19 February 2010

The triumph of mediocrity: Lysacek's gold

During the Cold War, sports was one of the ways to demonstrate ideological superiority on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Growing up in Moscow at the tail end of the Soviet era, I remember that Olympic-level coaches visited elementary schools around the country and hand-picked kids they deemed suitable for international competitions.

They often chose me: at that time, my athletic body type was complemented by being extremely thin. The selection process was thorough: once the coaches determined that I were likely to grow beyond 5 feet tall, for example, based on my parents' genetics, they rejected me for disciplines like gymnastics and diving. But, as a result of Soviet athletic zeal -- combined with my mother's emphasis on education and fitness -- I got to participate in a variety of sports: swimming, tennis, badminton, cross country skiing, table tennis (!), and, of course, figure skating, among others. And, while neither my family, nor I had an interest in sports beyond health benefits, I still have fond memories of this part of my childhood.

The latter is one of the reasons why I have a bit of an interest in contemporary Russian figure skating. So much so, that I've already once defended this discipline in a (heavily edited) letter to Time magazine.

Needless to say, I was furious at the results of 2010 Olympic men's figure skating finals -- Evgeniy Plyuschenko's silver and Evan Lysacek's undeserved gold.

Soviet vanitas. Photo by me.

First, Russians are not the only ones perplexed by the dumbed-down state of this sport. In The Night They Killed Figure Skating, Canadian legend Elvis Stojko wrote:

"Sorry, Evan Lysacek.

You’re a great skater and all.

But that wasn’t Olympic champion material.

In Thursday night’s men’s free skate, Lysacek skated slow and his jumps weren’t close to the technical ability of defending Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko.


...the judges’ scoring was ridiculous.

Because of it, the sport took a step backward. Brian Boitano did the same thing, technically, in 1988. There are junior skaters who can skate that same program."

Second, my opinion is not a result of rabid Russian patriotism. For example, I am fan of shooting and skiing at the same time! Unfortunately, and -- admittedly -- the Russian biathlon team has been, well, seriously sucking this year, and other, no doubt, worthy athletes won. I can only hope that Russians perform better on the home turf @ Sochi-2014.

More important, the winter Olympic Games are a competition, which, by and large, exhibits European prowess (with due credit given to East Asians). As such, it is one of the last venues, in which European culture isn't continuously clobbered over the head with anti-Western modern-day "liberal" agenda. In fact, the very title of my blog refers to Theodore Roosevelt, because that Great Man and I both believe(d) in cooperation and friendly competition between the Great Powers.

I even feel a bit of pan-Slavism toward my Slavic Brothers. Slovakia's win against the celebrated Team Russia (which, by the way, still has the highest number of competition victories, historically), even if in a shoot-out, demonstrates one of the best Slavic cultural qualities -- endurance and perseverance.

No, Plyushchenko's silver was not a result of a massive anti-Russian conspiracy, though much of the Western media has been noticeably gloating since. Rather, last night's figure skating judging was a systemtic affirmation of mediocrity. Lysacek's well performed routine without truly difficult acrobatics was a solid average, no more.

Elvis Stojko argued that:

"The naysayers believe the quadruple does not need to be included to succeed at these Olympics [...] However, this is a sport where the element of risk is needed. Boring is the program without the challenge."

But, should I really be surprised? In an environment, where the Hollywood Assembly Line churns out expensive, boring remakes and sequels, why shouldn't a polished, uninteresting 20-year old figure skating remake of a routine be praised?

Contemporary North American culture not only caters to, but also -- promotes the lowest common denominator through that winning combination of bread and circuses.

As some of us know.

Women, who get famous through deliberately leaked home-made porn, are designated "fashion icons". Barely literate rappers are called great "artists". Hell, why pick on rappers, when college graduates everywhere seriously lack grammar, syntax, and, gasp!, spelling? I'm used to student emails greeting me with "yo". Basic historic facts that were taken for granted just a few decades ago -- like, when the Mona Lisa was painted -- are no longer common knowledge.

Even when it comes to the Olympic competition itself, Russian-Armenian journalist Zarbabian emphasized the gradual dumbing down of the official musical themes chosen over the years.

And, speaking of Hollywood, I don't think I've ever seen a dating show, where the potential couple discussed a book they liked. One book? A best-selling author? No? Really?

So, perhaps, I need to amend my initial assertion: that gold was very much deserved.

