Thursday, February 23, 2006

Some call it sport.

What’s Wrong with the Winter Olympics?

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, February 23, 2006:
What’s wrong with the Winter Olympics? Let’s start with Winter. Sport originated in holiday or festival celebrations in the Spring that were designed to encourage fertility of both soil and celebrants. Athletes of the Olympic Games from 776 BC to 393 AD, as an extension of those earlier vernal rites, commonly competed in the nude.

Of course, this year’s ice-dancing debutantes very nearly do so, too, and they are to be lauded for their high-minded homage to history. But until the snowboarders and ski- jumpers follow suit — of the birthday sort, that is — I’m sticking to my position that it’s too damned cold for outdoor sport. Not too cold for outside games, mind you, or demonstrations, or exhibitions, or contests — just for sport as most men understand it. As a charter member of that endangered tribe, at least as an intended recipient of mass-media programming, I will presume to speak for my brethren.

As louts lacking refined sensibility, men draw the line at according the honorable term “sport” to an activity that has predetermined grading criteria, subjective judging, nationalistic bias, and computerized tabulation (unless it’s boxing, but even in that benighted sport we brutes pray for a knockout to get around the dreaded scorecards). We like scores that look like this: 4-3; 28-21; 99-97 ... not 5.9 or 63.2. In baseball, football, basketball, hockey, even the somnambulist sport of soccer, we know the score and the stage of the game while we are watching it. At the track, for horses or men, the clock is provided for additional information — has a record been set, for example — but not to determine the victor. The race is to the swift, pure and simple.

Well-conditioned athletes of high determination and character populate the Winter Games as they do those of the Summer. But when they compete against the clock, or the scorecard, rather than against each other, it says here that they are playing a mere game much like the old television show Beat the Clock, in which the activity counted for nothing except maybe laughs and the clock was everything.

Why are baseball and cricket the two greatest of all sports? Because the players and spectators enter into a magic circle from which time is excluded.

As has been the wretched tendency with the Summer Games (medals for croquet, tug-of-war, trampolining, table tennis, and synchronized swimming), over time more and more dubious sports entered the Winter Olympics schedule. Biathlon — a modified form of military ski patrol (jeez) — came in for men in 1960 and women in 1992. Ice dancing appeared in 1976, moguls in 1992, aerials in 1994. The annus horribilis of 1998 brought us snowboarding and curling, the latter a stalking horse for shuffleboard’s entry into the Summer Games. Skeleton, after a long absence from the Games, returned to the program for men in 2002, at which time a women’s skeleton was added, too, though Kate Moss declined to enter.

Now, I’m not saying these activities are easy to perform well. But neither is typing, or hopping on one foot, or most anything else that may be done better or worse by one or another of us. And I’m not saying that there is no risk in ice dancing, especially to the female partner held aloft like a bag of groceries by a showoff at the checkout counter. And I’m not saying that the Olympic athletes are not fine specimens of humanity (excepting Bode Miller, Chad Henrick, and Shani Davis). But skill, daring and character do not define sport; head-to-head competition does — and the kamikaze fire drill of short-track speed skating doesn’t fit the bill, as the clock is the real contestant anyway.

As the Winter Olympics limp toward their merciful conclusion, and another American contestant or team goes down in flames, NBC struggles to fill its programming time with human-interest (is there another kind?) stories of the most maudlin cast. On the network’s Olympic website, Listerine Whitening invites you to click on its ad to see “the winning smiles of U.S. athletes” rather than the smiles of U.S. winning athletes. But our national disappointment is not why I’m giving up on the Winter Olympics, nor is it the rampant commercialization and stultification of man’s noblest trait, aspiration.

What has worn me down was present at the beginning, or at least my beginning, watching every televised Olympics, winter and summer, since 1956. It’s nationalism, that maker of wars and breaker of hearts since time began. I realize that my pleasure in the New York Rangers’ revival, after seven years of famine and pestilence, was owed largely to a legion of Czech mates led by Jaromir Jagr and a Swedish goalie named Henrik Lundqvist. To me they were all Rangers until they departed for their country’s respective headquarters at Torino, where the medal count by nation commenced with Day One. And they’ll be Rangers again next month, that’s not the issue.

When Pierre de Coubertin engineered a revival of the ancient Greek Olympics for Athens in 1896, it was after renouncing his family’s ambitions for him in the military and political arenas. He believed sport was a source of moral and educative energy that could change the world for the better. Today’s Olympics have little if anything to with his ideals, or mine. At these Olympics the ideal of sport, which is to suppress and deflect militarism and nationalism, joins in lockstep with them, or at least the mentality that nourishes them.


