Olympics: Skaters' trial by smile ranks as cruel voyeurism

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The Independent Online

Ice skating is horrible. I can't say I didn't know, because I've seen three women's finals at the Olympics now and each time I have come away excruciated.

It's like one of those films you see where you know that your feelings are going to be flipped over and around like so many cards in a sharper's hands. All right, specifically, ET, where, as my dear wife continues to remind me, I cried.

And Forrest Gump. Which for some reason I find has the same lachrymose effect.

Perhaps it's me. No it's not. It's the films. And it's the skating.

At the Lillehammer Games of 1994, the run-up to the women's competition was underpinned by the scarcely credible tactics that had been employed on Tonya Harding's behalf to diminish the effectiveness of her American rival Nancy Kerrigan. Namely the application of an iron bar to Kerrigan's knee by Harding's boyfriend.

Why Harding was allowed to skate in those Olympics is something that still escapes me. How Kerrigan managed to do well enough to win a silver is just as baffling.

But what the world witnessed in the Hamar ice rink during that competition was depressing beyond words. Harding, after weeks of ferocious media exposure, was a wreck. She needed to start her whole routine again after falling heavily, nominally because she had not laced her boots up properly, and actually, because she had been completely unlaced herself. It was like rubbernecking a car wreck.

Four years later, the same event proved to be hard going once again, even if in a less overtly brutal fashion. This time the pain belonged to Michelle Kwan, who saw her graceful, fault-free performance jumped all over by the 15-year-old painted clockwork doll that was Tara Lipinski.

What makes ice skating such a strain to watch is that it is constructed over a fault line between sport and theatre. Those who take part in it, like synchronised swimmers, are expected to hold their breath for two minutes and then bob up smiling.

Watching the spectacle served up to an emotionally incontinent crowd at the Salt Lake Ice Centre on Thursday night, all the old shuddery feelings came back to me.

The "kiss and cry" area is misnamed. There is no reason for skaters to have to witness their marks in public. The sport is over. Everything else is voyeurism.

I loved the way that Maria Butyrskaya dealt with her own smiley ordeal. Having put together a graceful but occasionally clumsy programme, the Russian exchanged a brief word with the inevitable pair alongside her and, with barely a glance at the first marks which confirmed her fitful performance, gathered up the toy rabbit and bear she had collected from the ice and stalked away.

By the time her presentation marks came up, she was gone. History. With dignity intact.

In truth, the result in the skating was the correct one. The 16-year-old Sarah Hughes skated out of her mind to earn a title the US public had already decided should go to Kwan, whose own rather sluggish performance dipped dramatically as she fell once to the ice, provoking a deep groan of dismay. How cruel it was to make her have to sit with her father for judgement, and to have to try and mask the despair which tugged at her face when the marks arrived.

For Russia's silver medallist, Irina Slutskaya, too, there was no just cause to dispute the standings, despite the noises her federation is now making. But Slutskaya had ample cause to feel insulted by the ignorant reaction of the crowd, and of those who decided which shots to show on the big screen above the ice.

Even before she had left the ice, the directors had cut to a shot of a giggly, nervy Hughes standing backstage with her almost demented coach. Slutskaya looked around, puzzled by the unexplained roar of acclaim.

And once the final result came up, as she sat on her chair, it was as if she had ceased to exist. The screens filled with Hughes, the air with hysterical acclaim. Rinkside, Slutskaya's coach wiped her tears and stroked her hair. Horrible.