The Chinese won both the Olympic gold and silver medals last night for pair skating, for the first time ever. Shen and Zhao and Pang and Tong took first and second places, deposing the Russians from their half-century winning streak. Bin Yao, who coached the both couples, proudly showed pictures of his students in action, saying, “this is my art.”
Certainly artistry is evident in the graceful event of pair skating, but what about sports like snowboard cross, where foursomes of solid youths on boards race down manmade mountain shutes for the best time. Or speed skating, where Apolo Ohno took the silver in the men’s 1500m short track. If we agree that pair skating is artistic (and it carries a significant score for artistic merit), then where do we draw the line with other sports? Maybe the only real difference is time.
Artists are looking to create a legacy that will stand beyond their lifetimes, in solid form. Olympic athletes create brief flashes of brilliance that lives on in the memories of those who witnessed it. Their medium may be a mountain or an ice rink, and their tool is their body, but they are sculpting impressions the same as a painter does with color or a poet with words.
And that brings us to the two destructive notions that artists and athletes share—the drive for perfection and the abject fear of failure. The Olympics again offer valuable lessons, because that is where the smallest detail can end a dream for someone who has sacrificed four years. It is precisely when they push too hard for perfection that they are most likely to lose it. For Nate Holland, an aggressive run on the snowboard cross caused him to spin out of first place and end up in fourth—and in the Olympics, only three places matter.
Conversely, some superb athletes seem incapable of winning because they are overcome by their own anxiety at the moment they most need to relax and go for the gold. The hottest female snowboarder in the race, Lindsey Jacobellis was eliminated for clipping a gate, four years after her disasterous goof in the Torino games, where she lost a huge lead by taking a fall in a silly, showboating move that brought her the silver instead of the gold. And tonight, I recommend you watch the men’s figure skating to see if Johnny Weir, the most flamboyant and possibly most artistic skater on the ice is going to implode as he has at critical moments in the past. (It’s worth watching the show on Sundance about his journey, Johnny Be Good.)
So winning a medal is a fine balancing act where you keep your overwhelming desire to win in check with your fear that you won’t. Sometimes, being last can be freeing, as it was for Pang and Tong, who were in last place going into the long program of the pair skating competition. They had nothing to lose and they let themselves go, skating a perfect program when none of the other competitors did. And it pulled them from obscurity into the history of both China and the Olympics.
Where will you go with your art?
© 2010 Arts Enclave. All Rights Reserved.