February 21, 1992, was going to be a problem for me. The Olympic Winter Games in Albertville, France, were in full swing, and I was finding myself riveted by the competition in women’s figure skating. Americans Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding were rivals then (this was two years before one of Harding’s goons would whack Kerrigan on the knee in a failed attempt to end her career). Nancy was the more elegant, graceful skater, in the old tradition, and Tonya was stronger and more athletic, able to land a triple axel. Nancy’s mother, sitting in the stands, was legally blind and the cameras kept cutting to her face, full of love and anticipation, an inch away from a monitor to better see her daughter. So I felt an emotional attachment to the Kerrigans. But Kristi Yamaguchi was also in the mix, as was a sturdy Japanese woman named Midori Ito who, like Harding, could pull off the triple axel.
Anyway, my problem was that I wanted to be able to put in my full workday without hearing anything about the Olympics and then rush home to watch the results of the skating final on television. Because of the time difference between the U.S. and France, the actual event was held in the middle of our day, but the networks, of course, ran their programming in prime time. Remember that in 1992 people did not own cellphones, so there was no chance I’d accidentally see any kind of sports news alert. But in the workplace there was bound to be a colleague who would listen to the results on the radio and then spill the beans. The restroom alone was a veritable hotbed of skating gossip.
I was an editor at the time, and I shared a huge cubicle with my fellow editor Lisa. Lisa and I had asked that the wall separating our adjoining cubicles be taken down so that we could cohabit a much larger area. The person in charge of office space, Carmen, told me that it was the most refreshing request she’d ever had. “Most people ask me to put up as many barriers as possible between them and their co-workers,” she said. “I’ve never had a request like this!” But Lisa and I were great friends. When we petitioned for the cubicle modification we claimed that we needed to be able to discuss the finer points of grammar on a regular basis (“Hey, did you know that the subjunctive is not a tense but a mood?”), but in reality we just wanted to gab freely all the livelong day.
Lisa was as obsessed with the skating competition as I was, and we were fixated on ways in which we could keep our colleagues from spilling the beans. It wasn’t too difficult if I happened to cross paths with someone talking about it in the restroom: I would simply shriek “NO OLYMPICS!” and blaze out the door. But dozens of people visited our “editing zone” every day, whether to drop off a manuscript, throw us a grammar question, or just shoot the breeze.
We sweated and fussed about this issue so much that the people in our typesetting department finally came to us with a solution in hand. They had printed out – and strung together so as to resemble crime scene tape – yellow pieces of paper imprinted with the words “Please! No skating results beyond this point.” And they strung the yellow “tape” across the entrance to our cubicle.
The caution tape became a conversation piece and, of course, drew even more gawkers to our space. But it did the trick. No one dared speak a word about the Olympics. And we didn’t care that we had to limbo under it to leave our cubicle.
Having made it through the day without hearing any results, my last task was merely to get home and ensure that no one called me. I figured I would unplug the phone, turn off the answering machine, and just read a book until the CBS coverage started. It was do-able! So I took off on my beloved red Honda C70 scooter and set out for home. The weather was foggy and in the 50s that day, and it was a cool, grey ride heading west down Geary, through Golden Gate Park, and up 19th Avenue toward my house on 21st Avenue. I remember sitting at the last stoplight on 19th, two blocks from home, dreaming of the sports meal I would soon be eating, when I absently glanced to my right and saw the evening’s San Francisco Examiner, in a newsrack right by the curb, with its bold headline blaring straight at me:
“YAMAGUCHI WINS GOLD!”
Oh, bloody hell!
I hadn’t cared about figure skating for very long. Truth be told, I’d never considered figure skating to be a sport, especially on the women’s side. Until women started adding triple jumps into the mix, I thought figure skating was more like dancing on ice. Contributing to my disdain was the fact that until 1990 the skating competition included an event called the “compulsories,” in which participants were forced to skate various patterns in the ice that generally all looked like figure eights. It was slow, tedious, and – to my mind – ridiculous.
