It was not TV snow the cable guy recently checked out. No, the white stuff on my screen was actual meteorological precipitation covering the Beijing countryside during the Olympics.
The events of a winter Olympics seem less clearly defined than those in the summer contest, and I must admit that I watched sporadically at best. But the world’s best athletes spent two weeks flinging themselves around in the snow, calling into question the exact point at which “brave” ends and “foolhardy” begins!
Athletes on skis and snowboards from 91 nations headed downhill, crossed flat trails – sometimes toting rifles – jumped off hills into apparent nothingness, launched themselves into the air to improbably rotate themselves high above the spectators. It all seemed death-defying, but I have one question: How has enough time passed to bring the original snowboarding adventurer, Shaun White, to retirement after 22 years and five Olympics? I am feeling old again!
And then there was ice to provide athletes with a different type of competition surface. I watched a few heats of speed skating, accidentally saw a bit of hockey action, and still do not understand the principles or point of curling – maybe next time.
I became, however, uncharacteristically fascinated by the luges, skeletons, and bobsleds (by the way, bobsleigh is actually the official name of the event). Almost addictively, I watched grown people lie face-up or face-down on sliding contraptions offering scant protection. I saw other adults tuck themselves into little cars with one or three of their best friends to hurtle through multiple ice-encrusted curves at 80-90 miles an hour.
My reason for even viewing the Olympics, however, is the sport of figure skating, a compelling combination of athletic moves performed artistically. Although I enjoy the pairs and ice dancers, I have paid particular attention to the singles competitions since I was in grade school.
At 22, skater Nathan Chen excels regularly and often. In addition to a spectacular skating career that began quite early, he also studied ballet and performed advanced gymnastics. Even in the middle of the pandemic, he has split his time preparing for the Olympics and studying statistics and data science at Yale.
He arrived at the 2018 Olympics in South Korea as the gold medal favorite, primarily because of the multiple quadruple jumps included in his programs. However, an early fall precluded victory. Since then, three consecutive world championship titles could not quench his thirst for Olympic gold.
Personally, I believe his uncharacteristic stumble four years ago allowed him to learn lessons about himself and life he might have otherwise missed. Nathan continues as an individual possessing great self-control, with each move of his skating programs relating precisely to the music. What I so loved this year was the last minute of his free skate. Performing to Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” he let loose, skating with an unabashed, unbridled joy that consumed his entire being. His gold medal represents a new Nathan Chen, more mature and improved on many fronts.
The joy and grace on the men’s side could not have been more directly contradicted by the ugliness that erupted during the ladies’ competition. I will not repeat the headlines of controversy that dominated every media outlet for days. Suffice it to say, the tear-filled debacle that unfolded at the conclusion of the competition, brought on by a self-centered coaching staff, forced a fifteen-year-old Russian girl to shoulder the excruciating pressure caused by their ruthlessly-exploitative tactics.
Kamila Valieva is the very age of hundreds of sophomore girls who passed through my classroom, often vulnerable on their way from girlhood to womanhood. The confusion of a pressure-packed international environment caused Kamila to falter. I only hope that she will receive guidance through her trauma, although such is seldom the case in state-controlled athletic programs.
And the most haunting picture of the entire ordeal was that of Anna Shcherbakova, the 17-year-old gold medal winner, as she wandered about alone – uncongratulated, unembraced, unacknowledged – on the most eventful night of her young life.
Leave it to me, however, to obsess about some infinitesimal detail barely related to the Olympics at all. It happened near the end of the parade of nations during the opening ceremony, when the three athletes of tiny Monaco entered Beijing’s National Stadium. I was stunned to learn from commentator Savannah Guthrie that the principality of Monaco, as the world’s second smallest country, contains 499 acres. That’s right – ACRES. There are fields in Champaign County with more acreage than Monaco. Kiser Lake State Park measures 531 total acres, including the lake itself. Nonetheless, Monaco is indeed a country with a prime minister, a monarchy, and citizens – all 39,244 of them!
Anyway, this set of games – with thrilling victories, agonizing defeats, and everything in between – passes into the history books. Despite the promise of apolitical international competition, politics crept in. Despite the promise of even playing fields for all athletes, cheating for advantage reared its ugly head. However, during a world-wide pandemic, the games did proceed to completion.
If I had my druthers, in the summer of 2024 in Paris and the winter of 2026 in Italy, I would eliminate the daily medal count by country as an unnecessary side competition. Celebrate the accomplishments, not the nationality. And I would urge all individuals involved in any way to redouble their dedication to the Olympic motto: Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together!
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.