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Friday, December 14, 2012

Book Club: The Second Mark

The Second Mark: Courage, Corruption, and the Battle for Olympic Gold
By Joy Goodwin

(Partial) Book Description:
It was billed as the greatest event in the history of pair skating: three of the best teams of all time battling for Olympic gold on one night in Salt Lake City. Technical ability was approximately equal. It was the artistic merit score that would decide the gold medal -- the second mark.

Representing Canada, China, and Russia, the three pairs illuminated their distinct cultures. On the second mark, whose culture would triumph? Would it be the beauty of the Russians' ballet on ice, the thrill of the Chinese pair's heart-stopping acrobatics, or the Canadians' passionate connection with the audience? In a down-to-the-wire nail-biter, the difference between gold and silver came down to the vote of a single judge. Hours later, a bombshell: the confession of a French judge unleashed a worldwide debate -- and ultimately produced an unprecedented duplicate gold medal.

The Second Mark reveals what an athlete really goes through to become the best in the world, through the riveting stories of unforgettable people.

My thoughts:
First of all, I must object to the characterization of the 2002 Olympic pairs competition as "the greatest event in the history of pairs skating", nor do I recall anyone billing it as such before or since. The greatest pairs competition I can think of took place eight years earlier in Lillehammer, when 1988 Olympic gold medalists Ekaterina Gordeeva/Sergei Grinkov faced off against 1992 Olympic gold medalists Natalia Mishkutenok/Artur Dimitriev (not to mention some other fantastic skaters). Yet once one disregards this dubious claim, The Second Mark is a very interesting and, as far as I can tell, well-researched book about the controversial 2002 competition and the different roads the skaters involved took to get there.

Goodwin is a journalist and her professional background shows. The book is well written and accessible to the casual fan who can at best talk about the questionable morals of "French skating judges". At the same time, there is a wealth of material to keep more dedicated fans interested.

The book includes sections about the early years and career development of five of the six skaters who medalled in Salt Lake City: Elena Berezhnaya, Jamie Sale, David Pelletier, Hongbo Zhao and Xue Shen, with further insight about the development of the Chinese pairs skating program as well as the life and work of Russian coach Tamara Moskvina. Only Anton Sikharulidze is given less space; I'm not certain if this is because he cooperated with the research to a lesser extent or for some other reason.

Of particular interest to me were the sections about the Chinese skaters: Bin Yao when he represented China with little success, and his pupils Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao. While there is a rich skating tradition in both Russia and Canada, Chinese pairs skating had to be built from the ground up, and the sacrifices that were made by the skaters and their families are considerable. It is difficult to think of all that Shen and Zhao had to give up on their way to China's first pairs medal, and one hopes that their subsequent success makes up for it in their eyes.

Shen and Zhao's happy ending, Vancouver 2010

Elena Berezhnaya's story is also compelling, while her experiences with Oleg Shliakhov are disturbing, to say the least. Later on, I was very interested in Moskvina's approach to keeping Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze motivated and interested in their training. Clearly this was not easy, and her decision to give them an artistic challenge with the City Lights program was in hindsight a very good one; a pity that the judges disagreed and did not reward them for this fabulous program at 2001 Worlds. Berezhnaya's comment on the judges' desire for "love carrots" cracked me up; she seems far more interesting and funnier in the book than she did on the ice. Finally, although Sale and Pelletier's story was more conventional, they too had some ups and downs on their way to international success. I was surprised to find Sale more likable in this book than I'd considered her in the past; whether this is reflective of her character, I have no idea, but I did find myself thinking more charitably of her.

 
Perfection

The book includes several pages of photographs (black and white). Once again, it is the Chinese ones that most captured my interest, and I must say that young Hongbo Zhao was extremely cute! There is also an adorable picture of a Elena Berezhnaya as a little girl.

The parts about the controversy and its aftermath were less interesting to me; having followed skating for many years, it's a subject I am well familiar with and not especially interested in rehashing. Those who are less aware of the effects Salt Lake City had in both the short and long term may find these parts of greater interest. Happily, this is not the main focus of The Second Mark.

In all, I very much enjoyed The Second Mark and felt that it did deliver a fresh perspective on the skaters involved in the Salt Lake City pairs event; nonetheless, my impression is not wholly positive. While it is obvious that an enormous amount of work went into this book, perhaps in the rush to publish (while the scandal was still on people's minds?) the fact-checking was not as thorough as it could have been. I found a fair number of mistakes with regard to ages, years and timelines, such as the timing of the Chinese pairs' working with Western choreographers and other errors. More discerning readers may find even more examples. I hope that these mistakes are primarily of a technical nature, and the substance of the book is indeed true to what happened and reflective of the skaters' personalities and experiences.

My hardcover copy of The Second Mark was bought from Better World Books, and is currently touring Europe. Paperback and Kindle editions are available from Amazon.com.

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