I'm no autograph hound, but several years ago I resolved that if and when figure skater Michelle Kwan ever came to town, my daughter Sabrina and I would go to see her, and even get her autograph. It was as much a promise to myself as to Sabrina, made after I felt Kwan was cheated of her gold at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano.
Could there be a more graceful image than that of Michelle at 17, in her simple blue velvet dress, skating with exquisite technique and emotion during her Olympic long program? She seemed the embodiment of youth, athletic perfection and beauty.
I became an avid figure skating fan while watching Michelle Kwan grow up on ice. There is something poignant about the world's best figure skater seeking and failing to get the gold in two successive Olympics, sometimes struggling on the ice, yet never losing her competitive spirit.
At this year's nail-biting Olympics, Kwan's most memorable performance was her post-competition exhibition skate, wearing a gold dress and skating ethereally to "Fields of Gold," a bittersweet moment for the bronze medalist. Dan, who usually leaves the skating competitions to me, sat spellbound while watching a videotape of her "gold" skate (at my urging). At the conclusion of her touching program, he volunteered: "Michelle Kwan transcends." (I've decided, and I hope Michelle has too, that the Olympics are highly over-rated.)
When it was advertised that "Champions on Ice" was coming to Madison in May (with a shockingly expensive ticket price), Sabrina and I were able to fulfill our longtime ambition of watching Michelle Kwan skate in person.
Unfortunately, the overkill opening, with its flashing flags and deafening rendition of the Olympic theme, couldn't help but make me flash back to news footage of the 1936 "Nazi" Olympics. Once that hoopla was over, I relaxed and settled back to enjoy the rest of the show.
Although I have seen some magnificent skating at live events, I was unprepared for Kwan's remarkable presence on the ice. Her performance was quantitatively different from the other athletes. Michelle took command of the ice and managed, in that huge impersonal venue, to make her performance intimate. The audience hushed--almost afraid to clap lest they break the spell. Every movement was sure and lovely. Michelle skated with a lightness and gentleness that the camera cannot quite capture. It must have been gratifying to Michelle that she received the only standing ovation of any of the performers.
The spell was broken, however, by a pandering finale, an ensemble number. A super-militaristic version of "America the Beautiful," with words to all verses, boomed out as the ice skaters--in the Madison show representing Ukraine, France, and Russia, as well as the United States--skated, decked out in various red-white-and-blue outfits. Russian silver medalist Evgeni Plushenko was practically draped in a U.S. flag.
As I sat bridling at the insensitivity of this nationalistic display, using even foreign skaters like pawns in a patriotic battle, it got worse. The music segued to "Battle Hymn of the Republic," all verses. Julia Ward Howe's song, written as a Union anthem in the Civil War, warns of the wrath of "the coming of the Lord." You may recall it ended the service of "prayer and remembrance" held at the National Cathedral on Sept. 14. The fourth verse is typical of the song's message:
In the beauty of the lilies
Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom
That transfigures you and me;
As he died to make men holy,
Let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on.
I can't believe "Champions on Ice" routinely forces its Olympic skaters to perform to Christian hymns! Since the "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" is practically the trademark of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, I can't help but feel there is some nefarious Mormon influence at work.
Whatever or whoever prompted the inclusion of this overtly Christian song of conquest, it was tacky and disrespectful, both to skaters and the audience. Flags made of lights, the U.S. flag predominating, of course, swirled around the rink with the skaters. I thought it would never end. Finally, three huge U.S. flags dropped ludicrously from the ceiling as fireworks rang out. Nearly everybody (but not this atheist) stood and clapped.
Half-dazed by this assault on eyes, ears and personal conviction, I dutifully lined up with Sabrina and other would-be autograph-seekers. When fans bearing official-looking decals told me we had to have a pass to get in, and we had to know someone to get a pass, I was ready to call it quits. Then a woman with a teenage daughter generously handed us their passes, since they couldn't stay.
A handful of us were eventually led to the bowels of the arena, all concrete and full of equipment, and were told to stand behind a limp bit of rope. As we milled around awkwardly, suddenly there appeared Michelle Kwan, no taller than my 5'2", conferring with a stagehand first before turning to her fans. For an instant, she looked flattened, as though enduring rather than enjoying the moment. Who could blame her, having to skate to the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" night after night during "Champions on Ice's" grueling schedule?
Sabrina was second to ask for her autograph. When Sabrina shyly told her, "You're my favorite," Michelle's face lit up in a warm smile. Impulsively, I asked Michelle if she would autograph my baseball hat, which bears an imprint of the same words, "Life is Good," as one of Dan's freethought songs. She laughed, said "Sure!," read the sentiment out loud approvingly, and signed her name with her own felt-tip pen. Tongue-tied, I merely nodded as a woman next to us told Michelle what a beautiful skater she is. As Michelle moved on, we made our escape. Mission accomplished.
When I got home and examined Sabrina's program magazine, I discovered to my dismay that the inside cover features an American flag emblazoned with the words "God Bless America." It was worth putting up with to see Michelle Kwan, but I couldn't help feeling a bit indignant, and a bit dejected, over the unwarranted intrusion of religion and chauvinistic politics into a tour meant to showcase sport, art and internationalism.
Is nothing in our country to be free of this saber-rattling theo-patriotism? Must every store sport a U.S. flag (do they think we'll forget which country we live in?), much less "God Bless America" posters? I had fondly hoped the hysteria was dying down--but it certainly won't be wherever "Champions on Ice" is touring over the next few months.
"Champions on Ice," which is run by Tom Collins Productions (with John Hancock billed as "worldwide sponsor"), appears to be co-hosted by the U.S. Figure Skating Association, and has some connection to the Olympic Committee.
I wrote a heartfelt letter of complaint to the only addresses I could find on the Web, objecting to a Christian hymn being forced on audiences, including substantial numbers of nonbelievers and nonChristians. If you care to join me in decrying the inclusion of a Christian "battle hymn" in the Olympic figure skating show, maybe they'll put such religious displays "on ice" for future tours:
Tom Collins Inc.
3500 W 80th St
Minneapolis MN 55431
U.S. Figure Skating Association
20 First St
Colorado Springs CO 80906
Annie Laurie Gaylor is editor of Freethought Today and of the anthology Women Without Superstition: No Gods--No Masters (FFRF, 1997).