Toller Cranston Skates for Mexico: A Fever Dream

One reason I loved the Mountain Goats’ new album Beat the Champ so much is that it speaks about a kid projecting his own emotional turmoil onto the storytelling sport of pro wrestling, in a way which deeply resonated with my experience projecting my own emotional turmoil onto the storytelling sport of figure skating. If I made my own sports concept album it would be Toller Cranston Skates for Mexico, and it would be about, mostly, the Lillehammer Olympics, which allowed skaters who had left competition and turned pro to reinstate to amateur status: to come back. I can’t make concept albums so this is what you get instead. I don’t promise that it will be “good” or make what the philosophers call “sense” but I mean, who only does what they do well? Not me, that’s who.

In the liner notes for BTC John Darnielle talks about discovering pro wrestling at a time when his family life was falling apart under the pressure of his stepfather’s violence. He’s pretty clear about what he needed from these ringbound narratives of masked heroes and villains.

I fell in love with figure skating in 2010, a few months after the Vancouver Olympics. I quit drinking in January 2012, so about a year and a half later. It’s hard to say what kind of mental and emotional state I was in when I first got into skating. My memories of 2010 are not great, by which I mean both that I don’t remember much and that the whole year is wrapped in this miasma of self-deceit and shame. I don’t know that I can easily describe what skating did for me. I fell in love with this video first: the lovelorn, adolescent swoon, a Dear John letter to the judges. Eventually I found my way to the skater who would become my favorite, my “watch literally everything on YouTube, including medal ceremonies and interview clips” obsession.

It’s not hard to watch every video of Christopher Bowman on YouTube. (I mean, it’s not hard if you’re underemployed, steadily shedding friends, and gripped by obsession.) His senior competitive career was relatively short, 1984 – 1992, and I haven’t found a full video of anything before ’86. He placed sixth at the Calgary Olympics in 1988–where the men’s event was about as good as I’ve ever seen, with stellar performances from Brian Boitano, Brian Orser, and Viktor Petrenko as well as Bowman–and fourth at Albertville in ’92 against a significantly weaker field. He at one point said he’d reinstate for Lillehammer and in fact submitted the paperwork to do so, but when the time came he didn’t compete, I think to few people’s surprise.

I had heard pretty early about his drug problems, maybe even before I saw any of his programs, and I don’t deny that there was some major prurient solidarity going on. I hope it’s obvious that this post is not my attempt to do actual psychoanalysis or spiritual insight via YouTube but rather me telling stories, sometimes fairly crass ones, about a performer’s public persona. Also, I’ll give you some links if you want to keep track of what’s where (“Who could tell anymore where was what? Liars controlled the locks“), but one of the things I find most endearing about Bowman is that his skating persona just did not ever change, so don’t expect a coherent timeline.

And anyway on YouTube you can rewatch videos endlessly. You can revisit that ecstasy, losing yourself in the music and the dance. An endless replay which forestalls any need for regret or for redemption. Time stands still.

“Another Very Gritty Display”

1987, your senior Worlds debut. Lifts his chin to face the camera and the clip cuts in just as the commentators ask if he looks—

“Scared?”

But the music starts and it’s easy to get inside it. Those soft landings, the arms coming up in curves and the leg stretched out (you can point your toe if you have to), setting the tone for your career. Always looking up, not horizontal. The thing I love about this guy is that he can’t help but look upward. Flirtation and appeal are basically submissive stances. Entreaty, pleading, sometimes ruefulness and regret–that one weird exhibition where he kept covering his face. Which he started by getting down on his knees, head down and hands clasped behind his back, and somebody in the crowd gave the wolf whistle he was waiting for. “He’s a very giving skater,” I think Dick Button once said, and that’s one word for it: yielding, yearning. Needy, but what he needs is to be pleasing. (What he needs is the camera, is what everybody says.)

Fling up a gallant hand: the courtier scamp, the elegant scapegrace—the ham. Maybe already beyond all natural help.

Swoon your way at high speed down the whole length of the rink. Lines as elegant as brushstrokes. The long reach back for the Lutz as time stands still. Find the cameras, make sure they get a kiss and a quick wink. There’s a flowing grace even in those kitschy short programs. He can’t do it differently: Even the Swan Lake villain becomes a longing romantic hero, tragically heterosexual, a beautiful loser.

Here you see he’s two separate people hinged by catastrophic gift of self. That poignant glide, that pelvic thrust: same person, held together with a certain need to give oneself away. To the cameras, meaning, to whoever.

Reputation Judging

Every year seems to be a comeback year for this guy. Even his NBC fluff pieces go from merely ridiculous to sort of darkly, increasingly dubious: “what he claimed was a mugging.” “Withdrew with what he called ‘back spasms.'” Everybody gives a lot of flat denials of the things they’d later admit were clearly true. I have personally drug-tested this man and coincidentally I do not plan on revealing the results, but we have every confidence.

