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Everyone knows what the Olympics are really about: broadcasting numbers and potential endorsement contracts, a host city that is both quaintly foreign and culturally accessible to television viewers, and selected athletes’ personal stories—with what are always called “tragedies” taking precedence over the nice stuff. The definition of what makes an activity a sport, and ultimately an Olympic sport, is last on the list of winter Olympic semiotics.

What “everyone knows” about the Olympics goes directly to our understanding and enjoyment of it; we can only agree to experience and process it at all if we agree on the way it should be done. As long as we maintain the fiction that it is this and not that, we can maintain a cultural consensus of who we are—also a fiction.

One of the modern kinks in the centuries-old business of sports appreciation is that athleticism is no longer equal to or at all defined by attractiveness. This distinction would have been unfathomable to the Greeks, who invented the big meet and for whom exercising naked (the etymological root of the word “gymnasium”) was as much about display as it was about skill. Divorcing physical sensuality from physical prowess has opened a prominent lacuna in our perceptions, especially of sports where artistic quality merits as much consideration as proper execution.

The closer a sport—or what’s designated a sport by International Olympic Committee definition, not a very solid guideline—comes to being a purely artistic effort, the less seriously it is taken by hard-liners. If it’s a given that the basic qualities necessary for the successful execution of a sport’s demands are inherently (that is to say traditionally) masculine—strength, stamina, grit—then the less a sport can be quantified in those terms, the more feminine it is. Swimming really fast is faultlessly quantifiable and unproblematic; the only judgment factor is raw time. But synchronized swimming is girly, foolish, amorphous. In order to judge, the keepers of the medals must pile up criteria into unwieldy heaps; such a pretty formula, such inelegant proofs. And if there’s any lingering sentimental notion that these girls should be given a chance, imagine them, using all their skills at smiling and wearing makeup, open-eyed, underwater—and then picture young men doing it. Rhythmic gymnastics? Don’t get me started.

Testing one’s skill on, say, a solid sheet of ice gives speed skating the sterling advantage of being nothing but quantifiable in bare-bones terms. Bonnie Blair didn’t need to be alluring to win the gold. Women’s mags can cast skier Picabo Street as a silk purse with talent on the side, but the fact remains that getting down that slope before anyone else is the only criterion on which her success is based.

But figure skaters have a finer line to negotiate; although there is no argument over whether their sport should have a place at the Olympics—what would the Olympics be without them at this point?—their efforts do need to be “artistic,” and therefore unquantifiable. For skaters, this means not just being feminine by anti-definition (not effortful in displays of strength or speed) but actually flirtatious, friendly, and sexually desirable. Such qualities are specifically rewarded but never acknowledged.

This is not such a difficult mental trick for the audience when the skaters age. Katarina Witt’s image as skillful sex symbol took pressure off all the lithe teenagers who abounded during her glory years, when she became old enough to be reacted to as a woman. But the problem with most skaters—especially the tender annual crop of U.S. darlings—is that they are so young. It’s a dangerous trap—extreme youth grants skaters the athletic advantages that womanliness nullifies, and the sport is so subliminally sexually charged that only little girls can carry off its perilous interplay with fitting naiveté.

Dressed in sheer, clinging scraps of illusion and tulle, sequins, finger-hook vampire sleeves, and other seductive details, wearing full makeup and compliant smiles, their legs on display to here and beyond, the little ladies of the ice are tricked out to please. Witt can earn wolf whistles in a form-fitting but thoroughly covering Robin Hood outfit, but 16-year-old Oksana Baiul in her prop-laden harem-girl costume is merely displaying her hard-earned skill, passive sex-slave guise or no. (She fell down, making the distinction thankfully moot.) We must not experience these teenagers as sexualized beings, however strenuously they signal otherwise.

But it’s impossible to reconcile this version of sexual hypocrisy with the ones we’re used to, which means that the Olympics, by willful denial, create a sense of perversion in their audience. When 15-year-old Tara Lipinski rotates with one leg in the air, the appreciative viewer will marvel at her flawlessly executed camel spin, but a small part of his, or her—OK, my—brain is thinking, “Hey, panties!”

