The father of Nodar Kumaritashvili, the young Georgian luger who died the day before the start of the Olympics, was himself a Soviet Union luger. His father was likely, during those broadcasts, called “Russian.”
Now there is no more Soviet Union and the officials insinuate “those athletes from those small countries haven’t trained enough” and say his death was due to “human error.” But “these athletes from these countries” with large coaching staffs are also saying that the course is just too fast. I refer you to Howard Bryant’s on-line column: “With athletes' fears out in open, Olympic powers-that-be must listen.”
So while this idea of “independence” and nationhood is celebrated, along with the idea of the end of oppressive regimes, such free little nations are implicitly warned: “Be careful what you wish for” and “Welcome to the free world where the playing field is very uneven.” I also refer you to Bryant’s “Haves and have-nots share the same stage.”
I understand the prideful feeling of “the little nation that could.” My Estonian father used to point out all the Estonian last names competing for the USSR. They are names that sound and look Finnish, but are usually shorter because they are nouns, standing for everyday things like “hill” or “flower,” names grabbed up in a mandatory “sur-naming” movement: a moment of “freedom” for the Estonian serfs that was of course tied to the ability to conduct a census and implement taxation. Welcome to your nationhood. Now pay up.
My all-time favorite gymnast, Olga Korbut, is not Russian, I have just learned. But when I was young I somehow understood that Ludmilla Tourischeva, USSR gymnast, could look Asian and be called “Russian”; she was born in Chechnya, I have since found out. When the iron curtain was in place, stories of Bela Karolyi forcing the Romanian gymnasts to push cars up hills as part of their training seemed believable. So when Karolyi came to the States we were all a little surprised by the bear hugs he gave his gymnasts. He got “nation-y” right before our eyes.
Tanith Belbin was Canadian but became Canadian-American when she started competing with her American partner Ben Agosto, who is Jewish and Puerto Rican, born in Chicago. The Canadian ice-dancers, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who won the gold, train in Michigan. The Turkish figure skater Tugba Karademir trains in Canada and performs to Turkish music. The camera showed us her parents in the audience. “At first they had to work menial jobs; now her mother works for Lockhead Martin.” American figure skater Mirai Nagasu’s parents are Japanese. The Japanese woman who skates with a Russian partner moved to Russia and gave up her Japanese citizenship because she wanted to train with the best. They got silver. The US figure skater Johnny Weir trains with a Russian coach and loves everything Russian, including Yevgeny Plushenko’s mullet hairdo, and so he signifies on Plushenko—he has an even better version of the haircut and speaks Russian. His costumes have pink tassels and lace up, signifying on the corset, and he plays to the crowd in a flirty way that makes him appear very femme. More than one person I have talked to believes that his scores suffer because he has taken the sport of men’s figure skating to its conclusion—“are they all gay?” Question for further research: are Gay Games competitors divided up by nation as well?
South Korea’s Kim Yu-Na trains in Canada and skates to music from James Bond. Occasionally she does saucy moves and holds her hands together as if she’s pointing a gun, signifying on those famous Bond film introductions of curvy women in silhouette. Which reminds me that I once read an article on gender and sport that said that the camera frames the female figure skaters much more closely than the male skaters. During the short program, female figure skaters must show their flexibility, hold their leg up while grabbing their skate blade, and reveal quite a lot. Dick Button, the femme, enthusiastic, and New Jersey-born gold medalist skater of ’48 and ’52, who is often a fire-side chat guest of Bob Costas, has said he is not a fan of this move.
There’s the Canadian ski-cross competitor Chris del Bosco who grew up in Colorado but his father is Canadian. Joannie Rochette, Canadian figure skater whose mother died in the days leading up to the competition, is Quebecois. But the Canadian anthem appears to mostly be sung in English. If you are Swiss your name can be Carlo or Heinz or Jacque.
And there is a Jamaican ski-cross skier Errol Kerr who was born in New York. He failed to advance to the finals of his sport which lead Jonny Moseley—freestyle skiing legend and inventor “the dinner roll” trick—to comment, sadly: “there will be no cool running this time.” But competing in Vancouver 2010 is “the snow leopard,” a nickname given to Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, alpine skier from Ghana who, according to The Washington Post “started racing just six years ago after taking up a job as a receptionist at a dry ski slope in Milton Keynes, England.” Other temperature inversions exist. There is Estonian cross-country skier Kristina Smigun who won a silver medal, lives in Florida, and says she hardly ever trains. By the way, Smigun is not a very “Estonian” name—she is the daughter of Anatoli Smigun, one of many ethnic Russians who are also Estonian.
If you have been watching the Olympics and following all these “nation-y” identity constructions, you might now conclude that the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner” is a rather absurd National Hockey League tradition. The Russian ice hockey team features the Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin who is in an NHL scoring competition with Pittsburg Penguin’s star Sidney Crosby who is Canadian. Players you never guessed are Canadian are Canadian. Players you guessed were Canadian are from the US. But “North America” is a term now being used to designate the “togetherness” of the US and Canada in order to celebrate the victory of the Canadian ice-dancing pair, as in “they are the first North Americans to win a gold medal in this sport.”
There was controversy when the Russian ice-dancing pair wanted to wear Australian aboriginal costumes and dance to “tribal” music. Upon arriving in Vancouver, it was reported that they had a meeting with some First Nations officials, gifts were exchanged, and after the first compulsory dance, the pair sat in the kiss and cry area with “native” blankets slung over their shoulders to signify an understanding of some sort. This same ice-dancing pair used controversial bondage ropes as part of their costumes for their last dance. He grabbed her ropes often in order to lift her, suspend her, and swing her around. Because they also appeared to have the Mona Lisa airbrushed on to their costumes, I thought the dance signified on The Da Vinci Code, but I might be wrong. The US ice-dancing pair Davis and White signified on Indian-ness in one of their dances: “that coy sideways glance” and certain yogic hand positions were the unifying moves, we were told, of the entire dance. We were also told that unlike the Russians, “these costumes are authentic” and “this dance has been downloaded all over the world, but do you know where it’s most popular? In India!” The nation-y parade continued when the Israeli pair Roman and Alexandra Zaretsky, who train in New Jersey, danced to the Jewish folk song Hava Nagila, a song written in 1918, and signifying their Jewish-ness, even though, or perhaps because one can be Israeli and not Jewish. And then there was the French pair who came out as cowboys and I admit that her cowboy boot skates were amazing. As they danced to country music—a music not at all the domain of just cowboys—I began to catalogue all I had seen in just two hours and it appeared as if there was no “self” or “other” or “authentic” left.
At the closing ceremonies, the athletes walk in to the stadium all mixed up, when just two weeks prior, they marched in under “their” flag, proving that the Olympic spirit is schizophrenic: We are different! We are the same! It is enough to make one feel “nation-y” all over—an Olympic feeling far more innocent than the blood that is shed over the imaginary known as “nation.”
JILL MAGI works in text, image, and textiles. LABOR will be out in September 2013 from Nightboat Books, and her other books are Threads (Futurepoem), SLOT (Ugly Duckling Presse), Cadastral Map (Shearsman), and Torchwood (Shearsman). She was a 2012-13 visiting writer in the MFA poetry program at Columbia College Chicago and an instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.