Five-ring Circus

Are China’s Athletes Oppressed?

Joey Cheeks

Hello, Seth:

I don’t know whether Dana got Valentine’s Day flowers and chocolates from Apolo, but she did wake up this morning to find she’d gone into labor 10 days early. (She apologizes for leaving so soon and says she’ll miss the opportunity “to discuss the beauty of curling,” although you figure having a baby will compensate somewhat.) In any event, I’ll be sitting in today.

My Valentine’s bouquet arrived courtesy of Joey Cheek, the speed-skater who picked up a gold medal in the 500 meters yesterday. What a charmer. So lanky! Such tufty blond hair! I loved his shy affect and how he looked a little deranged as he muttered to himself before settling in on the starting line. Now he’s gone and given his $25,000 USOC bonus to Sudanese refugees in Chad. Plus, snobby old Harvard turned him down for early admission. We’re guaranteed a good treacly mini-bio when he skates again in the 1,000.

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Like you, I was dying for a few segments on the U.S. snowboarders. In part because the athletes are incredible—Kelly Clark’s second run was discernibly kick-ass, even to those of us who rely on the commentators to explain how impressive each move really is. But even more so because snowboarders are still entertainingly rough around the edges: They’re an Olympic species that has yet to be tamed. When a commentator asked gold-medalist Teter about how she’d prepared, I braced for some piety about being mentally ready to visualize giving 110 percent. Instead, she said something like, “I just wanted to chill, man, as much as possible, all week long.”

As for pairs figure skating: Are you insane? The female skaters have it way worse than the luge competitors. Sure, they hurtle through space and time, but they have to contort their bodies while doing so. And they don’t just coast to a stop at the end of a run. They have to land, on those skinny blades and spindly little legs. Plus, the lifts look even harder than the throws—like doing yoga on a shoulder-blade-sized mat that zips around like a magic carpet.

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It was one of those landings that gave Zhang Dan trouble last night, and I was astonished that she made it back onto the ice, much less that the pair medaled. When Zhang Dan fell, her leg seemed to bend outward at the knee, in a way that looked beyond wrong, and the rink-side checkup from the trainer was perfunctory at best. Am I crazy to think that the commentators played up how tough it is to be a Chinese athlete in the moments after the fall? They kept going on about how these skaters have only had one week off since they were 13 years old, how they never get to see their families … the implication, to me, was that Zhang Dan felt she had to skate on for fear of disappointing her Communist taskmasters. Or perhaps I’ve just seen too many sports movies.

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Finally, a question for you: Were the skating commentators even bitchier than usual? Sandra Bezic, in particular, offered jibe after jibe: A program opens with two bold jumps? It’s a “cop-out” to get them out of the way early on. Man whirls woman around on ice? “Weak death-spiral.” And when the Russian pair Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin executed a beautiful routine in crisp, assured unison, she chided them for playing it safe. It’s one thing to inform viewers, but another to just dump all over a routine as the athletes skate. I loved the Russian pair, but Bezic kept telling me not to trust my eyes. I felt gratified when Totmianina and Marinin won gold. Surely there’s a better way?

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