Pull your program apart at Worlds. Skate through the last thirty seconds just gutting out jumps; they’d written you out of the medals but you took bronze. Talk to the skies, get down on your knees and cross yourself. (“I was an altar boy,” as all the bad boys say.) Do an interview in the kiss-and-cry that’s like a clinic on how to sound like a subordinate in the face of authority. And a trainwreck exhibition, why not? Why would you ever not? That campy, abandoned Ina Bauer, that Boitano impression, a little obscene mime, some giant Russian split jumps, some crawling–why not?

Show up without your coach, “overweight and out of shape” which is words that have other truer words hidden behind them like the extra teeth of a shark, and with this punchy little grin knock out two gutsy programs for the gold. Hoot for yourself in the kiss-and-cry and tell the cameras, “Somebody’s looking out for me upstairs!”

You know, credit-card theft and knocking over ATMs are crimes that are hard to romanticize, even when romanticizing crime is practically your day job. But it’s hard to get enough money. Enough for what? (Some crawling, why not?)

I think it helped me to know that somebody had been able to touch beauty, create something sublime, and give joy, even when his life was falling apart.

Surely for just two more years you can hold it together. Two years—might as well be never. Wake up every morning saying, “Today I can choose differently.” Maybe there were days when it was true. Eventually accept that you’ll never figure out when you skidded beyond all natural help.

(I was haunted by the thing Toller Cranston says here, that open acknowledgment that nobody can trust you: “What can he say, ‘I’m like a changed person’?”)

Everything you can see is a camera; everything you can see is a judge. Everything you can see is a journalist, holding something that would be cleaner if it were a grudge.

Other people pay for their gifts in blood, sweat and tears. You pay in all of that and shame. The one thing nobody could ever make you do was say that you deserved to win. The last great gallant loser; well, a lot of us have problems guessing where humility stops and self-hatred begins.

I do pray for the repose of his soul. Pretty frequently. I don’t know that he intended to help me out in the way that he did, but I think he loved his audience in the only ways anybody really can. There’s a helplessness in prayer. In order to pray–as vs. just talking to God like He’s somebody you’re trying to convince–you have to accept that you don’t control what happens and you don’t even know the story. You don’t know who this person is or what you should pray for. A denim jacket thrown over the camera: You don’t get to know what you’re doing. Just that it’s the next right thing to do.

April 1, 1993

By the deadline for reinstatement the rumors were flying. The Protopopovs will return! U.S. Figure Skating confirmed that Bowman had submitted for reinstatement as an amateur. Boitano, Petrenko; Gordeeva and Grinkov, Torvill and Dean; Katarina Witt, with two Olympic gold medals and the knowledge that she would not be skating for a third.

And the greatest rumor of them all: Toller Cranston will reinstate to represent Mexico. Toller Cranston, the Canadian expat, bronze at the ’76 Olympics in Innsbruck, who skates like a Calder mobile at a disco.

When they talk about it you can hear them looking back at their careers. Some people with regrets, chagrin; the Protopopovs with a glorious insouciance. But then, the Protopopovs never believed Lillehammer was their one last chance.

Toller Cranston didn’t love figure skating by the end. He was a great individualist in a sport that attracts them: a hermit, a hieroglyph, kooky to the point of sublimity. Unhappy. I want to talk about my painting.

Hear the blades as you’re trying to fall asleep. The memory of those glorious jumps and spins, your crooked limbs.

Katarina Witt

Pampered and spied on. At the boards giving the witch-eye. The steel-veined showgirl. I admit I did not respect her for that second gold, for jumping and posing in an appeal to the lowest Carmen denominator.

All through the Cold War her parents couldn’t come to her competitions. Lillehammer was their first chance to see her on Olympic ice. There was no such thing as an East German defector anymore. She could take her Iron Curtain call and she gave it to them.

A lithe hero, Robin Hood as a girl, a camel spin like a waving willow; radiant, loved by her rivals’ biggest fans. The jumps are there because they’re required but she’s skating with such joy that it looks just like command. The judges can’t place her higher. She couldn’t be happier.

Her steel nerves, her jumps, her sex appeal: They’re not needed in the arena anymore. Soft slumping shoulders in a program for the people of Sarajevo, as she skates from mourning to triumph. Coming up from her sprawling hand-down in the free skate and gritting her way into a butterfly right in front of the banner that says, UNSTOPPABLE. Hands up to the sky to say, This is what I want to give you.

Reinstatement

In pairs and ice dance the reinstated skaters had terrific success: gold for Gordeeva and Grinkov, silver and bronze for two of the reinstated dance couples. In singles Petrenko finished highest at fourth, with Boitano sixth. Witt finished seventh. It seemed easier to be in her position, where you knew exactly what you were skating for. Petrenko and Boitano may have had too much to gain, and therefore something to lose. But they came back. They got some portion of what they came for. Any day is a good day when you know you might not ever have gotten the chance.

There’s supposed to be a story of reinstatement for everyone. I nurse the fantasy of a world where it’s never too late—where at age 45 Toller Cranston takes Olympic ice once more, for Mexico. That’s the California dream: The phoenix must eventually rise.

But I guess that’s not what this life is for, for everyone. That is not something the cameras capture. That will have to remain something you pray for, not something you can know.

[Christopher Bowman and Toller Cranston, R.I.P.]

 


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