Tuesday, February 23, 2010

There's no business like snow business

The best male and female screen performance of the past 12 months? Sorry, Meryl and Jeff, it's neither of you. The winners in this category are easily Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the Canadian skating pair who won gold medals last night in Ice Dancing at the Olympics. For good measure, they ought to take home little gold statuettes as a bonus.

I'll return to the duo's remarkable thespian abilities in a bit. But first let's recap just how many great performances (of the non-acting kind) we've already seen at the Vancouver games.
  • Memorably, Shaun White showcased a move called the McTwist in which he rode his snowboard up a rip curl of ice and catapulted himself into a void in the night sky where even Icarus wouldn't dare take wing. White somehow defied the very laws of space and time because, in less than three seconds, the red head contorted himself and his board through a mathematically impossible combination of twists, corkscrews, and horizontal and vertical rotations. Then he tapped into his inner Capt. Sullenberger to pull off a miraculous switch-side landing. If NBC had affixed a camera to the bottom of his board, your television would likely have keeled over from the vertigo.
  • Even more impressive: The aerial skiers who briefly turn into human helicopters, their upended skis twirling in futility as the grappling hooks of gravity take hold. The skeleton crews who hurtle, head first, around icy chicanes at 90 mph fall into the same bracket of life-insurance premiums and are just as entertaining. I also marveled at the downhill skiers who careen off the edge of a precipice and somehow manage a semblance of flight that a Dodo would envy.
  • Best James Bond tribute: Even the skiing biathletes who shoot targets with rifles weren't as showstopping as the 007-inspired short program by Korea's Kim Yu-Na. She ended her record-score routine by pointing her fingers like a gun. But her real firepower came from a triple lutz-triple toe loop that made one look to ceiling to see if there wasn't a puppeteer pulling marionette strings. (Scott Hamilton's squeal triggered an avalanche in Whistler.)
  • Bode Miller, whose threatened to become known as Miller lite after his hard-partying lifestyle led to a dismal showing at the Torino games, notched several medals at the games, including one gold. On the podium, the natural-born skier displayed a humility and inner calm few would have imagined him capable of.
  • Lindsey Vonn, the famous swimsuit model and occasional downhill racer, had sports writers churning out stories about her injured shin threatened her Olympic participation. Silly rabbits. This is a girl who was evacuated by helicopter after a crash in the Torino Olympics and still checked herself out of hospital to compete the next day with a bruised hip. Was there any serious doubt that she wouldn't compete? Girl's got grit. Her triumph was hard won and an early highlight of the games.
  • America's Evan Lysacek wasn't favored to beat Adrian Brody lookalike Yevgeny Pluschenko. The Russian gold medalist seemed superhuman. Who else, after all, could pull of a quadruple toe loop. But Lysacek won out thanks to rigorous training, finer artistry, and the canny tactic of accumulating points by executing several jumping passes in the second half of the program.
If I seem overly US-centric in my list of highlights, forgive me. It's NBC's fault. The coverage is heavily skewed toward American competitors. Anchor Bob Costas shows off a chart of the medal count so regularly that you'd think we still lived in the mercantile era rather than one of globalization. Props to Steven Colbert for pin-pricking the balloon of jingoism with his "Defeat the World" mantra.
Which brings us back to the Canadian skaters, Virtue and Moir. As brilliant sports writer Mark Sappenfield observes in The Christian Science Monitor, their routine was so winning that, "For a night, it seemed, the 48th parallel disappeared and we were not two brotherly nations, but brothers." (If you missed the duo's events over the past three nights, watch them here and here.)

Indeed, their performances over the past three nights were transcendent. Not just because of their inspired choreography, perfect synchronicity, surprise moves, and agile athletic ability. The duo's second dance was distinguished by a red-hot passion that threatened to turn the icy stage beneath their skates to slush. It was there in the deeply affectionate glances between the two as they held hands during a turn around the arena prior to the most important skate of their lives. And it was there in the tender embrace concluded their elegant routine, a ballet on ice in which the swan-like skaters seemed to fall in love while millions watched. The duo could have performed in an arena filled with fans of UFC extreme cage fighting and there wouldn't have been a dry eye in the audience.

Which is why it was heartbreaking to discover that Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue (who resembles a young Kate Beckinsale) aren't romantically involved. Theirs is not a tale of love off the ice, like Torvill & Dean, Jamie SalĂ© and David Pelletier, or even Moira Kelly and that hockey player in "The Cutting Edge." They’re just great friends. Indeed, Moir is dating another prominent skater. All of which underscores how powerful the duo’s performance was. Like actors in a great romance movie, they made us believe in a great love story. In the process, they created the single defining moment of these games.

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