22 January 2010

Say "yes" to the welfare state

When critics mention chronic overspending in North America, they normally do so in the context of the housing market or expensive "toys". What should also be high up on the list of living beyond one's means is weddings. I've always found North American wedding culture ridiculous based on acquaintances' stories and working in a flower shop as an undergraduate student years ago. In fact, I occasionally got into arguments with defenders of the said culture (women, of course). My opponents claimed that huge contemporary weddings go all the way back to the time when their historic ancestors invited an entire village to celebrate the occasion. They seem to have missed the fact that those ancestors of theirs probably did not visit the bank for a loan, while they were falling behind on their mortgage.

Having caught a few wedding reality shows over the past couple of years ("Say "Yes" to the Dress" dominates TLC lately, while "Rich Bridge, Poor Bride" is broadcast daily on Slice), my opinion has been reinforced tenfold. Instigated by the woman, no doubt, many happy couples on these shows mention that it was "well worth it" to spend thousands of dollars beyond their already drastically expanded budget because "it's their one special day", or, worse, "the most important day of their lives". It's not terrible, of course, that people still choose to get married considering the skyrocketing divorce rates in the West. However, statements of this nature are a little too reminiscent of those who consider high school graduation (and, by extention, high school glory days) the "second most important day of their life". That is to say, the shows' participants act like they deserve a lifetime achievement award for throwing a huge party for themselves (and going into debt because of it).

I believe in recycling my own illustrations.

The women on these reality shows make it clear to me that they're "my fellow females" in name and biology only. Most of them mention how they've dreamt of "being a princess on their wedding day ever since they were little girls". I can never figure out whether they are repeating a trite expression when the cameras are rolling, or whether they truly feel this way. I've loved classic European fairy tales growing up, and I sure do enjoy pink nail polish. In other words, T34s (!) aside, I'm somewhat of a girly girl too, but those televized confessions leave me baffled.

So, these women want to pay more than what they are able to afford for a dress they'll only wear once -- why should I care? I care, or, rather, I am bothered by this, because their mentality is far-reaching. One of the most disturbing aspects of "Rich Bride, Poor Bride" involves balancing the budget. Most of the time, whenever a couple comes in under budget on a certain part of their wedding, like flowers, the woman (always, the woman!) suggests that the newly saved money should be spent elsewhere immediately. The concept of saving it, instead, is as alien to these women as their desire to be a "princess" is -- to me.

Much has been written on the direct relationship between women's right to vote and the size of government. Scandinavian "social democracies" have a high percentage of female "public servants" -- and a staggering income tax rate. If this is how irresponsibly the majority of women approaches the financing of their own wedding, is it really any surprise that welfare states (relying on strangers' taxpayer money) function the way they do?

09 January 2010

"United under the folds of the tricolor..."

Peter von Wrangel, the Black Baron (1878-1928)

A Baltic German, an imperial officer, a White Army leader, a Crimean administrator, an émigré, and one hell of an inspirational patriotic writer.

"[...] The moment that the Bolsheviks laid hands on the executive power, Russia, as a national entity, ceased to exist. Even the name which served to describe it disappeared. [...] Yet, in spite of it all, Russia still exists as a nation. Immediately after the Bolsheviks seized the reins of power, a few men, stirred by love for their country and jealous for its greatness and glory, raised the national flag that had fallen in the mud. They were men of every class and condition of life, of the most varied ages and political views. [...] They were all united by the same warm love of their country, and the same desire to sacrifice themselves for her.

Such, in November 1917, was the birth of the White Army. It was the incarnation of the national sentiment, of the revolt of Russian patriotism. United under the folds of the tricolor, they fought from that time for the national cause. [...] Its way of fighting has altered; the outward forms which properly belong to armies had gone; but the idea which directed its making has remained untouched.

What is this idea? It is life devoted to the fatherland, eagerness to save her at the expense of life itself, a passionate desire to tear the red flag down from the Kremlin and hoist in its place the National flag. [...]

Six years have passed since the day when we left our native soil. By painful work the Russian Army gains its bread, enduring affronts and humiliations. But in spite of all its privations and misfortunes it has not lost its faith in the approaching triumpth in the sacred cause. Slowly the eyes of Europe are being opened to the real meaning of Bolshevism. The nations of Europe are beginning to understand the danger of the Red madness, of the risk the world of civilization runs in the existence of an international hot-bed which uses the immense resources of our land to keep up its destructive work. The heart of our country has been quickened by the forces of sanity; they will grow and cannot be stopped. We are no longer alone in our struggle."

1927, Speech @ Brussels

In the very least, teaching undergrads about the Black Baron inspired me to play with my toy soldiers and a camera!