Friday, April 29, 2011

figure skaters and their countries

i love watching figure skating; i love it the way only a klutz can love visions of utter grace. i am fascinated by the range of political implications of this sport/art. 'the men and the ladies'--the phrase infuriates me. it's appallingly condescending: these 'ladies' are women.

the sport is on the one hand, about as equal opportunity as it gets: there are women skaters, men skaters, pairs and dancers who are combined in an image of absolute heterosexuality. it never allows its fans to forget or ignore gender. for many years, female ice dancers were required to wear skirts. eventually some of the rebelled by wearing bloomer-type short pants with a small scarf-like swath of material belted around them. eventually the rule changed. but the unwritten rule that women must show a lot of flesh has remained in place. as has the equally unwritten and complementary rule that they must appear to be wholesome and 'good.' so they have to have costumes that include a large amount of the material known as 'illusion,' with a french pronunciation but a universal implication. the 'ladies' must, like beauty-pageant contestants, exude an air of virgin-whore combined.

along with this is the implicit denial of homosexuality in the skating world. several years ago, when brian orser was outed by a vengeful ex-lover, a huge fuss was made about it. there was an air of wonderment in the coverage--you mean, a famous skater is gay? all this, while a number of well-known skaters were dying of AIDS, and videos of the funerals were shown. finally, rudy galindo came out publicly. still, the flamboyance of a coyly non-defining johnny weir is tolerated as a comically annoying aberrance. the overall image remains apple-pie gosh-darn straight. everywhere--not justin america but in the skating world internationally.

and, as inevitably as with most competitive sports, it has an aura of high patriotism. flags abound; the winners of each world or olympic event stand, usually teary-eyed, as their national anthem is played. we won; our country won.

but here is where it plays out in the most fascinatingly contradictory way. the top skaters have always led pretty international lives. you find the right coach, and you move to where that coach lives. you stay sometimes for years, a citizen of one country living in another.

and it gets more complicated. dual citizenship often exists. when it does, the skater might decide that the country she has lived in isn't the best country to skate for. sylvia fontano was an american born and bred, but one parent was italian, and that was enough for her and for italy. she skated in worlds as an italian. similarly, an israeli ice dance champion was an american.

this makes a lot of practical sense. if you're a skater from one of the big skating countries, like the US or russia, you have a lot of competition, and may have little chance of getting to the top. but if you skate for a country with a small skating community, you can end up a world or olympic champion.

but what if you don't have dual citizenship? and here is where it gets interesting. more and more we see skaters relocating and applying for citizenship in her new country. to some extent, this began during the cold war: communist country skaters who felt confined by the control the government had over their lives, and especially their mobility within and outside of the country, defected. not lots, but like other atheletes and dancers, those that did got big publicity. it was good for america and the other 'free countries' to project themselves as the patrons of artistic freedom.

then, especially with the downfall of the soviet bloc, more and more skaters moved from and to more and more countries. it was big news a few years ago when canadian ice dancer tanith belbin, who was partnered with american benjamin agosto, applied for US citizenship. much drama came out of the timing: would she get her citizenship in time to skate for america in the olympics? [she did.] there was no suggestion that she had been in any way restricted by her government or her skating association in canada. she was part of a good team and they could go far as a team.

i was thinking about this tonight, watching worlds. tonight featured pair teams' and men's long program. among the skaters getting a lot of attention kawagudi and smirnov, the russian competitors. they are terrific skaters, but that wasn't the only reason they got the attention. kavagudi is originally from japan, and was much affected, the commentators observed, by the tsunami in her birth country. she had left that country two years ago, because she was determined to train with the famous coach tamara moskovina. she kept applying to moskovina, and kept getting turned down. so she packed up and moved to russia and virtually camped out at moskovina's door. the coach finally accepted her, to train her as a russian skater. she is now a russian citizen.

the very top pairs team for the past couple of years (who won again tonight) is the german team of aliona savchenko and robin salkova. savchenko is from the ukraine. her coach, ingo stuer, wanted her to skate with the german salvkova. she moved to germany and became a citizen.

all my examples are female, and one could argue that the old ideal of women leaving home to be with their husbands makes it a little easier for women to switch citizenship. but there are several men who have made similar choices over the years. anthony liu, born in china, repatriated and in 1996 became an australian citizen, representing his new country until his retirement in 2003. more recently, maxim shipov left russian to become israel's national champion.

the world of figure skating fans seems not to have any problems with this, for which i am glad on several levels. it says something to me about our much-vaulted virtue of patriotism. it says it's really not as fundamental as propagandists try to make it. whatever feelings these skaters have about their countries of origin, they have chosen their work over their countries. aside from the old iron curtain escapees, they have not done so for political reasons, but for practical ones. there is a love that can transcend love of country. i remember once the great russion defector rudolf nureyev being asked about his allegiance to his new country, america. his reply was: as a dancer, i have no country. as a dancer, my country is dance.

i doubt that any of these people would think of themselves as anarchists, or indeed as political actors of any sort. they are simply choosing their allegiances in different terms than that of patriotism. i'm certain that most of them feel gratitude toward the country that has allowed them to act on their talent and their passion. many must also feel nostalgia for the land they grew up in--though i would bet, if they were queried, the nostalgia would be more for a specific town, specific people, and familiar customs than for the capital-c Country. it is perhaps not much different than a wife following her husband into his world, except that it lacks the sexist premise of gender roles. 'forsaking all others' isn't limited to personal attachment to a spouse. and forsaking a country for a greater love when nothing in society demands that you do so is a brave and profound decision.

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