Night of the diva

Russia's notorious Svetlana Khorkina eats the scenery at the women's team gymnastic finals.



Gary Kamiya
September 19, 2000 9:55PM (UTC)

Thank God for Russian divas! Making like a heroine out of a Dostoevski novel -- self-absorbed, brilliant, sexy and completely untrustworthy -- Russia's notorious Playboy-posing gymnast Svetlana Khorkina crashed and burned and moped and glared and flirted her way through the women's team finals Tuesday night, almost single-handedly taking her team down with her and then bringing them almost all the way back. By the end of her Maria Callas-like performance, you weren't sure if you loved her or hated her -- but you couldn't take your eyes off her.

And this was only the team competition. What's she going to do at the individuals -- taunt her rivals by piling a million dollars' worth of rubles on the balance beam and lighting it on fire? Announce her marriage to an epileptic mystic? Perform bottomless? Stay tuned.

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Khorkina's first-we-make-love then-I-kill-you then-I kill-myself antics wouldn't have seemed so extreme anywhere except in the sexless, zombie-like atmosphere of an Olympics women's gymnastic competition. After years of miniaturized vulcanized-rubber girls bouncing off the walls like identical high-scoring superballs, this year the rules have been changed so that the athletes must be 16 years old to compete. Big deal. Now they're just slightly larger miniaturized vulcanized-rubber girls. Khorkina is just 21, all of 5-foot-5 and far from Rubenesque, but compared to the ironing-board-physique ant-girls who crawl about next to her, she looks like Mamie van Doren on growth hormones. (This is a good thing: Where is Ludmilla Tourischeva when we need her?) And in a sea of innocuous little personalities, her high-maintenance, libido-laden posturings stand out like a lipstick smear on a nun's habit. No wonder that half the gymnastics world loves her, half hates her.

Khorkina's melodramatics began on her signature apparatus, the uneven parallel bars. Her Russian team was locked in a tight race with Romania for the gold medal -- a medal, of course, that Russian women used to own the way Americans own basketball, but which they haven't won since gangster capitalism replaced gangster communism in the land o' Lenin. Khorkina is the world champion on the unevens, and she is spectacular to behold on them: She has a dazzling, fluid line and gets tremendous height, which accentuates the flashing, scissors-like grace of her movements. (Asked what made her uneven bars routine so special, she replied, in typical Khorkina fashion, "Technique and legs.")

Khorkina looked around her with lordly disdain, milking the drama of the moment, and mounted the bars. The crowd was ready for a knockout performance, a 9.8 or better. And then the unthinkable happened: Khorkina fell off. Down the arrogant diva tumbled, landing with an ungainly flop. The crowd gasped. Khorkina got on again and completed her routine, and even a routine in which Khorkina falls off is more interesting than a perfect uneven routine by most other gymnasts, but of course she got a terrible score -- 9.0 -- and dropped Russia down dramatically in points.

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Khorkina looked shell-shocked, and so did her teammates. The next apparatus, as ill luck would have it, was the balance beam -- a nerve-wracking torture log that I would imagine is the last thing you want to face when your concentration has been shaken. Sure enough, the first Russian onto the beam failed to complete a move and scored very low -- and that was just the start. The next Russian, Elena Zamolodchikova, one of the best all-around gymnasts in the world, actually fell completely off the beam, landing scarily and awkwardly on the mat. Two knowledgeable American women fans sitting next to me couldn't believe it. "This is unthinkable," one of them said. "It's not how you win a gold medal." She got 8.862 -- the gymnastics equivalent of an F-minus. The next Russian started strong, but suddenly and almost inexplicably she touched the floor with her hand. The wheels were coming off the mighty Russian tank.

