I'm so outraged I could twirl!

Something really ugly went down on the Olympic rink, and it wasn't just a Canadian skating costume.

Published February 14, 2002 8:11PM (EST)

I am really worked up over this skating thing. I very seldom get worked up over anything involving Canada except, maybe, a heated debate about the relative merits of Leonard Cohen vs. Jimmy Buffett. But there's no doubt whatsoever in my mind that the Canadians got shafted on this one. I am so worked up about it that I intend to actually learn something about figure skating and then watch a tape of the incidents in question.

As I understand it, the Canadians lost because they were poorly dressed. Duh, excuse me, but why did that become an issue only at voting time? No one knew before the competition started that they were Canadians? For God's sake, has anyone ever seen a Canadian who wasn't poorly dressed? The ones I see singing "Oh Canada" at Yankee Stadium make Doug and Bob MacKenzie look like Cary Grant. That should have nothing to do with their skating ability. Most Canadians I know grew up on skates; they skate to work like we take subways in New York. Skates are to Canadians what pickup trucks are to Texans. You can't get anywhere without them, and in Canada they learn to skate in French and English before they're seven.

Since the Canadians are our allies, I think we should join them in getting pissed off about this. Plus, we owe them something for giving us SCTV, so I'm all for solidarity on this issue.

The problem is that I'm not sure how much specific help I can be on this one. As I said, my knowledge on this subject is limited. I can name exactly three figure skaters: Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan and Dick Button, and the latter only because Phil Hartman used to do an impression of him on "Saturday Night Live." (I have vague recollections of Carol Weiss, but only because she was in a Three Stooges movie, and of someone named -- I think I'm spelling this right -- Sonja Henie, but in truth I can't remember if she was a skater or a swimmer.) Controversial decisions, of course, are endemic to any kind of heated athletic competition. We must expect the Olympics to have their share.

I can still remember the ludicrous decisions given by boxing officials at the Seoul Olympics. I think they could have taken a 10-year-old boy out of the audience and gotten fairer results. But this figure skating thing is altogether different. It's less like the controversy surrounding a sporting event and more like the arguments over who wore the best and worst evening gowns at the Oscars. By this, I mean it seems to have more to do with aesthetics than athletics. Or maybe aesthetics is too highfalutin a word; maybe we should simply call it a matter of taste. Maybe in Eastern Europe stumbling like a hog on newly waxed linoleum while coming out of a quadruple somersault -- the exact technical term in skating escapes me at the moment -- is considered something good, something aesthetically pleasing. Maybe it's the brinkmanship of the thing that they admire. If you'll stop being cynical for a moment, I'm sure you can see that I have a point. I mean, Eastern Europeans really do have a whole different sense of the aesthetic than we do. I sincerely believe that there are people who have sat through all of Eisenstein's "Ivan the Terrible" -- Parts 1 and 2 -- and enjoyed the experience. I don't think anyone who feels that way is strange; I do think anyone who feels that way without having spent his entire life in Russia is strange.

Anyway, this is the kind of trouble you get into when you introduce the idea of subjectivity to a world that was supposed to be objective. Football fans may argue for hours -- or in this case, for decades -- as to whether Tom Brady actually fumbled against the Oakland Raiders. But at least each fan has an objective idea in his mind as to what a fumble should be. Who really has a clear idea of what is aesthetically pleasing until they think they see it? And how and where did such debates ever find their way into sports? I'm not one of those Neanderthal males who absolutely refuses to sit down and watch figure skating with a female companion. I will watch two unbroken hours of figure skating with any woman who promises to watch "The Last Seduction" (director's cut) with me. But I digress ...

One of the things that alienates me from figure skating is not the skating itself, but the concept that what is enjoyable about it can be objectified in a mathematical score. Do we do that with anything else? Are Academy Awards decided by taking all of the critics' judgments and averaging them out? (Thank God for Hollywood it isn't, because "Shrek" would kick "A Beautiful Mind"'s butt 9.8 to 8.6.) I don't have a problem with an expert explaining to me the finer points of luge snowboarding or some other activity I wouldn't even know was a sport if Bob Costas didn't remind me every four years. If it looks interesting, I'll learn the rules. What I can't stand is some snotty little clique of lobbyists spouting jargon at me as if it had some objective meaning. All the countries that participate in the Olympics are supposed to be U.N. members, right? They all subscribe to the charter on human rights, right? Well, why not pick a hundred or a thousand or a million viewers from participating countries at random and let them vote? Of course, the Canadians still have that problem with fashion, but then democracy can only cure so many problems.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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