Big Pressure, Little Shoulders
Save the absence of Michelle Kwan -- who I would happily watch purely for artistry -- this year was one of the best Olympics I can remember for women’s figure skating. The talent level was high and the top contenders delivering big in the moment. In contrast to the last Olympics, all of the medal winners not only stayed upright during their performances, but were impassioned and gutsy throughout. However, I found it hard to stomach the immense nationalistic pressure that an event such as the Olympics breeds. Teens Rachael Flatt and Mirai Nagasu were reminded repeatedly that U.S. women have medaled in every Olympics since 1968. And Mao Asada and Yu-Na Kim’s home countries were relentless in their pressure; clearly translating the message that not only would gold be a win for the home team, but it would be a huge victory against the opposing country -- drawing the two skaters into longstanding cultural conflict. One of the announcers said that both skaters deeply felt that anything less than gold was not good enough in the eyes of Japan and Korea, respectively.
And clearly, it was not. Mao Asada’s face says it all in these photos. Like this one, where the caption could very well read, “I am so scared to go home. I would do anything for this to be a different color.”
Or this one. When Mao Asada is happy she's got a megawatt smile that lights up her whole face; this is a forced flicker.
The concept that it was not enough for Asada to make history with two clean triple axels in one program (also historically, three overall across the short and long) and receive an Olympic medal just seems like an absurd amount of pressure for little shoulders. And as a parent, my heart truly aches for her, and I worry about the emotional fall out she will experience from the Olympics.
In contrast, it’s notable that among the top contenders, only Canada’s Joannie Rochette was spared. Though Canadians are a more mellow bunch in general (I can attest to this; I lived there for a few years), the death of Rochette’s mother just days before the short program ended up casting a completely different light on the experience. Everyone seemed to be in agreement that it didn’t matter what the result was; it was hugely brave and amazing just for her to be there.
If only every one of these skaters was embraced with that level of acceptance and admiration.
Images from Vancouver 2010 figure skating.