- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2002

In his book "Humiliation," William Ian Miller points out that much of figure skating's popularity is based on the fact that the imminent possibility of humiliation always makes for an entertaining spectacle.

"We watch because it is a graceful dance performed by gifted artist-athletes, but we also watch because the performance is structured as a dare to the performer, a dare not to fall. … A fall in the slalom might give us some vicarious discomfiture but the fall is not the sacrilege it is when the performers are unhelmeted, vulnerable exposed in skimpy outfits designed with an eye more to eros than to function. The scanty clothing of the skater seems to deny cavalierly that falling is a possibility, when in fact falling is nearly all that we and they are thinking about. … To fall while pretending to the gracefulness of dance: therein lies humiliation."

At least according to American television ratings, figure skating is the most popular sport at the winter Olympics, primarily because of its staggering appeal to women viewers (elsewhere Mr. Miller notes that women tend to be far more openly interested in the topic of humiliation than men). The sport's popularity is somewhat ironic, given that its whole status as a sport is highly questionable; but then again, the Olympics are in large part not really about sports at all. They are about spectacle, nationalism, money and cheating, more or less in that order, and therefore figure skating, which is about exactly the same things, is in a sense the Olympic sport par excellence, as the French would be the first to tell you.

The overwrought atmosphere that surrounds high-level figure skating has more in common with beauty pageants or dog shows than it does with genuine sporting events, but that has not deterred the kleptocrats who run the International Olympic Committee from expanding its role at the games (in addition to the three traditional figure skating competitions, viewers are now subjected to ice dancing, an activity whose almost totally subjective and "artistic" nature makes a triple Lutz look like a three-run homer by comparison). Thus there was something truly fitting about the absurd dispute that dominated the first week of the Salt Lake City games.

There is little doubt that corrupt judging initially denied the Canadian pairs team of Salle and Pelletier their gold medal. Yet there is also something to be said for the Russian response to the scandal, which might be translated as "we stole the gold medal fair and square." Given the endemic and largely unavoidable bias that must contaminate any competition in which nationalist sentiments and subjective standards of judging both play such a large role, there was something rather comical about the sudden discovery that the judging of an Olympic figure skating event might feature significant elements of farce.

Indeed, in this respect, the latest figure skating scandal stands as an emblem for everything that is wrong about the Olympics. What makes true sporting events compelling to those who love them is precisely that there is nothing political or subjective about the ability to run 5,000 meters in 12 minutes and 39 seconds. In a world in which our ability to judge excellence is constantly compromised by our prejudices, there is a wonderful purity about that.

By contrast the Olympics, and in particular the media coverage of them, regularly allow considerations of petty nationalism and subjective judgment to contaminate something that advertises itself as a celebration of the essence of sports. Whatever the essence of sports may be, it has nothing to do with the bathetic soap operas that the most popular Olympic events so often become.


Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.


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