Elena Produnova, one of the world's best on the beam, managed to stop the bleeding with a clean routine. Now it was Khorkina's turn. Would she crack? Her nerves proved as cold as her cut-glass face. She went through a flawless routine, including several amazing back flips -- but what do I know, anything that the worst world-class gymnast in the world does on any apparatus is utterly mind-blowing, they're obviously all freaks who have sold their souls to the devil -- and stuck her dismount. Then, as she stood rooted on the mat, she glared, absolutely glared, glared daggers, dirks, epees, broadswords, halbeards -- at who? I have no idea. Probably she saw a camera.

Khorkina would be a nice place to visit, I began to think, but you wouldn't want to live there.

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Russia's last performance was the floor exercise. Khorkina was up last. She needed a killer score to beat Romania for the gold. Of course, it was all planned by her agent this way. She brought out every trick in her fur-lined Prada bag, the coquette, the ice princess, the demon lover, playing as expertly as a geisha to the crowd, and mixed it all into a nearly flawless performance. She walked off the floor in high style, but it was all an act: Seconds later, she slumped in despair over the raised floor. Or was that the act? Then she and her team had to wait for the score to be announced. Her score of 9.787, combined with the three other powerhouse floor routines by her teammates, gave Russia the silver ahead of a strong Chinese team, but Romania won the gold. A game but outclassed U.S. team finished fourth. But gold, shmold! U.S., blue-ess! The real question was, what was going on in that blond, bobbed Russky head?

The Khorkina curtain wasn't down yet. Walking to the medal stand, the woman who scandalized her father by posing for Russian Playboy in 1997 ("I want people to remember me," she said -- yes, that will do it) still had a few scenes to play. In the midst of the sweet, innocent-faced other Superbabies, she wrinkled up her nose insouciantly at someone -- who? She congratulated the Romanians warmly, but then it was time again for me, Svetlana Khorkina -- that's K-H-O-R-K-I-N-A. As she walked toward the audience for the traditional photo shots in front of the stand, for some reason she slipped the medal off her neck, as if she was ashamed of it. She quickly put it back on, but it was a weird gesture.

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And then, after all the other gymnasts had left, somehow she who must be obeyed managed to linger so she was the last one there, pointing, arching her eyebrows, finally climbing up onto a table and throwing her bouquet of flowers. It landed, naturally, in the press area.

Bravissima! Encore! Bravo!

Loud, braying Americans, loud, braying Australians and loud, braying Chinese -- which are most obnoxious? Certainly the patriotic chant "Aussie Aussie Aussie, oi oi oi," which sounds uncomfortably close to "oink oink oink," can grow tiresome after the 10,000th repetition. But the U.S. fans in the gymnastics competition were getting seriously on my nerves with their loutish bellowing -- including a takeoff on the "oi oi oi" thing that had my Aussie neighbors muttering peevishly "don't you take our cheer." And the Chinese were the worst. They didn't cheer nearly as much or as loudly as the Americans (although they were much louder at the men's team final on Monday night, when they finally won the team gold), but they had a tendency to suddenly screech out "China!!!!" when a Russian was about to do a double front somersault dismount. Finally the crowd got fed up and hissed them into silence. I have a feeling my tolerance for ultra-nationalist cheering is going to be cyclical, possibly depending on alcohol intake.

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Judging by their Olympic behavior and by the way the local media is reporting the games -- shades of Fleet Street and New York Post style journalism, with front page headlines screaming such major world news as "Susie's quest: O'Neill carries Australian hopes tonight" -- Aussies are a super-patriotic lot. Even in the jingoist 1996 Atlanta Games, it didn't seem like as many Americans painted flags on their cheeks, wore flag clothing and generally went loudly and publicly gaga over their country as Australians. I could be wrong, but Aussie patriotism, although undeniably virulent, seems to have a slightly more organic, sincere feeling than the sometimes emptily vaunting U.S. version, maybe because this is a country of 18 million people and still feels a little like the national version of a small town. Bill Bryson, an astute and entertaining Australia-phile, says that Australia reminds him a little of the idealized image of '50s America, and I know what he means. There's a healthy homogeneity here, a sense of "us" that perhaps you can only get when your country is relatively small. People here are genuinely proud of their country, and if they have a chip on their shoulder because they're often ignored by the rest of the world, it isn't a very big one. They're too confident, smug even, to have an inferiority complex -- in which, as in many other things, they resemble Americans. They're different, too, in ways that I haven't quite figured out yet -- it has something to do with a bluff, British-tinged working-men-bonding style (the famous Aussie "mateship") that doesn't run quite as deep in the U.S., although we have some of that too. There's a deep anti-authority streak in both countries, but we're more lone wolves than they are. Blame it on John Calvin and the cowboys.

