It it disappointing to me that the Olympic Games are seen by so many as a place solely to express their nationalistic pride rather than to enjoy the games themselves for their own merit. I am tempted when I say that, to single out my own country for excessive zeal, but then, I would be guilty of the same kind of bias I am writing against.
Americans surely are not the only ones caught up in team spirit, and I am not at all suggesting that cheering for one’s national team should be considered something criminal. The support of “our team,” after all, is the initial draw to the games that most spectators experience when they first start watching the Olympics, and the participants wearing the flag of their nation are going to be the immediate subjects of attention. For me, as a Cold War kid in a Texas military town, I was certainly no different.
All that changed for me in 1988 when I was 13 years old, watching the Calgary Winter Olympics and a spark of humanistic self-awareness forever changed my life. I was in complete awe of Katarina Witt’s performance in figure skating that year, and not only for an artistic performance that showcased a side of the sport of figure skating beyond mere technical prowess. I understood even then, that there was so much more to that event than the DDR edging out the US for a gold metal.
I was equally shocked at how disparaging US commentators were of her and how their political biases couldn’t permit them to respect a competition between the best figure skaters in the world for its own sake. Of course, to even say this out loud in 1988 would have been seen as an act of treason, especially in my family home in South Texas.
Nevertheless, a humanist was born the night I first watched Katarina Witt and “Our Team” at least as I saw it, grew much larger and inclusive ever after. The next fall, when I had to pick a foreign language as I entered high school, I chose German. I’m willing to admit now that the decision was largely because I had an enormous crush on Katarina Witt, but as I often joke, it was a gateway into the likes of Goethe and Schiller and Kant and to associate Germans as a whole more with their greatest philosophers and poets rather than with their most notorious statesmen.
It is a courtesy I learned to apply to all people and to all cultures, and it is redeeming when, as a Texan often expected by strangers to answer for every less than perfect moment of US history, that I find that courtesy returned to me.
In the moment I saw Katarina Witt’s “Carmen,” I understood what I was experiencing not unlike what made teenage girls scream at the Beatles, but more importantly, the Cold War thawed under that heat and soon melted away for good. In a scene unimaginable in 1988, I would find myself later in life performing my music in a former East Berlin kneipe, not only interacting with my audience in my high school German, but with the city’s immigrants in the broken Russian I had picked up living with roommates in Tel Aviv. I have no doubt that the causality for that rewarding experience began with Katarina Witt’s Carmen.
I am writing this, however, not to share my endearing love of my favorite Olympian, but rather, in support of Katarina Witt’s support of Nicole Schott for the skater’s choice of music in her recent performance in the 2018 Winter Olympics. The choice of music, for those not aware, was the theme to Schindler’s List. If one searches on youtube to actually watch Schott’s performance, they will only find this clip of 29 seconds amongst pages of scathing opinion on how “scandalous” it is that a German figure skater used this piece.
I don’t recall a similar backlash when Kati used the same piece in 1994, or any of the many Russian skaters that used it after. If anything, it seemed a very positive thing to do, and very much in the spirit of what the Olympic are and should be about. Spielberg, it would seem in his defense of Witt’s use in 1994, thought the same, it would seem.
Please guys,don’t be so harsh on Nicole Schott´s Music choice&keep olympic spirit.She did a very elegant choreography to this extraordinary emotional violin piece.I skated to the music of “Schindler´s List” too&Steven Spielberg himself send me the most touching letter afterwards
— Katarina Witt (@Katarina_Witt) February 23, 2018
So much has changed in our lifetimes, and not always for the best. The backlash I am seeing against Ms. Schott feels alien and so far removed from the values and sprit that I enjoy so much about the Olympics and what I enjoy best about being a human being.
The recent phenomenon of obsession with identity, and and the malignant division it sows amongst people and nations in the name of redressing past historical grievances is at best misplaced, and at worst, a reactionary and dangerous affront to the very values of the Enlightenment, reason, and humanist virtue. Whatever one prefers to call this phenomenon, it does not belong in the Olympics. Germans are apparently now subject to toxic shame for skating to Schindler’s List. “What poor taste,” say the outraged.
One suspects that those who take such grave offense would not prefer that German figure skaters choreograph themselves to Wagner, Rammstein, or Heino. The world should be fortunate that I am not a figure skater, as I consider the Rammstein option a worthy artistic statement in itself, with my corpulent physique an added value to transmit their message.
It is absurd that anyone should conform to the notion that one’s nationality should bar them from performing anything. If anything, I see the preference for John Williams’ Schindler’s List in figure skating, especially performed by Germans, to be conspicuously empathetic and very much in the spirit of the Olympics.
I would like to remind readers that Katarina Witt, famous for her Carmen, is neither French like Georges Bizet,the opera’s composer, or Prosper Mérimée, the author of the novella upon which the opera is based, nor is she from Spain, where the story takes place, nor is she gypsy, like the character Carmen herself. I don’t see why it matters, but presumably, someone somewhere does, and if that person wants to share that grievance, they should be loudly laughed at the absurdity of it.
It is my sincerest hope that Katarina Witt continues to speak out in support of other Olympians and reminds the world that as we engage in the global spectacle that is the Olympics, we should be looking beyond medal totals and national stereotypes and take enjoyment at what is truly on display: the noblest of qualities that all human beings can inspire to, and who we can be as a species when we recognize the commonality of that nobility.
That very nobility is what sustains and inspires me, and I feel fortunate that my favorite Olympian of all time has displayed the courage to speak up for it.