If you watched last week’s Olympics triumph by U.S. gymnast Carly Patterson, you could see very well that Carly’s performance in the all-around women’s gymnastics competition was head and shoulders over that of everyone else. Carly earned her gold. She was perfect, flawlessly executing complicated tumbles with panache and energy, then dismounting with ballerina grace. The other competitors to a gal demonstrated awkwardness here and there (they were fine athletes, but this stuff is tough) or muffed a vault or two. As for Svetlana Khorkina, the vaunted Russian two-time Olympics champion who was slated to win the gold the third time around–or so Svetlana thought–just wasn’t as good as Carly. Her moves were good but slightly listless, and she spent a shade too much time dancing when she should have been tumbling. Then she fell off the uneven bars, which were supposed to be her signature event–not good. So–silver medal for her.
Svetlana, however, did distinguish herself in one way while competing against the 16-year-old Carly: she was visibly peeved throughout her own performance, whether scowling while treading the balance bar, sulking in a corner massaging her feet, glaring sarcastically at her U.S. rival–or, finally stalking out when the competition was still in progress. I thought that was because Svetlana, slender and glamorous-looking but age 25 (which is old and wizened for female gymnastics, where teen-age limberness is de rigeur), was disappointed in her own less-than-personal-best showing in what would be her last Olympics.
Turns out, though, that what was eating Svetlana was that Carly had won. According to the Dallas Morning News, quoting an interview she gave to the news service Reuters, Svetlana has taken the position that she was “fleeced” out of the gold medal that she deserved. In an interview with the Russian newspaper Izvestia (picked up by America Online News–but you need to be an AOL subscriber to read), Svetlana went further and accused the judges of rigging the outcome to favor the United States. “I think it’s because I’m from Russia, not from America.” Yes, anti-Americanism, the last refuge of Euro scoundrels.
“I’ve seen much tougher competition than her,” Khorkina reportedly said [in the Dallas Morning News story] of Patterson, 16. “Let’s see how long she can remain on top. Can she keep going and compete in two more Olympics like myself?”
Nice going, Svetlana. As the Dallas Morning News reports:
“So let’s deduct a bunch for poor sportsmanship, because her exit while others still were competing was vain, shallow and tasteless. Many of us who ranked the fragile-looking Olympic fixture among our idols felt queasy and cheated.
“U.S. women’s team coordinator Martha Karolyi has been in the sport since about the Stone Age, and she’d never seen such a distasteful show.
“‘She has a bad attitude,” Karolyi said. ‘She is a bad example, which is all the more reason it is a good thing that Carly is the champion. No parent would want to put their little girl in a gym after seeing a bad attitude like Khorkina’s.’
“Karolyi called Khorkina’s reported remarks about Patterson ‘sour grapes.'”
That probably reflects most Americans’ reaction to Svetlana’s distasteful post-competition performance. But it’s not the reaction of our liberal brothers and sisters at Slate magazine, who found Carly’s cheerful demeanor and humble, matter-of-fact attitude toward her own performance apparently insufficiently “edgy.” Slate’s Margaret O’Rourke pens a paen of praise of for Svetlana’s poor-losership, turning her into the Teresa “Shove It” Heinz Kerry of Olympics gymnastics. Writes O’Rourke:
“The truism of ‘good sportsmanship’ holds that an athlete should embrace his defeat without the slightest public ambivalence’a legacy of parental pieties about what sports have to teach us. Perhaps, though, the Olympics shouldn’t always be read as a parable of acceptance and striving, but rather include room for protest, too’which has its own, if more complicated, value. At the end of the night, Khorkina refused to cede the floor (and the limelight) to the younger star. As the cameras panned the room, she swung the Russian flag up behind her like a brilliant parachute and delicately danced over to the uneven bars where, curiously, she draped it over the lower bar. (It reminded me of someone placing a flag on a coffin.) Later, during interviews, she brashly proclaimed, ‘I’m still Olympic champion.’
“That may be in bad taste, but at least it’s lively and impassioned, compared to Patterson’s drab response on Tuesday, after the American women lost the team gold: ‘It was just another competition, like any other,’ she said flatly. But it wasn’t: It was the Olympics. Understandably, Patterson was too young, or too overwhelmed, to acknowledge the magnitude of the evening’s events.
“Yet it seems strange that we praise the athlete who finds it easy to be publicly dispassionate when she loses the one thing she has trained for her whole life and that we publicly tar-and-feather the one who passionately protests her fate. Good sportsmanship has its place, and it’s moving when an athlete bows out gracefully to the ‘better man.’ But the better man or woman doesn’t always win. Khorkina’s flawed behavior reminds us that the Olympics is not a ‘pure’ athletic competition, but a competition managed by evaluative institutions. And the evaluators don’t always make the best decisions. If gymnastics has been criticized for being conformist, a sport full of little girls doing the bidding of coaches and judges, surely, then, Khorkina is a symbol of an athlete who knows her own mind and can be respected for it.”
I don’t know what O’Rourke means here. Does she, too, think the women’s gymnastics competition this year was rigged? Does she expect a 16-year-old girl to give a speech with the rhetorical flourishes of Demosthenes? Was Carly just a “little girl” doing “the bidding of coaches and judges?” (I saw one tough customer in Carly, who’s clearly strong as a pit bull). Sorry, but I think the Olympics, which were born in an effort to foster international friendships in a spirit of wholesome competition, are exactly the place where being a good and generous loser is as important as being the humble and generous winner that Carly showed herself to be last week.