It’s Olympic time again. The athleticism and elegance have been, so far, most extraordinary. Most memorable.
Her name is Aliona Savchenko, and I suppose it’s possible to forget her name. Even her story.
His name is Bruno Massot, and I suppose the same goes for him. Sigh.
The modern Olympic games were founded mostly on the energy and vision of Pierre de Coubertin. He sought to improve international relations and harmony through the (supposedly) non-political path of sports competition. It was certainly a beautiful vision; but I’m not sure he’d be quite so happy with how things have turned out.
I’m also not sure how or when the Olympics became so nationalistic. I personally find all the nationalistic shouting a bit embarrassing and – considering Baron de Courberin’s vision – a bit shameful. It pains me to hear of nations’ medal counts, and the focus on athletes’ nationalities.
In the first few modern Olympics – 1896, 1900 and ’04 – athletes competed only for themselves, and perhaps their local sports clubs. Like “The Milwaukee Swimming Club.” There was clearly no nationalism.
So, how did it start? Perhaps the first inkling came at the 1908 London Olympics. The Games had first been awarded to Rome. But Italy was struggling and in recovery from a massive eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 1906. The games were reassigned to England. It was the third consecutive time that history had contrived to put the Olympics in the same city as the World’s Fair. In those days the World’s Fair was a much bigger deal than it is now; much bigger than the Olympics. They almost didn’t survive.
That’s when the first “Parade of Nations” in an Opening Ceremony occurred. It seems to have been a pageantry and marketing ploy to make the Olympics standout against everything else going on around.
In that “parade”, the American flagbearer Ralph Rose – a shot putter and giant of a man at over 6’-5” and 250 pounds – refused to “dip the flag” as the American contingent passed before King Edward VII. Throughout the games the British judges and referees were perceived by many to be more than a bit biased against the American athletes. So petty.
I suppose some flames of healthy patriotism will naturally spill over into blatant nationalism. Consider the Cold War, and the heavy, boot heeled Soviet oppression behind the Iron Curtain, and especially upon the states of Hungary and Czechoslovakia – the brutal suppression of pleas for freedom there in 1956 and ’68. Or anti-colonialism, as teams from around the world competed against, say, the United Kingdom.
On the other hand, thumping of chests over medal counts, and hoping for a victory by someone – an otherwise nameless and faceless person – who wears the colors of your country, or the country of your ancestors, strikes me as out of bounds. Strikes me as unsportsmanlike and well outside of what Baron de Courberin envisioned for all of us.
And worse, shouts of “U-S-A!! U-S-A!!”, accompanied by fanatic flag waving, bring, for me, visions of 100,000 Germans singing “Deutschland über Alles” in Berlin, 1936, under countless Nazi flags, their right hands extended in salute to their Führer. All this as German athletes – whether they ascribed to the Nazi political philosophy or not; and many did not – racked up victory after victory.
Even with Jesse Owens and “The Boys in the Boat” participating, a united pre-war Germany overwhelmingly “won” the medal count at the Summer Games in ’36. There were plenty of opportunities for nationalistic and enthusiastic German sports fans to throw out their right hand, show off their Nazi tolerance – if not complete sympathy and allegiance – and shout “Deutschland!!!!”
The games are for the athletes and their performances are for us to admire. Period. The end. Unless you are from very, very tiny Liechtenstein, I don’t see any need for particular pride for a country’s medals. [Per capita, Liechtenstein has certainly won the most medals in Olympic history. At a population of under 40,000 they have gained a total of ten winter games medals, two of them gold, over the years. Astounding. If the US had won at the same rate, they’d have about 90,000 medals, all time. “We” have fewer than 300 Winter medals; and only 28,000 if you tally Summer Games – which are heavy on track and water events and in which Liechtenstein has never seriously competed.)
Aliona Savchenko is a world-class figure skater. At age 35, she is “ancient” compared to many of her competitors. As her name suggests, Aliona Savchenko is Ukrainian, competing for that nation in the Salt Lake 2002 Olympics, as well as the Goodwill Games. Before that she won the pairs competition Nebelhorn Trophy “for the Ukraine” in 1999.
A new coach and a new partner led Savchenko to move to Chemnitz, Germany. After initial struggles, they soared to German and European prominence. She earned German citizenship and won bronze medals at the 2010 and ’14 Olympics (in Vancouver and Sochi).
Again, she changed partners and coaches, hoping to beat the “biological clock”, and perhaps give gold one last shot. 2018 would be her 5th Olympics. Her new partner was a Frenchman, from Normandy, Bruno Massot.
Yet again, after initial struggles with a new partner and coach, the team blossomed, earning the German championship and gaininig world recognition. However, their participation on the great world stage was hindered: As nationals from two different countries, they could not be a team, unless the native’s country would permit it.
Of course, France would not simply let Massot skate for Germany; they eventually made him pay 30,000 euros for a release. Blatant blackmail if you ask me. The French say they let him off easy: they first asked for 100,000. But the Olympics would be something different. How much would that extortion cost? So, Massot applied for German citizenship. It was approved just last November.
So here we have Germany – who will long be remembered for their ancestors’ hateful attitude and treatment toward outsiders – long be remembered for their horrible occupations of France and Ukraine – long be remembered for Nazi atrocities – today accepting over one million Middle Eastern Refugees. And now accepting a mixed French-Ukrainian figure skating team as their own.
Massot is a strong, powerful and graceful skater. Six feet tall and solid muscle. Savchenko is a bit of a “doll” at a full foot shorter. But all five feet of her is dynamite.
Of course, they won: a Ukrainian and a Frenchie ironically competing under the German flag. Sorry to repeat: It was Savchenko’s Olympic fifth try — with two different countries and three different partners. That’s persistence.
When the final scores for the Russian team went up (the last team to skate), and it was clear Savchenko and Massot had won, the bronze-winning Canadian team – led by the adorable and ebullient Meagan Duhamel – rushed over to congratulate and hug them. Yes, there were tears of joy all around – they don’t call it “kiss and cry” for nothing – and for a moment I felt like joining them in a “tissue moment.”
Yes!! This! This is what the Olympics should be about. We don’t care which countries win the events; or the most medals.
The athletes are showing us what it is about. Breaking down barriers. Ignoring international boundaries. Ignoring politics. And simply admiring the human spirit… in ourselves and in each other. And demonstrating what that spirit can lead athletes – what the human spirit can lead all of us – to accomplish. Isn’t that why we loved and remember Nadia Comaneci?
Tomorrow the women’s teams from Canada and the US will compete for the gold medal in hockey. Personally, I win (and lose) either way; I have allegiances both ways. And, yet, I’m sure that after a very hard-fought re-match they will sincerely hug and congratulate each other. And many will probably cry.
And that will be in keeping with the hope, spirit and intent of Baron de Courberin. Or, in other words: something we can all aspire to.
As to the French? Well, we will be in Caen — Bruno Massot’s home town in Normandy — later this spring. My guess is they will have a plaque or a sign up, trying to steal away a little of Bruno’s glory. And M. De Courberin will toss in his grave.
Thanks for reading
Joe Girard © 2018