Some Call It Ballin'

Issue 3: Fall 2014

"...but in joy create for others the house, the poem, the game of athletic beauty" — Dudley Randall

Boycott, Memory

by Gabrielle Calvocoressi

Illustration by Nicholas Rosal

This year, I feel about the Olympics much like I felt about gym class in middle school. Which is to say, as much as I love sports I just can’t get very excited. These last summer games were all I could think about and yet here we are this winter and I just can’t seem to find a way to care.

I’m even reading War and Peace. Because I love the Russians. Russian authors, Russian food, my dear friend Alex who told me all the names her parents call their new granddaughter. It made me want to be Russian. To have someone make a world out of my name: Gabushka, Gabenka, Gabochka. I’ve always wanted to ride the Trans-Siberian Railway. I have always wanted to be wrapped in furs and sled across the steppes or watch the steppes become blanketed with wild flowers just like West Texas does. I was reading Dreams of My Russian Summers in Marfa, TX and I thought, “The steppes sound just like here.” And sure enough I went online and found some photos and they were just like the view out my window, the view going on for miles, the same promise of something wonderful or at least very new in the distance.

These Olympics don’t seem to me to be the promise of anything. Which is a terrible thing to say about what I view as the single most important sporting event there is. Even more than loving Russia, I love the Olympics. I have, ever since I was small and you could watch it on network television all day long. I’ve loved it since they let you watch the whole event instead of joining in the medal rounds. Since you were just as likely to see Hammer Throw on a major network as you were to see Alberto Tomba win the gold. Those days are dead as Dostoevsky. Forgive me. I’ve gone dark. But do you remember? Remember finding out about skeleton and luge and all those sports you’d never heard of? I do. Now it’s like a book I once read about Napoleon taking over the world and all the ballrooms of Petersburg alive with news.

I would like to feel differently. Remember when Dan Jansen was supposed to win the 500-meter sprint and the 1000? And then his sister died on the day of the 500 and he fell? I felt so terrible for him. A kind of terrible you’d feel for any normal person, which was somehow deeper and realer than I would have felt for Joan Jett or Mean Joe Green or any of my other “famous” heroes of that time. I suppose that’s a terrible thing to say but it’s true. I didn’t know Dan Jansen before the Olympics and I knew he wasn’t famous like rock stars or football players were. He was an Olympian, which meant he did something really special incredibly well and also meant that he probably wasn’t ever going to be a billionaire. I didn’t know about endorsements then but the point still holds. When he fell I knew he’d lost his chance in a way that anyone can lose their chance. And that felt awful and somehow like foreboding. I remember going outside and “skating” round my grandparents’ looping driveway pretending I had fallen and then that I’d gotten up and won anyway. I couldn’t see my mother dying by her own hand just a split second up the track.

Jansen stumbled again in 1992. In 1994 he won the gold when nobody expected it. We were all too busy thinking about Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan after Harding had hired some guys to take Kerrigan out by busting up her knee. Lillehammer. Now that was an Olympic year. Jansen, Knee-gate, for godssakes “The Scream” got stolen the SAME DAY that a replacement skier made the ski jump in the opening ceremonies while holding the Olympic torch. And through it all, athletes smiling, crying, cheering their teams on. Athletes getting time off from their day jobs to go for the gold. That was two years after Home Depot started their Olympic Jobs Opportunities Program, which allowed athletes full-time or part-time work with full health benefits and time off for training and competing.

Home Depot stopped the program in 2009 saying, "We feel the time has come to look at new ways to enhance our brand and provide exciting, new programs that appeal to our customers and associates.”1

Our customers and associates. I’m the first to admit I didn’t think much about capitalism back in 1988 or 92 or 94 so it’s more than possible I didn’t see the Olympics for what they were back then. What did I know about capitalism? Not much on the surface. In the winter of 1988 I knew my mother was poor and that my father (whom I lived with) was well off. I knew I had most of what I wanted if you didn’t count things like friends, which were in very short supply for me in those days. Except my mother who I couldn’t really allow myself to want around. I knew she lived in Vermont, which was colder than Connecticut that time of year. I don’t remember if she liked the cold, though as I write this I see her looming before me in a winter coat as we walked across the street to the gas station. I didn’t talk to her during the Olympics, I don’t think she liked sports. Though she attempted to be interested in most things that I was. Even money, which I was super interested in at that time. Things. I wanted them. Once she said to me, “You don’t need to be someone who’s defined by money. There are lots of things more important than that.” We were standing at the cash register at Ben Franklin and I’d asked her to buy me something she couldn’t afford. I think it was a boom box. If I’d asked her to watch the Olympics I think that she would have. She didn’t have a TV in her bedroom but she could have gone downstairs to the living room and asked the man she was renting a room from if she could watch. Or maybe he would have already been watching. It seemed like everybody watched in those days.

