Book Review: The Second Mark

I have been a big fan of The Skating Lesson – a vlog that covers the latest news and gossip in the ice skating world – since it first got started.  It has been a great way to keep abreast of figure skating news with minimal effort, and it is refreshing to hear about the the results of competitions and evaluations of skating from unbiased sources.  When they started reading The Second Mark as part of their first “book club” selection, I thought oooh, that could be fun to read in the future.  As random luck would have it, the next day my dad gave me an Amazon gift code he had won through an online survey.  Since this book is almost a decade old, it has fallen into the category where the market declares that $0.01 + $3.99 for shipping will get you a like-new hardcover book.  And, though I started the book nearly a week after the first book club episode discussion, I managed to finish it just as the book club was reaching the halfway point.

The Second Mark: Courage, Corruption, And The Battle For Olympic Gold by Joy Goodwin is an in-depth look at the three pairs teams who medaled at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.  It discusses the six skaters, and how all of their humble beginnings lead to Olympic greatness.  It also looks at the lives of their coaches and parents, to examine how their support systems were able to push the skaters and help them achieve their ultimate potential.  As the book progresses, it leads up to the Olympic event, the controversial results, and the judging scandal that followed.

It is fascinating to view this book in a historical context – the Russian and Chinese teams were coming to their physical peak at a time when the political climates of their respective countries were turning on their heads.  The Russian tradition of pairs figure skating had lead to ten consecutive Olympic gold medals before 2002, but when the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the state funding supporting the athletes and their training.  Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikahrulidze had started their training under the old Soviet system, but had to find a way to maintain access to ice and training time in a changing world.  Though this struggle was nothing compared to Elena’s need to overcome an abusive relationship and near-death incident with her former pairs partner.  They started in a system where two young children who were not particularly interested in becoming skaters were pushed by the state to achieve greatness, then, right when they were about to reach it, the state support that had created a dynasty of Olympic champions melted away.

In China, Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo were born to parents who had lived through China’s Cultural Revolution and all the repercussions that led to meager earnings and an inability to improve their social standings afterwards.  At a young age they were separated from their families and lived at the athletic training facility.  Zhao Hongbo because his natural athletic gifts were apparent at a young age.  Shen Xue because she worked harder than any other child and had a father who would help her push herself to the limit.  As their abilities and world standings progressed, their coach was able to gradually convince the Chinese government for the need of Western influence in terms of choreography and style.  In the days of their coach, Yao Bin, such a thing would have been unthinkable.  The cultural changes and government support allowed two children who were born in poverty to achieve greatness for a country whose earlier competitors had been laughed off Olympic ice.

The Canadian team of Jamie Salé and David Pelletier had a similarly long though very different road than the other teams contending for the Olympic title.  David Pelletier had a mother who pushed him into skating, and though he initially did well because of an innate talent, he eventually found a true love for the sport once he started skating pairs.  Jamie Salé had a charismatic spark, though she was not, perhaps, the most gifted skater technically speaking.  She, too, had a real love for pairs skating.  But the North American system, where parents scrape together enough to afford lessons and ice time for their children, and where appropriate partners are found by luck more than by careful assessment and planning of coaches, is not the easiest method to create a great pairs team.  Both Jamie and David spent most of their careers with different partners.  It was only once they started skating together that they had a meteoric rise to the top of the sport.  Where the other teams had been skating together for years, Jamie and David had much less time together before their attempt at an Olympic title.  Where the other teams faced more pressure from coaches, parents, and their state governments, Salé and Pelletier had to deal with their own intense emotions and passions to make the team work.

The book concludes with a thorough description of the Olympic event, and the days following when the events of the judging scandal came to light.  It is an odd tale, involving the French skating federation and a man wanted by the FBI for being a member of an international mafia ring.  The entire event resulted in dual gold medals for the Russian and Canadian teams, which was entirely unsatisfying for anyone, except, perhaps, the North American media.  The Canadians were robbed of their Olympic moment, and the Russian victory was tarnished.  Though there were hearings to discuss the events of the Olympic scandal, there was not any real effort to look into the root of the problem, and it was decided that anonymous judging would protect the judges from feeling federation pressure in the future.

The final events of this book are now a decade past, but it is interesting to see how the repercussions of the judging scandal are affecting the sport to this day.  Though this book makes no mention of it (as it was published only two years after the Salt Lake Olympics), the “new” IJS scoring system was put in place to prevent such controversial results and questions of cheating in the future.  Many have attributed the new system with removing the soul of skating and causing a rapid decline in the popularity of the sport.  It is also amusing to note that, due to the anonymity of judges and the way that scores are assessed, it is almost easier for judges to cheat under the new system than the old.  Fans can now cry out against the harsh judgements of the technical caller, and question the inflated PCS scores of skaters whose performances were marred by several falls, but it doesn’t quite have the same thrill as seeing the score 6.0 flash across the screen.  Moreover, with skaters pushing their bodies to the limit to increase the base values of their program, it is increasingly difficult to have the physical staying-power of skaters past.  The sport now has an almost too-technical quality about it, where difficult elements are valued above the beauty of a pure, smooth, gliding edge.  Reading this book makes one want to go back and re-watch programs of the past.  And in doing so you realize that they made you feel something.  There is an art, a beauty, an intangible elegance to these performances that just doesn’t seem to be possible in the sport today.  I won’t deny that the elements being attempted by today’s athletes are much more difficult than in the past.  But I will also say that the difficulty is much more obvious – that seamless quality is gone.  At the time, the judging scandal may have felt like it only affected the results of one competition, but in reality the incident would affect the future of the sport more profoundly than anyone would have guessed.

In the end I have to say this was a truly fantastic and engaging book.  The lives of these skaters, coaches, and parents are fascinating, and the book itself is very well written.  You feel for all of the skaters, and, even knowing the results, you find yourself rooting for all of them.  I did feel that the writing of the book colored the skating of the Olympic event in favor of the Canadian team perhaps a bit more than it should have; I remember watching the event and, despite a minor bobble from the Russian team, thinking, on that night, that they had justifiably won.  There was an etherial quality to their skating that feels somewhat downplayed in the text.  However, I can appreciate the argument that the skating by the Canadian team was more technically correct and I do agree that the judging of the event was unfair.  And, despite the fact that the scandal and hoopla surrounded the Russians and Canadians, after finishing the book I felt that the Chinese team displayed the greatest amount of Olympic spirit.  Inspiring, disheartening, and fascinating, The Second Mark is a great read for skating fans, but would be a fascinating personal interest story even if you don’t know much about the sport.  I highly recommend it to all.

(Random slightly tangential side note – does there exist a skating book about roller or ice where Ottavio Cinquanta is not the villain?  He squashed the Olympic dreams of many on one side of the fence, and seems to have supported fixing the results on the other.  In an odd way the decline of both sports can be traced back to the man, and it is almost tragic how one person can cause such severe problems and remain in power.)

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