Some Reflections on the Olympics


This article was first published in May 1994.

I know that everyone has by now OD’d on the millions of words poured out on Tonya, Nancy, and the rest, but there are still aspects of the late Winter Olympics that have been largely overlooked.

1. It was a real pleasure to see the healthy, happy people of Norway enjoy their Olympics, and to see them zipping along the snow and ice of Lillehammer streets on their vertical sled contraptions (I think called “sparks”) while all the tourists were slipping and sliding. It was a pleasure to see Norway come in 1-2-3 in skiing.

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2. From the above it is obvious that I dissent from the American ultra-chauvinism that has always been endemic to TV coverage of the Olympics. If Americans are not competing in a sport it doesn’t get covered at all, and when they do compete, some American coming in 32nd is closely followed while the leaders get ignored.

One of the worst things about left-liberalism is its insistence on politicizing all of life, and the chauvinist hype is one aspect of the politicization. Sports are supposed to be individual, or team, efforts, and should have nothing to do with government or politics, and what used to be hailed as the “Olympic ideal” was set against such emphasis on the State. All of this has been long forgotten, the turning point coming with the disgraceful banning of South African athletes from the Olympics because of disagreement with that country’s political system.

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The feminist slogan, “the personal is the political,” sums up much of what conservatives and libertarians should be dedicated to combat and crush. The counter to that is the reverse: “the political is the personal,” and “conspiracy” analysis of the nefarious activities of power elites, right down to Whitewatergate, is an expression of that counter-slogan.

3. There’s almost a one-to-one correlation: every leftist pundit, every left-liberal sports writer (and they are legion) came down fervently in favor of Tonya Harding. It’s almost like a test; virtually every despicable person I know turns out to be a Tonya fan. Interviewed on TV during the Olympics, the pompous quasi-nitwit Frank Rich, the latest entry in the horrible stable of New York Times op-ed writers, started to explain why he was pro-Tonya. “It’s a class thing,” he said, referring to the famous Tonya-Nancy controversy. He started to explain that Tonya came from a poor background, when he suddenly caught himself, and was reduced to mumbling from then on, since he obviously realized that the Kerrigans were poor too.

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The difference is not “class,” and it is disingenuous for the left to pretend otherwise. The difference is character, what the nineteenth century used to call the “deserving” versus the “undeserving” poor. The Kerrigans were poor but honest Boston Irish, the father working at three jobs to raise the money for Nancy’s skating lessons. Tonya, on the other hand, is a true product of her rotten white-trash family. She is at one and the same time an inveterate thug and a whining victimologist – and come to think of it, these two spectacularly unattractive qualities often go together. (Leftists, of course, like to use pseudo-scientific psycho-babble terms such as “dysfunctional” family, as if the problem were some sort of disease rather than a rotten moral character.)

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Thuggish: apart from the Gillooly charge of complicity in the kneecapping assault on Nancy; taking a baseball bat to another woman in a parking-lot dispute; snarling “I’ll kick her butt” about Nancy Kerrigan, etc. Whining victimologist: the incredible shoelace caper at the Olympics which was the fourth time in recent years that Tonya started skating, did badly, and then went whining to the judges about her untied shoelace, her broken skate, and all the rest. How come that no one else in championship skating, has ever had an alleged problem with her skates or shoes in the middle of a competition? And why is it that each and every time the wimpy judges caved in? At the Olympics, the result was to ruin the performance of the poor Canadian skater who was scheduled to skate after Tonya and who was rushed prematurely onto the ice by the authorities.

I mean, my shoelaces are often untied, but I don’t pretend to be a championship skater.

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Leftist shrinks and pundits, when they got off the class kick, were more accurate in their description of the difference between Tonya and Nancy, although, of course, they came out on the wrong side. As one shrink put it: “It’s like a Rorschach test. The people who are pro-Nancy believe in ‘playing by the rules.’ (How square of them!) The pro-Tonya people identify with her resentments at the hard knocks of life.”

There’s an important corollary difference between the pro-Nancy and pro-Tonya forces. Leftists hate Nancy because her skating is elegant, her demeanor ladylike and Katherine Hepburn-ish. (The Hepburn illusion, I’m afraid, shattered whenever Nancy opened her mouth to speak.) Whereas Tonya didn’t even try for an illusion of ladylike. Even before the Tonya-Nancy incident, I always disliked Tonya’s skating, which reflects her personality, heavy-footed, clumpy, thuggish. Figure-skating is a blend of the athletic and the elegant. Harding was always more athletic than Kerrigan, but spectacularly inelegant. A couple of years ago, Tonya’s athleticism began to slip, whereas Kerrigan’s has been improving. Hence, the perceived need, at least among Tonya’s “husband” and Gang-Who-Couldn’t Hit Straight entourage for measures that, to say the least, don’t play by the rules.

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4. And speaking of rules, the entire Harding incident brings into stark relief the wimpiness, the cowardice of the Olympic and figure-skating authorities. Let Tonya flash a couple of lawyers at the Olympic salons, and they crumpled immediately. The left-liberal doctrine, advanced at the time by no less than our beloved Slick Willie, speaking of course as an expert on ethics (and who, naturally, was pro-Tonya), was that Harding should be allowed to skate at the Olympics because she hadn’t been “convicted of a crime.” (And Slick Willie hasn’t been convicted yet either, right?) What is this nonsense about being convicted of a crime? What happened to the good old days when participation in an Olympic event was a privilege to be taken away from an athlete at the slightest hint of “unsportsmanlike conduct”? At the very least, Tonya’s unsportsmanlike conduct was glaring and evident.

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All this made me yearn for the good old days, the many decades when Avery Brundage, a crusty Old Rightist, ruled the Olympics with an iron hand. One time, he tossed out Eleanor Holm from the Olympic swimming team because she dared to drink a glass of liquor! Also Brundage was firm in upholding the “amateur ideal”; none of this Nike endorsement nonsense for his Olympic athletes. I must confess that at the time, when I was growing up, I believed that Brundage was too autocratic and the amateur ideal too rigid. But look how the Olympics have degenerated since his demise! Mea culpa, Avery. And Avery, where are you now that we need you so desperately?

The best comment on all this came recently when I was lamenting the situation to an old friend and said that I yearned for the days of Avery Brundage. “Yes,” said my friend bitterly, “that was before athletes had ‘rights’.”

5. Not that I was aggressively pro-Kerrigan. On opening her mouth, she turned out to be ungracious. Besides, she virtually never smiled; the figure skater should be joyous about her craft. And so I thought all’s well that ended well when Tonya, despite favoritism from the judges, finished way behind, and Oksana Baiul, the Ukrainian charmer, won the gold. Oksana was the best athlete as well as the most elegant; despite Kerrigan’s grousing, Oksana had the presence of mind to recover her failure to do a triple and insert it at the end of her program, something that Nancy had failed to do.

So the figure-skating soap opera ended fittingly. Now, if we can only get rid of the international authorities and Bring Back Brundage, we should be able to sit through the next Olympics with some enthusiasm.

This originally appeared in the Rothbard-Rockwell Report.