When I got out of the stadium she was waiting to kiss me, to hold me, to have sex (I had begun thinking of that like it was an Olympic event). That was 1988 for me. Beginning to admit I loved girls. Not as a girl just yet. As a boy. In 1988 I was two people: a girl and a boy. I was two daughters: my mother’s and my father’s.

In 1988 I didn’t think about capitalism and I didn’t really think about my mother. I had started really thinking about girls, though. All the time. I thought about girls and I thought about myself as a boy. Myself as a girl came later. A lot of the time I was an athlete in those fantasies. Often, particularly in 1988, I was an Olympian. I was a skier in training for the Games and the girl I loved loved me. I was a speed skater and she met me at the end of the race. I stood on the medal podium with the flag raised behind me and she was all I could think of. When I got out of the stadium she was waiting to kiss me, to hold me, to have sex (I had begun thinking of that like it was an Olympic event). That was 1988 for me. Beginning to admit I loved girls. Not as a girl just yet. As a boy. In 1988 I was two people: a girl and a boy. I was two daughters: my mother’s and my father’s. My favorite song was “Always On My Mind” by The Pet Shop Boys, which was a remake of Elvis’, “Always On My Mind,” which was on the album my mother gave me when I was small. I would play it for hours and imagine all the girls screaming. The Elvis version. I played The Pet Shop Boys version over and over and forgot that my mother was the first person who played that song for me. Tell me. Tell me that your sweet love hasn’t died. Give me one more chance to keep you satisfied.

Satisfied. I loved the way The Pet Shop Boys repeated that word. I’d think about it after the song was over and then rewind the song and play it again. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m not excited about Sochi. I’m unsatisfied. Perhaps dissatisfied is the right word. I’m infuriated to an extent that eclipses the Games. To the extent that makes the Games feel superfluous for the first time in my life. Let’s start with the law because up until recently, I (like lots of people, I imagine) had heard about it but hadn’t actually read the thing:


On Introducing Amendments to the Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offences

The Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offences (Collection of Laws of the Russian Federation, 2002, No. 1, Article 1, No. 30 et al.) shall be amended as follows:

1) add Article 6.13.1 reading as follows:
"Article 6.13.1. Propaganda of homosexualism among minors

Propaganda of homosexualism among minors - is punishable by an administrative fine for citizens in the amount of four thousand to five thousand rubles; for officials –forty thousand to fifty thousand rubles; for legal entities – four hundred thousand to five hundred thousand rubles";

2) in Article 28.3, Section2, Clause 1 figures “6.13” shall be changed to “6.13.1”.

President of the Russian Federation 

EXPLANATORY NOTE to the Draft Federal Law “On Amendments to the Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offences” 

Propaganda of homosexualism in Russia took a wide sweep. This propaganda is delivered both through the media and through active social actions that promote homosexualism as a behavioral norm. It is especially dangerous for children and youth who are not yet capable of a critical attitude to the avalanche of information that falls upon them every day. In this regard, it is necessary to primarily protect the younger generation from the effects of homosexual propaganda, and the present bill pursues this goal.

Family, motherhood and childhood in the traditional, adopted from the ancestors understanding are the values that provide a continuous change of generations and serve as a condition for the preservation and development of the multinational people of the Russian Federation, and therefore they require special protection from the state.

Legitimate interests of minors are an important social value, with the goal of the public policy toward children being to protect them from the factors that negatively affect their physical, intellectual, mental, spiritual, and moral development. Paragraph 1 of Article 14 of the Federal Law 124-FZ of24.07.1998 “On Basic Guarantees of Child Rights in the Russian Federation” directly states the obligation of public authorities of the Russian Federation to take measures to protect children from information, propaganda and campaigning that harm their health and moral and spiritual development.