When Coubertin and his comrades readied the grounds at Olympia for the Modern Games, no one thought to suggest importing snow and ice to feature bobsleds, biathlons, or skiing. Figure skating came into the summer program at the London Olympics a dozen years later only because it happened to be a favorite in the host country. The next Olympics, though staged in seemingly propitious Oslo in 1912, offered no wintry frolics. Ice hockey, like figure skating an indoor sport that could be played in the summer, became an Olympic event at the Antwerp Games of 1920. Not until 1924, in Chamonix, France, did the International Olympics Committee (IOC) tepidly endorse an elaborate and separate Winter Games — featuring only bobsledding, figure skating, hockey, Nordic skiing, and speed skating — as an “Olympic winter carnival.”

Coubertin had not approved. When, however, the Olympic movement’s founder retired from the IOC in 1925, the way was clear to create the first official Winter Olympics for 1928, in St, Moritz, Switzerland. It proved enormously popular, with 15-year-old Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie emerging as the star of the Games as she would again in 1932 at Lake Placid and 1936 at Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

World War II wiped out the Winter and Summer Games that would have been staged in 1940 and 1944. When the Olympics resumed in 1948, the Winter Games returned to St. Moritz. America gained its first figure-skating champion in Harvard freshman Dick Button, who repeated in 1952 and is with us still as the voice of figure-skating competition. I dimly recall the battle for the gold medal in the women’s event in 1956, when Tenley Albright bested Carol Heiss, who came back to take gold four years later. But I became an enthusiastic spectator in 1960, when the U.S. hockey team upset the Soviet team and captured the gold, led by goalie Jack McCartan, who would go on to a brief and undistinguished stint with my beloved Sad Sack Rangers.

And through the decades I rode the slalom with Jean-Claude Killy, Ingemar Stenmark, and my favorite, Alberto Tomba. I thrilled to the U.S. hockey team’s Miracle on Ice of 1980. I rooted for Dorothy Hamill and Rosi Mittermaier, was amazed by Eric Heiden and Johan Olav Koss, and even felt bad for Nancy Kerrigan ... and Tonya Harding, too.

But this year marks an end to my watching the Olympics, Winter or Summer. Give me the athletes who play for pay rather than the drumbeat of nations and networks.

--John Thorn

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Born on a mountain top in Tennessee / Greenest state in the land of the free / Raised in the woods so he knew ev'ry tree / Kilt him a b'ar when he was only three / Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier!

This Way to the Egress

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, Febrauary 9, 2006:
“You can’t make this stuff up.” That’s what readers once thought about James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, which now appears to describe the smithereens of his career, or J.T. Leroy’s The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, which now seems to have contained a confessional clue. Last week we learned that Oprah no longer recommends Frey’s novelistic memoir of hard times in a rehab gulag. This week we found that autobiographical novelist Leroy is not a 25-year-old former H.I.V.-positive male prostitute but instead a 40-year-old woman named Laura Albert.

For better or worse, the memoir is the literary genre of the age, as the novel was a century ago, and when it comes to storytelling, sinners are more fun than saints. And to the credulous, crap spread on a cracker may taste like pate if it is served up with sincerity. If readers of Frey and Leroy feel betrayed, it is not because the works were suddenly stripped of artistic value but because as consumers they were conned.

Truth in packaging is a legitimate issue, but I submit that it’s more needful for bologna than baloney. Lying has a long and honorable tradition in our land, from hype and hokum to bunk and balderdash, from frauds and fakes to educated elephants and sagacious snakes. The hoax, the prank, the tall tale, invented facts and fanciful foreign policy — all are as American as Davy Crockett’s coonskin cap and Babe Ruth’s called shot.

Practical lying in the New World owes much to the winks and nudges of Old, from the myths of the Classical period to the legends of the Bible. History is a lie agreed upon, Napoleon is said to have said (maybe it was Voltaire). Perhaps he recognized the binding force of a usable past, one that not merely records what happened but promotes the virtues required for nation building — courage, endurance, strength, loyalty, and indifference to death.

My take is that you can’t spell history without story, and stories are things we make up to reassure ourselves that the world as we know it will continue. If the stories entertain, so much the better. Here are some choice examples, making Frey and Leroy seem like pikers.

