Skating on Thin Ice: South Korea Versus Japan.
The reference, of course, is to the finals of the ice-skating championship of the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver. Call it the war of the poses, if you like. In the shootout for the Gold Medal Thursday night, the Korean nation beat the Japanese nation. Exultant hysteria in Seoul ensued, but there was no joy in Japan. Like mighty Casey at the bat -- in the legendary lore of the famous American folk poem -- mighty Casey has struck out.
That is how they look at it in South Korea; and that is how they look at it in Japan. The bottom line on the hot ice of the Olympic skating rink was that Mao Asada had her skates cleaned by C Yu-na Kim. Period.
I don't know whether to laugh or cry over this silly formulation. What really happened that sensational and otherwise wholly enjoyable night was that a relatively diminutive Japanese lady skater all of 19 years of age finished second to a relatively non-diminutive Korean lady skater all of 19 years of age.
The skate-off occurred near the end of the week's overwrought ordeal in figure skating, perhaps the most glamorous event of the Winter Olympics. In the end, Kim skated first and scored her second record high of the week. Asada skated after her and would have copped the Gold Medal if Kim had C never existed.
The general sports fanatic as well as the hard-core figure-skating fan was left swooning. Memories reverted all the way back to the incredible 1973 Triple Crown competition between Sham (Asada) and Secretariat (Kim). Or how in the old days of professional basketball the Lakers could never beat the Celtics -- or how the old Brooklyn Dodgers could (so rarely) beat the New York Yankees. Some things were just made to be; and others weren't.
The figure-skating aficionado had to admit the skate-off between the taller Korean Kim and the more elfin Japanese Asada produced a performance level that could not be topped. Surely Kim's "James Bond Girl" short-routine is for the ages. And surely it will be some time before the gymnastic pyrotechnics of Asada's free-skate routine will be eclipsed.
Though not even out of their teens, Asada and Kim are almost seasoned veterans, sharpened by international competitions, each representing two of the world's most industrialised economies. And in their public comportment, at least, they are adults, never trashing each other or in any way reinforcing the more juvenilia that sometimes plagues sports of all kinds, not excluding C ice skating.
But the same cannot be said of their countrymen back home. You would have thought basic national identity and ethnic worth were absolutely C up for grabs.
What if Kim (coming into the Olympics as the experts' favourite) slipped and fell on her tutu? Wouldn't that suggest South Korea was slipping too? What if Asada tripped on her triple axel? Wouldn't that show Japan in decline -- like, oh, a major car company embarrassed by mammoth safety recalls?
Little in the above paragraph is exaggerated, if anything. As evidence, I offer the recollection of a 1996 visit to the capital of South Korea to interview then-President Kim Young Sam. The bubbly, bumbling, boisterous politician opened the session by openly crowing about the prior night's defeat by the Korean national team of the Japanese national soccer team in a C dramatic victory.
I tried to slip in questions about other things -- silly issues such as relations with dangerous North Korea, nuclear China, ever-troublesome Russia, the economy, the quality of Kim-chi. But it was a no-go. Beating Japan -- whether in soccer, at the Olympic Games, or with tiddlywinks -- was the big earth-shaking event of the moment.
Reflecting on this, I felt sorry for Yu-na and Mao the other night, even as I appreciated their awesome skating performances. Sure, these two colossal talents will never have to worry about money and as national icons will be in the position forever to write their own tickets to whatever their hearts desire. But to place on their teenage shoulders -- and inside their tender young heads -- the whole sordid weight of deep-seated Korean-Japanese enmity is a mighty burden indeed.
Why can't we adults just accept sports as the fun-giving games they were designed to be and not make it into some kind of allegorical theatre driven by the grim dark depth of reality?
By the way, while we're on the subject of the Olympics: Did you see how the US women's hockey team absolutely choked against the Canadians? My god! Now people will think America is in some sort of decline, losing its nerve -- a capitulating nation of chokers. It made me so angry!
Columnist and veteran journalist Tom Plate is writing a trilogy of books called "Giants of Asia."
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