In this connection it is necessary to establish measures to ensure intellectual, moral and mental security of children, including the prohibition onto perform any act aimed at the promotion of homosexuality. By itself, the prohibition of such propaganda as an activity of purposeful and uncontrolled dissemination of the information that could harm the health and moral and spiritual development, as well as form misperceptions about the social equivalence of conventional and unconventional sexual relationships, among individuals who, due to their age, are not capable to independently and critically assess such information cannot be regarded as violating the constitutional rights of citizens. 

Given the above, a bill suggesting amendments to the Code of Administrative Offences was prepared to introduce administrative responsibility for propaganda of homosexuality among minors. In this case, administrative responsibility is established not for the sheer fact of the person’s homosexuality, but only for propaganda of homosexualism among minors.

This bill imposes the right to make records of administrative offences for public actions aimed at propaganda of homosexualism among minors on the law enforcement officials (the Police), and trial of cases of administrative offences– on the judges.

First: what? This law leaves me more confused than those years leading up to 1988 when I couldn’t understand why I felt so nervous changing in the girls bathroom because somehow the other girls would know. What? I gather the law is supposedly all about the children. About keeping the children safe. From whom? When President Putin was asked if homosexuals would be safe if they came to Russia for the games he said of course and then said as long as they stayed away from children. Specifically, he said, “Just leave kids alone, please.” Well, since he put it that way. He also spoke at length about liking Elton John. It makes no sense. It makes it impossible for me to pay attention to the slalom and the skeleton, to pair skating and the luge. All that noise coming from this law that makes no sense to me. It’s like static on the radio when a song I love comes on. I sit there for a while trying to hear the hook I love and then I jiggle the dial in hopes something clear will come through.

And then I hear the name Pavel Lebedev. Lebedev is a young gay man who was detained after unfurling a gay pride flag during the Olympic torch relay in his hometown of Voronezh. By all accounts he was first wrestled down by a member of the Olympic security team and then approached by Russian security who attempted to take the flag from him. Various accounts state that it was actually people in the crowd who alerted the police to the meaning of the flag, using the essential term, “propaganda.”

This begins to get through, to be a team I can root for. Pavel Lebedev and hopefully the many others who will take a stand as the weeks unfold. I want to say I felt similarly when it was announced that the U.S. would be sending a delegation led by Billie Jean King but somehow that seems like a brand to me. As much as I respect King, I’d rather have seen him send Martina Navratilova who defected to the U.S. from behind the Iron Curtain and then lived openly as a lesbian while redefining women’s sports. Maybe she wouldn’t have gone, who knows. To me, the message would have been more resonant: not merely to Americans but to all the gay and lesbian people in Russia and Uganda and Nigeria who are fighting so hard to make their voices heard and to live the lives they dream of. I wish there was a flag for that. Oh, right. There is. Pavel Lebedev held it. I’ll watch the opening ceremonies in hopes that athletes from all over will choose to bring the rainbow flag into the stadium. How great would that be? In the end, these games make me realize that my team is part of every team and, more importantly, my team is out in the streets and at home watching and waiting and fighting for change.

I was so busy thinking of girls and Dan Jansen in 1988 that I didn’t talk to my mother. I was listening to The Pet Shop Boys and Belinda Carlisle and trying not to get beaten up in the hall. When I first wrote this piece I said that my mother took her life a month after the Olympics then I looked at a calendar and forced myself to see she died a day after the Games ended, on March 1st. What must have she been thinking during those weeks when we were all mourning for Dan Jansen’s sister? I’ll never know. I equate those weeks with another person’s loss and a song that reminded me of one that she had played me long ago.

This year I’m going to watch the Games in Sochi but I’ll be keeping my eyes off-center. I’ll be looking for my team in the crowd and rooting them on with everything I’ve got left in me. So it isn’t that I’m not looking forward to the Games. It’s just that I think the main event isn’t going to actually be on any screen.

1 Home Depot Spokeswoman Jean Niemi. Tuesday Jan 6, 2009. Reuters.

GABRIELLE CALVOCORESSI is the author of Apocalyptic Swing, which was a finalist for the LA Times Book Award. She is the Senior Poetry Editor at Los Angeles Review of Books and writes a column for The Best American Poetry entitled "The Year I Didn't Kill Myself". She is working on her third book of poems, Rocket Fantastic. She tweets at @rocketfantastic. She lives in Chapel Hill, NC where she teaches at UNC and is beginning to call herself a Tar Heel.