Judged By The Artistic Merit
A few years ago, at a casual weekend hangout, my classmates and I played celebrity together. Drinks were lightly consumed. Witty comments were uttered. It was a rather typical party for a group of graduate students.
It wasn't particularly easy for me to describe some of the names. Yes, I've watched a lot of American movies. No, I didn't grow up watching American TV series or news. Therefore, I got stuck a lot. And however many seconds I had left out of my one minute would run out like they were never there.
I was on and I drew a slip, hoping to see a familiar name. Unfold. Who's this? Hold on. I know this one! An infamous American figure skater in the 90s!
A female classmate raised her hand and shouted, Tonya Harding! Yes! At the same time, my other fellow film friends' faces were blank. I can't blame them; it was my personal choice to nerd on figure skating as well as film and a few other things at the same time. But I was impressed by that female classmate. (It was before Sochi 2014. I'd be impressed if anyone around me even knew who Kim Yuna was.)
Turned out, she was the one who wrote down Tonya's name. Made sense it was easy for her. After the game, I started talking to her about figure skating and learned that she skated when she was younger. She was an Asian American so I asked her how she liked Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan. Tonya Harding never appeared again in our conversation.
I didn't expect her name to appear in anyone's conversation until "I, Tonya" came out, soon before the 2018's Winter Olympic Games, then she became a part of everybody's conversation again.
If you forgot about what you were told had happened, you should remember now. If you had never heard about the incident, you should know it by now. The movie doesn't intend to be a tell-all. In fact, I suspect if someone watches it without any background knowledge, she/he could be confused by its bold style of having different characters looking directly towards the lens, telling their own very polarized versions of the same story. But it's also successful because it simulates what may have been like to learn about the Tonya-Nancy saga from different new channels at the time.
When Martin, the former Hard Copy reporter introduces his old employer as "a crappy show all the legitimate news outlets looked down upon—then became", I know that the truth's buried under those outlets' need to create headlines and spectacles too deeply for anyone to completely find out. But the truth about the incident is in fact not important anymore. They both competed the Olympics and lost. Tonya suffered the consequences she didn't fully deserve. The past hurts but it can't be changed. At least, those who were involved seem moved on. Before credits start to roll, a title card says she's now happily married and she wants people to know that she's a good mom to her son. And I believe her, not because of the movie but because of the peacefulness she showed in her recent interviews—the kind of peacefulness no editing or dramatization can hide.
I'm also too familiar with how polar-opposite her demeanor was back then. Her anger showed in every single competition clips of hers on Youtube. The frown that was embedded in her face, her fiery complaints, and her praying hands were nothing but fear: the fear of losing the very little she had. But it could easily be interpreted as being a diva, and that was exactly what happened. She ended up becoming the most hated woman in the country and probably the world.
The portrait of the abuse and violence she lived through was the most realistic part of the movie. I cringed every time I saw her getting hit by her ex-husband or cursed by her mother. That was only truth I, as a viewer, needed to understand and validate, and the movie delivered.
Some say "I, Tonya" is essentially about class system in America. I don't agree or disagree. But one question Tonya asked near the end of act one resonated in my mind.
How do I get a fair shot here?
In figure skating, artistic merit has always been a tricky subject. Tonya Harding was one of many athletes with amazing jumping ability who tried to be the champion but never really had a shot in top competitions. Just to name a few: Elvis Stojko, Surya Bonaly (whose name came up briefly in the movie), and "Quad King" Tim Goebel. The artistic merit was supposedly based on the gracefulness and flowiness of a skater's movement, which leaves a lot of room for interpretation. It also took the largest portion of an athlete's final score. The judges enjoyed their unchallenged freedom in artistic merit until the infamous 2002 Winter Olympics Scandal, which caused the ISU to eventually change the scoring system. (Look it up if you're interested.)
For those who don't watch figure skating, in 2017, the female gold medalist of the World Championship didn't do one triple Axel in her entire performance. Twenty-seven years ago, Tonya Harding landed one in the U.S. Championship. But that was only counted in the technical merit—secondary compared to the artistic one.
Don't get me wrong. Most top female skaters are able to do triple Axels, but it's certainly a risky jump. Therefore, when a top athlete realizes that she/he only needs to deliver a clean performance to ensure the high artistic merit she/he usually gets, she/he may decide not to do risky jumps.
If you happen to be someone who often asks the same question, you probably understand what I try to say by now.
How do I get a fair shot? Tonya knew her artistic merit all too well. It was her upbringing, her bruises, and her fear. So she took risks—spinning in the air, having no idea whether she would land safely or break her legs.
At the end of the day, we can never really change who we are. If you happen to be in a profession in which "artistic merit" acts as a deciding factor of whether you'd be successful, would you put everything on the line to be a winner? Or listen to the judge and pick another sport?
Maybe it really is a class issue. Maybe it always has been.
The 2018 U.S. National Championships just finished. The silver medalist, Ross Miner, was left off the U.S. Olympic team. His coach asked, “You let him spend all this money and time and energy to try and achieve his dream. If you knew he couldn’t make it, why did we fly here, why did we pay for a hotel, why did we pay for training, if it was decided already?”
Oh, man. Who knows?