Predating the birth of Jesus by several years and two seasons? No problem for early Christians. They co-opted pagan festivals for their own holidays, accepting the prior customs while burying their names as the Bacchanalian rites became Easter and the Saturnalian rites, Christmas. Transforming Saint Nicholas of Smyrna into Father Christmas was a piece of tansy cake. Hawking phony relics — bones or body parts of saints and martyrs, the milk of the Virgin Mary, the teeth, hair, and blood of Christ, pieces of the Cross — was a thriving business. Stealing relics from another locality, like frat boys out on a mascot raid, only served to increase their value as agents of the miraculous.

The Donation of Constantine, however, took real chutzpah. A document supposedly written by emperor Constantine (285-337 A.D.) granting the Catholic Church ownership of territories within the western Roman Empire, the Donation was a fake, created no earlier than the date of its revelation, 756 A.D. Although the Donation was revealed to be a fraud in 1440, and the Church not long thereafter admitted as much, the Papal States were not returned to Italy until 1929.

What do Donald Crowhurst, Rosie Ruiz, Sir John Mandeville, and Marco Polo have in common? None completed the journey they purported to undertake. Ms. Ruiz “won” the Boston Marathon in April 1980 by running the final mile to the tape ... after traversing the bulk of the 26-mile course by subway. Her ruse was unmasked a week after she was awarded the medal. Donald Crowhurst, knowing that his boat would never survive the rough Southern Ocean in the Golden Globe yacht race of 1969, sailed across the Atlantic to the coast of South America where he lay low and waited for the other eight competitors to catch up. After spending months in solitude faking log books, Crowhurst faced the certain prospect of being found out and disgraced. He stepped into the Atlantic and disappeared, leaving the log books behind as expiation.

Marco Polo wrote a famous book about his journey to China in 1298, but modern scholars believe he never made it farther east than Persia and relied for his reports on China upon the accounts of other travelers. Mandeville’s Travels described the tour of an English knight who left England around 1322 and journeyed throughout Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Persia, and Turkey. He told of islands whose inhabitants had the bodies of humans but the heads of dogs, a race of one-eyed giants, and other peoples who obviously (at least to us) did not exist. Nor, as it turned out, did Mandeville, and the book’s true author remains unknown.

Literary frauds have ranged from the polite convention of finding a manuscript in a trunk — Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Washington Irving’s History of New-York, and countless others — to skillful forgery: Thomas Chatterton’s Rowley poems, James Macpherson’s Ossian, and the spectacularly brazen “discovery” of a lost Shakespeare play, Vortigern and Rowena. Backed by Richard Sheridan, the play opened and closed at the Drury Lane Theatre on April 2, 1796.

Perhaps the most celebrated such cases of recent times have been Clifford Irving’s forged autobiography of Howard Hughes, published in 1971, for which he served time, and the Mark Hofmann forgeries and bombing murder case. But to me the saddest literary fraud was that of Joe Gould, Bohemian par excellence and barroom poet of Greenwich Village. Cadging drinks for generations by hinting at the wonders of his work in progress, he went to his deathbed having verifiably written only one line of verse: “In the summer I’m a nudist, in the winter I’m a Buddhist.” His manuscript was a cipher, and Joseph Mitchell, the great writer who told “Joe Gould’s Secret” in 1964, never published another article though he showed up for work at The New Yorker for the next 30 years.

But I digress. P.T. Barnum was one of a kind, the Hierophant of Humbug. His hoaxes included the Fee-jee Mermaid (a stitched-together puppet of mummified mammalian and aquatic remains); Joice Heth (purportedly George Washington’s nurse and, at age 162, still on view for those with a dime); “The Great Buffalo Hunt” at Hoboken in 1843; his hall-clearing sign, “This Way to the Egress”; and more hilarious hoaxes than this slender column can bear.

In that same annus mirabilis of 1843 William Miller proclaimed the apocalypse, selling muslin robes to his faithful Adventists. When the anticipated end failed to eventuate, he pushed back his date by one year and tried again, with similar effect. That year of 1844 also produced Edgar Allan Poe’s Balloon Hoax, announced in an “extra” in the midday issue of the New York Sun of April 13. Poe’s reputation as an author and poet survived the momentary furor over the falsified Atlantic crossing. Frey and Leroy are unlikely to be so fortunate.

