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Nov 9, 2014

Train through the Pain

Sport occupies a particular space in our collective consciousness. With the declining grasp of religion in the developed world, sports, to paraphrase Karl Marx, has become the opiate of the masses, insofar as sports occupies the liminal territory that blurs together the physical and the ecstatic. Figure skating is in particular an excellent example of such, given that it is a sport that encompasses both athletic endeavor and performance art. Witness the self-transcendent anguish that comes from watching a fall on a quadruple jump, or the complete immersion that comes with watching an emotional, superbly-choreographed program performed cleanly at the Olympics.

And so we watch figure skating with a certain sort of absorption fueled by more fevered emotions that, in an earlier time, may have been channeled towards the ecstasy and violence of religious rituals. This emotion gives rise to an implicit bond that is formed between figure skater and fan: we offer our idols adoration, support, and worship. In exchange, they devote maximum effort to the sport in order to give us the transcendent performances we so desire.

Not surprisingly, that implicit bond hasn't always held up quite so well. Sasha Cohen, for instance, was vociferously criticized for having the temerity to bake cookies and go shopping when she should have been devoting the entirety of her waking hours to training. Numerous skaters such as Nicole Bobek, Elena Ilinykh, Johnny Weir, Mirai Nagasu, and Javier Fernandez have been roundly criticized for squandering their talent by having a less-than-optimal work ethic. And it's not enough to just work hard--figure skaters are also expected to love and dedicate themselves entirely to the sport, and 'give back' to it even after retirement: witness the criticisms leveled at skaters such as Sarah Hughes for being blips on the radar. Conversely, skaters who appear to devote every fibre of their soul to training and the pursuit of athletic glory are venerated as role models: Michelle Kwan. Mao Asada. Evan Lysacek. Even Evgeni Plushenko, who is often derided for his ego and certain aspects of his skating, gains a measure of respect for his hard work and utter dedication to the sport despite the limitations imposed by his age and injuries. It's all part of the mythology that underlies figure skating and indeed, all of sport: that winning, hard work, and dedication are all inextricably linked. Champions are role models that exhibit such virtues, and thus are justly rewarded for their victories.

Of course, all of these myths are ridiculous. Figure skaters are humans subjected to the slings and arrows of quotidian existence as we all are, and it's ludicrous to expect human beings to push themselves to their limits each and every day. But it's the mythology we have, and I can imagine that the figure skaters themselves are acutely aware of it even more than we spectators are. After all, the one quality that elite athletes at a certain level share is gameness--the willingness to persevere, even in the face of pain and injury. It's all part of a religion that not only praises hard work and dedication, but also ancillary qualities such as "courage" and "grit." It is thus not particularly surprising when we see skaters accused of faking injuries and being cowardly when they withdraw from an event citing injury: witness Virtue/Moir at the 2011 Four Continents, or Evgeni Plushenko at various events over the past few years.

This weekend, we witnessed Han Yan and Yuzuru Hanyu literally fall apart in their respective long programs after their terrifying collision at the Cup of China. Their decision to compete despite the prospect of serious injury, in many ways, is the logical conclusion of a mythology that expects athletes to dedicate themselves entirely to the sport. As heartening as it was to see that many people roundly criticized the two skaters' respective teams for allowing them to continue competing, we should also remember the mythology and expectations we are fueling the next time we accuse skaters of 'not wanting it enough,' or daring to have some sort of life outside of the sport.


  1. Thanks for this post. So right to the point! Can't agree more on the religious mythological nature of modern sport. (Thinking reflectively, I am one of those who love to read those stories about "courage" / "grit" / "glory".) Hope that more people could ready this post, and that this incident could become an opportunity for us all to step back and reexamine our own involvement in and the nature/future of this sport.

  2. I still tear up whenever I think about that collision. To witness it live was so heartbreaking. Never before I cried watching FS. Audience who were there came back to their homes and hotels shaking and many couldn't sleep the whole night. It's good to know that both Han Yan and Yuzuru don't have any brain damage. I don't blame both teams, even the skaters. I was just so shock to witness 2 young men who might be considered minor under some countries' laws almost killed themselves that way.

    With Han Yan' it's his home crowd, with Yuzuru it's because of his willingness to prove himself to the 2/3 audience who came there to watch him, and because he has withdrawn from Finlandia Trophy earlier, he couldn't afford to withdraw again. I can't help but being furious at the Chinese fed and Japan Fed for not stopping them.

    I admire them but I feel devastated at the same time. I hope from now on we will stop blaming any skater of withdrawing ever again. It's their choice, it's their lives, they own us nothing.

  3. Fantastic analysis. The most on point about the true nature of the issues.

  4. Eloquent post (as expected)., I think though it is simply criminal negligence not so much because of "mythology and expectations" that the ISU lacks the necessary rules/protocol to ensure that skaters with possible concussions are kept off the ice for their own safety.

  5. I think it is plain and simple criminal negligence, not so much "mythology and expectations," that the ISU lacks the necessary rule/protocol to keep skaters with possible concussions off the ice for their own safety.