That’s partly because as a country we are trained to take our sexual kicks on the sly, to steal them from the unwitting. A glimpse of stocking, as the song goes, may be nothing shocking, but it sure beats the sight of some broad going defiantly topless as a protest—what is she, some kind of feminist? There’s an unnoble power element, too, in the friction between observer and observed, athleticism (strength) and sexual display (weakness). Young people exuberantly doing what we mortals cannot and never will do brings out a truculent, childish envy: Sure, you can do all this fancy stuff, but I can see your butt.

The other modern revision in the Western world’s understanding of sports performance is more recent than the schism between attractiveness and athleticism, but it is visible and growing. In a realm that is almost purely physical, body appreciation takes on a surreal cast: Most athletes who compete at the Olympic level are deformed. They’re desirable freaks, but unlike supermodels, who are genuine freaks of nature, athletes are self-made, self-determined monsters. They have weirdly huge thighs, or necks like tree trunks, or are bizarrely oversize, so that they look normal only in their training clothes and expose themselves as aliens when dressed in streetwear. Not like you, the football player or speed skater reveals when trying to “pass.” Most disconcerting is what little female gymnasts turn into: stunted, pigeon-chested, narrow-hipped munchkins. (Whenever a young gymnast came to my ballet academy for outside training, we stage snobs snickered at these freakish hybrids with their turned-in toes, fancy “Russian” fingers, and swaybacks, everything wrong for the pleasingly sinewy proportions we prized.)

Skating puts less site-specific demands on the young body than do most sports; in fact, it seems to develop and enhance everything we consider beautiful in both men and women—although perceptions of that beauty are purely cultural and not empirical. Witt’s peasant neck and back and thick torso were always overlooked for her heavy bosom, but perky golden girl Kristi Yamaguchi’s graceful proportions have never been mentioned by commentators. In our pet mythology, one sings, the other doesn’t.

Apart from pairs competitions, which are way closer to not being a sport than the perfectly respectable snowboarding, male figure skaters are double victims of the sexual grid imposed over their profession. Eschewing the decorative trappings that women employ exposes the sport as inherently submissive and feminine; there’s nothing sillier than a protesting-too-much macho routine by one of the beefier skating males, like Elvis Stojko in his leatherwear of obscure cultural provenance. It is still incumbent on the judges to reward him for artistic expression, not masculine aggression. The harried insistence with which the skating world denies the existence of homosexuality within its realm is actually its most effective barrier against the expression of homosexuality. South Park can vividly send up willowy superstar Brian Boitano, and “everyone knows” what’s going on. But the only out skater in the country (world?) and one of its best, Rudy Galindo, will never get the scores he deserves, because the judges want to “know,” not to know.

Now local hero Michael Weiss is bellowing about the machofication of skating; he’s famous for training not with ballet but with free weights. But any mention of skating as having a gender component puts up the gatekeepers’ backs. Weiss’ anti-sequins campaign implies the presence of sequins, thus exposing the insecurity at the heart of the sport. May he be as successful as Rudolf Nureyev was at establishing that ballet is a he-man’s world.

Perhaps the deification of the unlucky Sergei Grinkov has something to do with this insecurity. He was the partner and husband of pretty, petite Ekaterina Gordeeva, who had the distinct misfortune to watch her husband die of a rare heart disease, at only 28, after a practice. Gordeeva wasted no time in telling the world of their deathless love (that was three years ago)—in a book, various tours, and countless TV specials. If you missed last week’s My Sergei—two hours on CBS devoted to her memory of him—perhaps that’s because at this point it’s her name, not his, that’s firmly branded onto the American public’s hide. There was even a terrifying winter special just before Christmas that gave the unmistakable impression that an animated skating snowman was responsible for whozit’s passing.

Gordeeva’s version of events is irrefutable—it has to be, now that she’s left with his baby and is frantically doling out proclamations in re the angelic wondrousness of their relationship. Skeptical or gullible, no one is churlish enough to challenge the wee little lark or ask her to step out of the limelight for a minute or two—how can a young widow’s sharing of her personal tragedy be vixenish cunning? She needs us, but we need her, too. The public clings to Ekaterina and what’s left of her Sergei because these two act out, in a form that’s half macabre and half capitalist, the skating myth we want to believe is true of all the rest.

—Arion Berger