Olympathy for Pretentious People

August 12, 2008

For the first time in my life, I am actually enjoying Olympic coverage. That’s because, for the first time, coverage isn’t limited to what Thomas Paine called the “tyranny of the tube”. NBCOlympics.com has been providing live streaming coverage of a multitude of sports, all at a click’s length. While the live coverage is only reinforcing my nocturnal lifestyle, the difference is unquestionable. For one, I don’t have to be force-fed taped Olympic coverage through the television stations focusing on America-centric competition. Besides, I don’t care less about Michael Phelps or track and field… even gymnastics have lost their luster. I want to watch handball, badminton, fencing… futbol. But the best part of the online coverage is how wonderfully bare-bones it is: there are no talking heads, no flashy graphics, no blocks of commercials (except for some offensively bad spots by GE), there’s not even any commentary. All you hear is the sound of the game, the mingling of languages, the swelling audience. Visually, the shots are surprisingly well composed, and the usual replays and close-ups render the sports as a naturalistic aesthetic experience (compared to the artificial grotesqueness of a Super Bowl).

Personally, I’m captivated by the details… by the Spanish pep-talk given by the Brazilian Handball coach, by the eyeliner on a female Hungarian Handball player, by the way an injured Japanese Judo fighter was carried away like a cradled baby, by a Korean fencer’s lime green nail polish, by the bloody hair of a Kiwi Field Hockey player and the star forward telling his goalie “it’s me and you” after a win, by the syncopation of whistles… I could go on. For an added effect, I like to play music along with the live footage, providing rich atmosphere and subtext whenever the rhythm of music complements the rhythm of athletics. Case in point: the tense last minute of the women’s individual foil gold medal match set to the drumscapes of Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick”, or the Brazilian soccer team’s final counterattack and goal accompanied by the Cadenza from the Adagio of Rodrigo’s “Concerto de Aranjuez”. At this exact moment, A women’s soccer match between North Korea and Germany is being illuminated by Charles Mingus. I’m cheering for North Korea, since their players are more likely to be sent to a labor camp for losing.

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A Nun Unmums: reflections on taking dives

July 5, 2008

As one of the non-voting Williams sisters takes home the Wimbledon prize, a former Wimbledon finalist has told an English newspaper that she threw the 83 Wimbledon final to Martina Navratilova. Andrea Jaeger was 18 when Navratilova destroyed her in the Wimbledon finals 6-0, 6-3 in 54 minutes. Jaeger became a professional tennis player when she was 14 and retired five years later because of a shoulder injury. She became an ordained Dominican nun in 2006.

Jaeger in the flower of her youth

Jaeger in the flower of her youth

Any such revelation is instantly met with accusations of lying, which is a fair critical response. Jaeger, in a 2003 interview, did attribute her Wimbledon loss to a sore thumb and emotional distress due to an argument with her father (and manager). In that interview, she mentioned that she played without determination. It is definitely possible that Jaeger is still trying to justify a quarter-century old loss. But actually proving whether Jaeger did or didn’t throw the game is impossible. Only Jaeger herself can attest to her choices during the game. Whatever shock value this confession has is due to the absurd nature of sports, where losing is never a choice. In sports, one loses because one is incapable of winning, and winning is the only option. When enterprising players such as the 1919 White Sox or the 1978 Peruvian national soccer team decide to take a dive, the whole legitimacy of the game is called into question and panic ensues. Once you choose to play the game, you exchange your choice bag for the role of player. But the most interesting thing about Jaeger’s recent confession is not that she threw the game, but her stated reasons for doing so:

“My dad also asked me about something he heard that happened in the locker-room. I refused to answer. If I’d told him some of the things I encountered on the tennis circuit, he’d have hurt people and pulled me out of that final. Over the years, I took a few beatings from my father to protect players and staff. Dad was so angry that I would choose to protect them and not answer his question that I thought he was going to get his belt. I said I was sorry, grabbed my bra and my wallet and ran outside, aware dad wouldn’t hit me in public.”

“I wanted to order a cab, so I went to the flat next door where Martina was staying. I was upset and kept pounding on the door and ringing the bell until Martina’s trainer, Nancy Lieberman, opened the door and took me to the kitchen. Martina was sitting in the living room. She glanced round at me briefly with a look on her face to say that I’d interrupted her preparation for the final. She stayed seated and didn’t look at me again.”

“I couldn’t have done that in her position, but all I thought at the time was: ‘I’ve changed her routine and affected her. I can’t go out and try in the final now’. Martina missed her chance to help her neighbour who was suffering in order to fulfil her desire, so I had to make it right. I gave up my desire to give someone their help.”

There’s no question that Martina Navratilova acted like a huge asshole the night before the finals. Even if it was Wimbledon, Navratilova had already been there. What would it have cost to give a person some empathy? Perhaps Jaeger realized at that moment how much the role of “tennis player” can make one so cold and distant -so inhuman… but what is more inhuman than the negation of agency?

Of course it’s left to wonder whether a terrified 18 year old American girl really reasoned so elegantly before the Wimbledon finals. Maybe she took a dive because she wanted to say a big “Fuck you” to her dad. Maybe the frigid impressions of Martina looking away and the anxiety of unanswered door bells ringing hollow only coalesced into an actual understanding of the meaninglessness of the games much later in her life. Regardless of the reasons, Jaeger did not give a shit for the Wimbledon title that day. Her throwing the game was, after all, the most human thing she could do.

– s