But not all Australians are patriotic. I have the honor of residing in the only neighborhood in all of Australia to have mooned the Olympic torch. I'm staying in a district called Newtown, a scruffy-chic anarcho-lesbian-yuppie-punk neighborhood just west of downtown. The morning after I arrived I was sitting in a cafe with my hosts, two "journos" (Aussie for journalists) and their new baby, when a woman described to me as a well-known and well-liked local lesbian activist came up to our table and told us, with a twinkle in her eye, that we should get up to the main intersection right away because the Olympic torch was passing through and they were going to "give it the brown eye."

I'd been reading in the paper about the emotions stirred by the torch in its epic passage through all of Australia, watching TV pictures of the incandescent smiles and tears it ignited throughout the whole country, and so I assumed the expression "brown eye" must refer to some special tribute. Perhaps it was a grand welcoming wink, performed in unison by all brown-eyed inhabitants of Newtown? No, Jean and Mark informed me, giving the brown eye actually meant mooning someone. (Australian slang is legendary for good reason. If a nation's greatness can be measured by its vernacular, and I think it can, then Australia is right up there.) It seemed some of the local disaffected citizenry ("We call them the ferals," Jean said) were planning to show their contempt for the corporate, corrupt, big-money Olympics by dropping trou as the torch went by.

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This couldn't be missed. We hurried up the road with the baby pram to the main drag. There we found a couple of hundred disaffected young and not so young people, none of whom would be selected for a Calvin Klein commercial, milling about muttering and getting ready to get really pissed off, like athletes pumping themselves up for a gold-medal performance. They were a familiar sight -- standard scowling Lower East Side and Mission District types with Aussie accents. I suppose there is something to be said for being professionally angry -- it denotes a higher moral sensitivity, although a world run by these sourpusses would not exactly offer a rollicking good time. You do have to give them and their neighbors one thing, though -- a McDonald's that opened in the neighborhood apparently closed due to complete nonattendance, which may make it the only one in the world to do so and which merits some kind of plaque or official proclamation.

Anyway, as various official pre-torch vehicles passed by, the permanently pissed-off ones began chanting, led by a guy in a big death's head mask that I think was supposed to look like IOC strongman Juan Antonio Samaranch. This was a smart idea, since even among that vast majority of Australians who are well disposed toward the Games, Samaranch is not exactly beloved. Chants included "More money for schools, no money for Olympics!" and my personal favorite, "More drugs in sport!" The protesters, lining the road and held back by a line of bland-faced, good-humored cops, screamed invective and flipped off every official car that came by. I was becoming dispirited by the whole scene -- couldn't I have just one sentimental Olympic torch moment? -- when a big, beefy motorcycle cop rode by and saved the day. With a big smile on his face, he flipped off the whole line. That's when I knew I was going to like this country.

A little Indian girl was standing next to me in the midst of the protesters, timidly holding a little Australian flag. She appeared confused and intimidated. Then the torch appeared, almost at the end of its long journey across the country, carried by a beaming, beloved Australian athlete named Jane Flemming. The ferals screamed abuse. Flemming seemed oblivious, jogging by with a light step. I clapped my hands feebly as the torch went by. The little girl shyly waved her flag. The flame, bouncing up and down, disappeared into the distance.


Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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