Russia's gymnastics queen preens at the finals.

Scenes from the Olympics.
Aug. 20 2004 11:32 PM

Svetlana the Great

Russia's gymnastics queen preens at the all-around finals.

Sore loser
Sore loser

As Carly Patterson cheerfully bounced and flipped her way to gymnastics' coveted all-around title—making her only the second American to win all-around gold—the Russian gymnast Svetlana Khorkina glowered, picked her nails, and stuck out her tongue at the TV cameras. Patterson's night ended with a hug; Khorkina's with a flounce. The NBC commentators railed against the Russian's insouciance. "Khorkina's Final Act Is Centered on Bitterness," the New York Times trumpeted this morning, eviscerating Khorkina for her "self-indulgence."

But it's not as simple as all that. Patterson deserved to win last night: She was in great form and turned in the most consistent performance of all the gymnasts. Previously, I've found her wholly uninspiring, but my ambivalence dissolved as she followed a shaky start on vault with a steady assault on each piece of equipment—there was the dramatic height of her release moves on the uneven bars, her engaging way of playing to the crowd during the floor exercise, her nearly perfect beam routine. (I still maintain that she and Courtney Kupets dance like the robot guy from Chappelle's Show. Get those girls some rhythm!)

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Patterson is the model of steadiness and determination. Svetlana Khorkina, on the other hand, is all hunger; she loves the power of being an athlete and, with the lean lines of a greyhound, gives off the impression of being someone who metabolizes the world at twice the speed of the rest of us. Khorkina, 25, has been doing gymnastics for some 20 years. Her dedication to the sport is extreme, and her desire to win is palpable. In an interview with NBC, filmed prior to the Olympics, she said, bizarrely and sincerely, "I want to win a gold medal as much as I want to mother my own child." This desire manifests itself in the simple fact that she has worked so long despite the difficulties posed by her body—at 5-foot-5, she makes an unlikely champion. Shorter gymnasts like Patterson have a much easier time whipping their legs around or controlling their center of gravity. Khorkina's power is diffuse, and that's what makes her perfect split leaps and back-layout-step-outs so astonishing.

Khorkina's Marie Antoinette-style imperiousness has repeatedly brought out a creepy puritanical streak in the NBC commentators—and I find it infuriating. "Our cameras continue to watch Svetlana Khorkina's every move, and that's just the way she likes it," NBC commentator Al Trautwig proclaimed. But Khorkina's demeanor was actually much more nuanced than the announcers would have you believe. Khorkina was bitter at the very end, but earlier in the evening she smiled with real, open pleasure throughout her floor routine. Besides, she should feel cheated in her drive to win an all-around Olympic title. During the all-around competition at the 2000 Olympics, her vault was set at the wrong height after a brilliant floor routine had put her in strong position for the gold medal. She fell and then, shaken, fell again on the uneven bars.

The truism of "good sportsmanship" holds that an athlete should embrace his defeat without the slightest public ambivalence—a legacy of parental pieties about what sports have to teach us. Perhaps, though, the Olympics shouldn't always be read as a parable of acceptance and striving, but rather include room for protest, too—which has its own, if more complicated, value. At the end of the night, Khorkina refused to cede the floor (and the limelight) to the younger star. As the cameras panned the room, she swung the Russian flag up behind her like a brilliant parachute and delicately danced over to the uneven bars where, curiously, she draped it over the lower bar. (It reminded me of someone placing a flag on a coffin.) Later, during interviews, she brashly proclaimed, "I'm still Olympic champion."

That may be in bad taste, but at least it's lively and impassioned, compared to Patterson's drab response on Tuesday, after the American women lost the team gold: "It was just another competition, like any other," she said flatly. But it wasn't: It was the Olympics. Understandably, Patterson was too young, or too overwhelmed, to acknowledge the magnitude of the evening's events.

Yet it seems strange that we praise the athlete who finds it easy to be publicly dispassionate when she loses the one thing she has trained for her whole life and that we publicly tar-and-feather the one who passionately protests her fate. Good sportsmanship has its place, and it's moving when an athlete bows out gracefully to the "better man." But the better man or woman doesn't always win. Khorkina's flawed behavior reminds us that the Olympics is not a "pure" athletic competition, but a competition managed by evaluative institutions. And the evaluators don't always make the best decisions. If gymnastics has been criticized for being conformist, a sport full of little girls doing the bidding of coaches and judges, surely, then, Khorkina is a symbol of an athlete who knows her own mind and can be respected for it.

What is appealing about Khorkina is that she grasps the magnitude of every moment. In a pre-Olympics interview, she told NBC that she loved being called a diva. "A diva is magical; you can't catch her," she smiled. Before the awards ceremony, she changed into a sleeveless bright-blue leotard that appeared to be made of shiny vinyl, of the sort usually seen on miniskirts in night clubs. With a body that was much too tall and supposedly much too old to compete at the highest level in a sport given over to springy squirts, she refused to let anyone tell her what her place was. She would remain undefeated in her own mind.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.