Well, she wasn't that old.

In any case, there's nothing like spending a little time in Japan to make you feel like a rude, braying, amoral monster thoroughly undeserving of human kindness.

Two big things went down yesterday, besides my deep regrets: the big Czech-Canada hockey game and the big women's ice skating finale.

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I had a great ticket to the hockey game, slightly to the left of the goal net on one end, so hockey guys were regularly ramrodding each other flat against the plexiglass right in front of me. The game was pretty exciting: It was scoreless until the end of the second period, when the Czechs finally scored and their whole battalion of singing, painted, flag-waving fans erupted into hysterics. I was sitting with a pack of Canadians and other Canada-supporters: Japanese guys with maple leafs painted on their faces and a girl from Baltimore who'd spent her vacation budget for the next three years just to be here. Everyone was very thrilled. I tried to get into the hockey spirit, sitting there with my hot wine and my Kirin Fish 'n' Cheese, the most hilarious bar snack ever because all of the no-necked mullet-styled sports fans considered it too icky to try. Naturally, this made it my favorite new food.

Canada dramatically scored the tying goal with one minute left in the game, which I knew would run it over into serious overtime. As fun as it was to hang out in the erupting chaos of sports fandomica, I wisely opted to get a jump on the back-to-the-station exodus and left the game early. All of the Canadians in my row looked at me leaving as if I had just thrown my severed thumb onto the ice.

I heard on the radio in the taxi (the one that came after the one I tried to steal) that Nagano had been prepared for several hundred thousand less fans than the number actually came. Can you blame me for avoiding the shuttle busses?

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I tried to watch the rest of the game results on TV in a big hotel, but it was being broadcast about an hour late.

"Oh, Canada lost," said a woman from the travel agency, who was in line with me at the noodle counter. I didn't think I cared about Canada, but I felt a drop in my stomach like I do every time I hear about somebody dying. I thought of the girl from Baltimore, all decked out in red and white, covered with those goddamned little pins, waving a little Canadian flag. She'd be a good sport about it, but it was still sad. I took an early train back to Saku, feeling morbid.

I arrived at my room just in time to catch the women's figure skating finals.

Irina Slutskaya. Funny, that's EXACTLY what I'd name a Russian figure skater. See? There I go again. I blame my parents.

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It seems to be the consensus with all of the spectators I've spoken to here that you get a much clearer picture of the overall Thing if you watch whatever sport it is on TV. Live, you miss all the subtleties and nuances. It was a much different experience watching the same skaters on TV that I saw live the other night: I had a much better understanding of what the judges were seeing. Everything they were looking at was very small.

There's something about skating that rewards an undeveloped personality. Lipinski, Ichiban. OK, Lipinski isn't as graceful as Kwan, but she cut the moves better. Lipinski is simple, because she's a puppy; she's a little kid: simple in that pure way that dolphins are simple. Her moves are unclouded by serious artistry or personality, because she doesn't really have one yet. In an Olympics obsessed with animals and children, her gold medal only makes sense. I'm curious to see Lipinski when she has to reckon with herself. Wait until she menstruates, and has all that weird accompanying weight of personality that comes with female puberty, which is frighteningly electrical and upsetting and totally galvanizing. Lipinski is, as yet, totally unencumbered by the deep reserves of loss and ego-pain as felt by women like China's Lu Chen, or even Kwan.

She's still a lucky, two-dimensional Sanrio baby champion with a tiny body and a big head, who knows nothing but indoor ice rinks and flashcubes and worldly reward. You can see it in her face when she jumps: She treats her body like it's a remarkable, expensive toy she can't believe belongs to her. She's always surprising herself with how great she is. Her potential just keeps unfolding and unfolding. She hasn't hit any kind of plateau like the other girls. She's never tasted any serious doubt, never felt her body do anything she hadn't planned or radio-controlled like a hobby car. Wait until Lipinski grows. I'm not undermining her greatness, but look what puberty did to Oksana Baiul, or Nadia Comenici. They were like choir boys whose voices changed. It will be very interesting.

I felt a lot of compassion for the mature young women of skating, particularly the poor, beautiful Chen, who was so devastated by her performance she made her bronze medal look like an albatross. When she buckled her head to the ice and sobbed at the end of her program, it was a great and terrible moment. It was like opera. It was "Madame Butterfly," only Chinese.

On TV, I could more clearly see the problems with France's Surya Bonaly, but she's still the all-time coolest. She even makes falling on her ass look suave and French. Even when she skates a crude, gracelessly aggressive program, she smiles openly and exotically, and laughs a sophisticated laugh to herself as she watches her low scores roll up. All the girls can learn from Bonaly: she is a truly Teflon glamour-puss, a great lover of the ironies of life and sport.

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The other women, the also-rans, were at least sort of memorable for the way they were able to get up after a critical face plant and smile through the rest of their set. I saw many hard moments when I would have just said "fuck it" and bowed politely and slithered away into obscurity. I know they are trained to do that, but it looks so antithetical to the fundamentals of human nature, to keep going with plucky showmanship after you've already blown the whole deal. It's both inspiring and awful to watch.

The flower presenting by the ladies in kimonos is so gorgeous and nifty, they ought to do it everywhere. At the Sydney Olympics. All of them. We all need more official kimonos in our lives.


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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