Recent great impostors have included Frank Abagnale, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can, and Ferdinand Waldo Demera, played by Tony Curtis in The Great Impostor (Curtis also impersonated an actor). But the all-time great impostor was George Psalmanazar, a Frenchman whose true name is unknown to this day. His most important work, the Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, was published in 1704, a year after his arrival in England. Describing a land unknown to Europeans, he shared such fantastical tidbits as the Formosan practice of sacrificing 20,000 infants to their gods each New Year. The book brought him celebrity: he was asked to teach the Formosan language at Oxford and invented an alphabet; the Anglican Church commissioned him to translate the Bible into “Formosan.” But by 1706 the ruse was over, and he drifted into hack writing. The year after he died, his memoir appeared in print: Memoirs of ****, Commonly Known by the Name of George Psalmanazar; a Reputed Native of Formosa (London, 1764).

In its April 1, 1985 edition, Sports Illustrated published a George Plimpton story about an unheralded rookie pitcher whom the Mets were poised to sign up. His name was Sidd Finch and he could reportedly throw a baseball at 168 miles per hour, cutting the corners off the plate. Inside the magazine, the subhead of the article read: “He’s a pitcher, part yogi and part recluse. Impressively liberated from our opulent life-style, Sidd’s deciding about yoga —and his future in baseball.” The first letter of each of these words, taken together, spells “H-a-p-p-y A-p-r-i-l F-o-o-l-s D-a-y” (plus “a-h, f-i-b”).

Such pranks are close to the tall-tale tradition that may be our enduring contribution to world humor. Often considered mere bombast, the tall tale is better viewed as comic mythology for a growing nation. Davy Crockett, he of the Disnified coonskin cap, was a genuinely important historic and literary figure who provided a template for the Mike Fink, Paul Bunyan, and Babe Ruth tales to come: “Crockett became a myth in his own lifetime,” wrote Constance Rourke in American Humor (1931). “After his death in 1836 he was boldly appropriated by the popular fancy. His heroic stand at the Alamo was richly described; and laments arose in the western wilderness. ‘That’s a great rejoicin’ among the bairs of Kaintuck, and the alligators of the Mississippi rolls up their shinin’ ribs to the sun, and has grown so fat and lazy that they will hardly move out of the way for a steamboat. The rattlesnakes come up out of their holes and frolic within ten feet of the clearings, and the foxes goes to sleep in the goosepens. It is bekos the rifle of Crockett is silent forever, and the print of his mocassins is found no more in our woods.’”

The difference between lying and telling tales, between inventing history and creating a useful sense of the past, is lost on Publishers Row and on Pennsylvania Avenue. What we want is to be let in on the joke, not to feel as if we are its butt.

--John Thorn

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The kilt need not be of the approved sort.

Regulate This

From the Saugerties Times of February 2, 2006:
I wore a uniform to school in the sixth grade. Actually, I had a choice between two: either a gray jumper and a white shirt with a Peter Pan collar beneath, or a pleated kilt with a top of my choice.

I wore a gray jumper. It was less expensive than the kilt, plus it didn't require multiple changes of shirts. What I didn't know was that no one wore a gray jumper. When I first set foot into my new school, I stood out, the lone gray island in a sea of tartan.

The other girls opted for kilts with a variety of riotously colored and occasionally boldly patterned shirts. My choice, or rather my mother's, clearly signaled to the other students that I was different. I didn't want to stand out. I was shy and wanted to blend in. Yet I couldn't, so I decided to embrace being different.

Like the glorious plumage of our feathered friends, the clothing we choose to wear sends signals. We communicate who we are, who we want to be, or sometimes, more importantly, who we don't want to be, through our wardrobe.

No one knows this better than teenagers. Their clothing is a language, communicating status, tribe affiliation and availability. Even when they strive to assert their individuality, the common struggle of all teens, they tend to do it in rigidly proscribed fashion. Artsy kids wear layers of mismatched clothing with homemade T-shirts, punks wear patches and spiked jewelry, jocks wear oversized jeans and polo shirts or hoodies, popular girls wear the latest in cute, form fitting clothing. Each clique indicates its membership by wardrobe.

The Saugerties board of education is proposing a dress code for the students of Saugerties High School. Included in the list of changes is eliminating gear with references to drugs or violence, hooded sweatshirts, outdoor coats worn indoors, and skimpy, revealing clothing. Anything indicating gang affiliation is also banned.

All of which is reasonable.

But teenagers, as any parent can tell you, are rarely reasonable. The board of education is in the unenviable position of trying to bail out the ocean with a thimble. Students at Saugerties High are tapping into a deep biological need. Every atom of their being needs to be able to signal to other members of their species, to encourage some approaches and discourage others.

Try as we may, we can't legislate need. Tigers can't change their stripes and teenagers can't stop being trouble for grownups.

Not even if we dress them all in gray jumpers.

--Erica Freudenberger