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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Psssst....Hey journalists....the Cold War is over...
Posted by Jill | 5:27 AM
There are few things that underscore this country's status as a fading empire than the continuing obsession in Olympics coverage with the medal count. Counting medals was a Very Big Deal during the Cold War, as if the number of Olympics medals a bunch of kids brought home was going to tilt the balance of power between two nations.

Today, there's no Cold War, Olympic athletes are emblazoned with corporate logos, and does it really matter how many medals American athletes bring home, especially in a world where any athlete can compete for just about any country? I don't follow skiing or other Olympic sports that much, but when Kim Yu-na, the South Korean favorite to win the gold medal in the women's figure skating event lives in Canada and is coached by Canadian Brian Orser; and Johnny Weir is coached in Wayne, NJ by Oksana Baiul's old coach, Galina Zmievskaya and her son-in-law Viktor Petrenko, who has his own gold medal and was himself one of the last beneficiaries of the old Soviet system; the whole concept of medal counts saying something about a country has been turned on its ear. It was all horsepuckey anyway, especially the more we learned about East German doping and other scandals.

So why does every news update about the Olympics start with crowing about the U.S. medal count? And why does Jere Longman in the New York Times, who's been around long enough to be able to string two coherent thoughts together, realize that smugness about an end to Russian domination of pairs skating when a Chinese pair in their thirties won the gold medal, is just a wee tad ironic?
China won its first Olympic figure skating gold medal on Monday when Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo took the pairs title at the Vancouver Games. Their countrymen, Pang Qing and Tong Jian, took the silver medal. A German pair, Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, won the bronze.

“My belief is, records are set to be broken,” Zhao said. “I think this is the embodiment of the Olympic spirit and the attraction of the Olympic Games.”

The best the Russian pair of Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov could manage was a distant fourth after a shattering performance in the free skate.

“We were prepared for this sad moment,” Oleg Vasiliev, a 1984 Olympic pairs champion with his partner, Elena Valova, and now a coach, said after Sunday’s short program. “Still, it hurts the heart.”

The breakup of the Soviet Union essentially cost Russia a generation of pairs skaters, Vasiliev and other coaches said. The pipeline of government funding — free flowing in the sports-as-propaganda time of communism — began to dry up. Rinks closed to be transformed into other business, like car dealerships and shopping malls. Some top coaches left to work in the United States, where they could be assured of teaching private lessons and getting paid.

As the social safety net became frayed with the unraveling of the Soviet Union, “Many people had so little money, they had a choice — buy bread or put their kids in activities like skating or other sports,” Vasiliev said. “We went through a messy situation. Unfortunately, we now have a gap.”

Vulnerability became apparent when dual golds were awarded to a Canadian pair at the 2002 Winter Games during the judging scandal in Salt Lake City. The gap began to show dramatically in pairs skating after the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy. It has now reached the point that the top Russian women’s pairs skater, Kavaguti, is a native of Japan. She modified her family name of Kawaguchi after gaining Russian citizenship.

“This is the kind of leftovers from what we had,” said Tamara Moskvina, Kavaguti’s coach, who has tutored four previous Soviet/Russian pairs to Olympic gold medals. “It is a weak generation.”


The Chinese victory was seen by many as a democratizing milestone. Debi Thomas, who won a bronze medal in women’s skating at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary and is now an orthopedic surgeon, said, “Given that I’m a Chicago Cubs fan, there’s hope.”

Ingo Steuer, coach of the German bronze medalists and the winner of a similar medal competing in pairs at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, said, “It’s good for the sport to see someone else on the list.”

Vasiliev agreed that it was healthy that “other countries can see it is possible to win; it adds geography to the sport.” Yet Russia is not conceding anything.

It will host the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi and plans to return to the top of the podium. Public and private funding are on the rise, rinks are opening regularly, parents can increasingly afford lessons and some top coaches have moved back home.

“Unfortunately, we only have a few pairs who are competitive internationally,” Vasiliev said. “The rest are still young with not much experience. But we hope by the next Olympics we can get our gold medal back.”

I can cut Debi Thomas some slack for having a sizable emotional investment in seeing someone...anyone...who isn't Russian stand at the top of the podium. I always thought some of it was because she was black in this whitest of sports. But when she fell apart after two-footing her opening triple-triple combination in 1988 and finished with "only" a bronze after Katarina Witt preened and flirted her way through a nothing-special free skate to capture the gold and Canada's Liz Manley skated the program of her life to win the silver, you'd have thought by the press coverage that Thomas had sold nuclear secrets to the Kremlin. Today a bronze medal is treated like a medal, but back then, her bronze medal was regarded as a crushing defeat.

Given the increasing influence of China on the world stage, and given that China is essentially propping us up by buying our debt, it seems silly ato be crowing about the achievement of Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo, two Chinese skaters in their thirties who really are that good, as if it were still the early 1980s and "the fall of Russian pairs skating" means anything to international relations at all.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...
It's unfair that only nations can have Olympic teams and that corporations can only be sponsors ! It's a violation of inhuman rights !