I remember that one day at softball practice my teammate Elena M. and I were standing around on the field, waiting for someone to hit grounders to us. The “what constitutes a sport?” topic came up, and Elena and I riffed on it so long that at some point we fell on the grass choking with laughter. I was, however, mostly serious. I declared that there had to be some element of danger in a sport. The act of figure skating seemed like it barely qualified, although we both acknowledged that flying around on the ice and then falling on your bones could possibly result in injury. But then I brought up the compulsories. I spouted that there was absolutely no risk involved and thus it was not a sport in any way. Elena and I decided that a perilous element would need to be added and that if we were in charge we would modify the competition: sharp spikes would be placed all around the ice so if someone were to waver and trip while doing the compulsories, he or she would be instantly impaled. This solution satisfied us both.
The potential for injury has not been my only criterion, over the years, for defining a sport. I feel that there needs to be strenuous movement and exertion involved. My friend Julie Riffle agrees and adds that if you can drink and/or smoke while playing something at the competitive level, it is not a sport. Long ago I ruled out golf as a sport (and decreed it to be a game instead) because generally one does not break a sweat while playing – unless it’s nervous perspiration triggered by the knowledge that your bungled chip shot just cost you a $3 million prize.
So consider the luge – one of the mainstays of the Winter Olympics. I must admit that up until this writing I’d assumed that the worst that could happen during a luge event was a bruised tailbone. However, my research today revealed that two lugers have actually died in practice runs leading up to the Olympics. Okay, so there is an element of danger involved. Still, the gist of the sport is that you lie down on a sled and go careening down a slope. On many occasions I have suggested to Julie R. that she become a luger because, as I still insist, anyone can do it. She’s in good shape, she’s smart, and she’s not a scaredy-cat, so in my view she has the DNA to be a champion luger. And except for the few seconds at the beginning of the run, when the luger flaps his or her hands four times on the ice to get going, the event requires no physical exertion whatsoever. I maintain, therefore, that luging is a skill, not a sport.
Even more absurd is the four-man bobsled. It’s almost the same idea as the luge, but it’s slower, and in this event two members of the team do nothing except push the bobsled for a few feet and then jump into it, put their heads down, and pray! I COULD DO THAT!
If we deemed any skill – however difficult – to be a sport, then knitting, parallel parking, and pulling out splinters would be considered sports. Case closed. Mic drop.
Coincidentally, the other day I was digging through my online “memorabilia” when I found this letter that Julie R. and I had penned to the San Francisco Chronicle editors. Neither she nor I remembers the letter now, but I will publish it here in its entirety:
August 2, 1996
Sporting Green Editor:
We were greatly amused to see the story in Friday’s Chronicle about the poor guy who accidentally had explosives lodge in his nose and who underwent delicate underwater surgery to have them removed.
But it occurred to us that this story ties in with our current disgust over the many non-sports in the Olympic Games: among others, synchronized swimming, skeet shooting, and the laughable rhythmic gymnastics. Since we believe that a “sport” should at least involve sweating and/or risk-taking, we think that rhythmic gymnasts should be required to compete with explosives up their nose.
Paula Bocciardi Julie Riffle
The letter was not selected for publication. Quelle surprise!
Of course, even if we were to agree about what constitutes a sport, there is still the matter of whether a particular event belongs in the Olympics. Basketball and baseball are sports, in my view, but I don’t think they should be Olympic events. In general I’m not keen about any team sports in the Olympics, except for relay events, which depend on each runner or swimmer to maximize his or her time. With baseball and basketball, one team member could do absolutely nothing and still come home with a medal. When teams merely play against each other, the win or loss is dependent as much upon the other team as it is upon one’s own, so a medal doesn’t necessarily reflect an individual’s ability at all.
And then there are the events I find just plain ludicrous, like rhythmic gymnastics, curling, ping-pong, and anything involving horses, in which case the horses should get the medals, not the riders.
For a long time I was such a purist about the Olympics that I thought only individual sports involving the body exclusively – without any accoutrement, tool, or accessory – should be allowed. I figured the Olympics should be about pure athletic ability (running, jumping, swimming, throwing), and I didn’t think any event should be dependent upon the manufacturer of a ski, a sled, or a skate. But I came to realize that if you eliminated accoutrements from the Winter Games, you would be left with no events at all. After all, it’s not as if you can run or swim on ice. “That’s fine,” I thought, “then we should do away with the Winter Olympics altogether, because there was no such thing when the Olympics were invented.” Well, true, but the original, oh-so-sacred Olympics that took place in Greece hundreds of years B.C. involved naked men running, jumping, and throwing (aha! I knew it!) but also wrestling (the contestants were covered in oil) and chariot racing. Oops. I have to concede that a chariot is an accoutrement.
And I suppose it might be fun if all the contestants today had to be naked – especially the greased-up wrestlers – but then again, if that were the case the sumo wrestling competition might not entice many spectators.
As the years have gone by, and I’m finding myself less and less opinionated, I’ve softened my beliefs about sports and about the Olympics. Life is so much more enjoyable when one is open-minded, and I can now enjoy events like short-track speedskating and the gloriously exciting snowboard cross.
But do you know what I most anticipate watching? It happens only once every four years, people!
I am pleased to point out that the biathlon does fit the Paula Bocciardi definition of “sport” – at least in part. Although it includes a skill (shooting a gun), it also includes a sport (skiing). And although it does involve an accoutrement (a gun), it also involves sweating.
The essence of the biathlon (there are many permutations) is that the athletes are required to perform grueling cross-country ski sprints intermixed with swooshing to a dead stop, grabbing seven-pound rifles off their backs, somehow tamping down their racing hearts, and shooting at precision targets 160 feet away, from both prone and standing positions. And the killer is that if they don’t hit five targets, they are penalized by having extra time added to their total or having to ski a penalty loop for each target they miss! I mean, it’s both physical and mental torture! Nirvana to watch!
This week marks the time of year when my sports-related depression starts to hit. The football season just ended (in a glorious fashion, I might add), and baseball players haven’t yet set foot on the grass. I call the next couple of months the “sports drought.” But every four years the pain is nullified by the Winter Games, and to my delight the Opening Ceremonies for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea will take place this Friday, February 9.
I can give myself permission to sit on the couch and eat sports meals (hot dogs, popcorn, and beer) for more than two weeks straight. I will shed my usual buckets of tears for each poignant story about the athletes’ heartbreaks and triumphs. And I will enjoy every single event and every single individual accomplishment – whether in victory or in defeat – as I remind myself that these athletes from all over the world have dedicated their lives to being the best that they can be, and they have all conjured up heroic levels of hard work, persistence, and mental toughness that I could never imagine in myself.
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1971 and 1987.
“Mr. Healy was very sad today because of our class’s remarks about how boring it all was. Why does he listen to them? Anyway, he asked us to put down our goals. Mine were 1) To uphold justice 2) To become coordinated 3) To be sensible and not be so absent-minded, and 4) To not be alone.”
“I’ve been pretty dumb this past week. All week long I worried about the Faculty-GAA tennis tournament. I figured that since Mr. B is so good, I’d make every single one of our mistakes. Well, Mary Pasek and Jeanne came down to watch and I was really scared because I thought I’d show them how lousy I was. But they must have given me [divine] guidance because I hardly flubbed at all. We then went out to the Circle Star [Theater] to see Glen Campbell. Wow, what a thrill! It was neat when I saw him run down the aisle right by us. Seeing such a god in person is too much. I’ll never forget it!”
“Boy, so far I have a “B” in English. On our last test, EVERY SINGLE person around me cheated. [The teacher] gave it orally, and they all just discussed. If I heard them say the right answer, but I hadn’t known the answer before, I didn’t put it down. THAT is will power. So as it was, I got an 80 and they got 90. I’m beginning to wonder — should I cheat, too?”
“Last night [our family] went to a movie ‘Billy Jack,’ rated R. But we had called up and they had told us it was rated GP. So we decided to try it. It wasn’t too bad, no nudity or anything, but it sort of condoned unwed pregnancy for [my 10-year-old sister] Jan. So we came out and Dad said he’d call ‘Action Line’ and all. [My brother] Marc and I were figuring how embarrassing it would be.”
“Dad suggested tonight that I drive to Payless part-way. I never expected to go that far and I was nervous, but really nervous with Dad making sarcastic comments. I almost hit the Penitencia bridge. Perhaps I had better wait until Driver’s Training. Mom just sat there and died a thousand deaths.”
“Another boring day. I even offered to scrub off the popcorn popper and Mom refused. And that’s hard work! We were going to go to Confession, but then we decided to go to a movie instead.”