Monday, February 24, 2014

On Asada Mao And Mori Yoshiro - By Request

No question as to which country she hails from: Asada Mao's profile on the Japan Skating Federation website lists her blood type.

In comments I was asked my thoughts as regards Tokyo 2020 Olympics Organizing Committee Chair and former prime minister Mori Yoshiro's comments on skater Asada Mao’s performance in the short program half of the women's singles figure skating competition at the Sochi Olympics. (Link)

Mori Yoshiro has reputation of saying idiocies when he should know not to. I would argue that Mori is no more of an idiot than the average run of Japanese politician and is far more entertaining than most. He knows what he thinks and is willing to say what he thinks. This makes him a great guest on morning talk shows, as he ends up talking wonderful trash about the current prime minister, the Liberal Democratic Party, the nation's sports organizations...whatever.

Where Mori tends to get into trouble is when he tries to explain why he thinks what he thinks. He could take the easy route and simply excuse himself for following his instincts. Instead he tries to provide an explanation on the fly for opinions he himself has not, until that very moment, thought through. To add a layer of complexity (thereby guaranteeing failure) he tries to read the mood and intellectual level of the room and gear his ad hoc explanation to whatever audience he thinks is out there.

The results are not pretty.

The architecture of his controversial comments on Asada's collapse goes something like this.
a) Asada Mao fell down in the short program in the women's singles figure skating.
b) She fell down because she felt pressure.
c) She felt pressure because she felt responsible for the poor showing of Japan in the team competition.
d) Mao fell down in the team competition, skating the women's short program segment.


x) The Reed siblings live in the United States.
y) The Reed siblings are mediocre ice dancers who had no chance at representing the United States.
y) The Reed siblings represent Japan because Japan has no ice dancers.


Ergo: Asada Mao fell down in the singles competition because the Reed siblings are not really Japanese?

(Link - J)

Of course, Mori being Mori, the above was not bad enough. He had to go and make the whole thing personal:

"I was watching thinking, 'C'mon girl, give it your best shot for us.’ However, Mao, brilliantly, fell down. That girl, whenever it's really important, she falls down, doesn't she?"*

The tragedy in the complete train wreck of racism, sexism and misguided sports nationalism is that there was in it the germ of an idea, one that was indeed worthy of one whose responsibiilties include the goading of everyone into making an Olympian effort for 2020:

"Mao-chan tends to fall down and usually at the very worst moment. Everybody knows this. She should therefore have never competed in the team competition. When she fell in the team competition's short program segment she felt responsible for the team's finishing out of medal contention. That led her to overcompensate in the singles competition, leading to her breakdown in the short program.

Japan's real problem is that it has no ice dancers or pairs skaters worth a damn. If you look at the final team competition standings, Japan finishes in fifth place with 51 points. Mao finished third in her group, contributing a respectable 8 points to the final tally. Japan's pairs skaters and ice dancers both finished in eighth place in the preliminaries and dead last in the six-team finals. (Link)

How lousy is our domestic ice dancing program? We have to rely on the Reed siblings -- who are Japanese neither by residence nor upbringing and who have zero chance of ever making the U.S. Olympic team -- to fill out our roster."

Does anyone know -- did Mori saying anything about the pairs where Japan's representatives were young, inexperienced, shaky and also not Olympic caliber?

[Takahashi & Kihara finished 18th out of 20 pairs; the Reed siblings finished 21st out of 24 pairs.]

What complicates the story is that Mori's original, unadorned reaction to Asada falling down (and doubling a planned triple jump) in the short program -- “I was watching thinking, 'C'mon girl, give it your best shot for us.' However, Mao, brilliantly, fell down. That girl, whenever it's really important, she falls down, doesn't she?" -- is probably what at least half the country was thinking, and probably still thinks.

Asada is a ferociously talented and dedicated skater, one of the greats. She is also almost never able to put together two clean programs in one competition (I have seen it happen only once: her victory in the nationals in 2009). She is also a national emblem, her image used to sell a huge variety of products, her face the image of Japan’s winter sports programs. Feed those three items into a heady mix of an underperforming country (Link and Link - Gremo Slovenija!) looking for well-groomed sports heroes (Japan's X-sports stars being, for what are sadly obvious reasons, not seen as big corporate sponsorship material) to fight against a beautiful South Korean super villain -- and you get a huge, resentful reaction by half the nation to a young woman's losing her concentration at what future generations will mock as Vladimir Putin's Potemkin Village Festival.

In truth, Asada Mao's legend was best served by her short program collapse and her stunning long program skate. First, it was true to her longtime personal narrative of blowing the short program only to claw back into contention in the free skate -- the 2010 Vancouver Olympics being the one time her long program proved her downfall. Second, had she been in contention after the short program, her immaculate free skate performance, glorious in its pointlessness, would have been swallowed up in the grubby competition for the medals (Link). I have yet to see a commentator or announcer on television point out that Asada skated her program, technically the most difficult of all those competing in Sochi, as well as she possibly could, earning a personal best score-- and still managed to only finish third in the free skate . If she had skated two clean programs she might have won, yes -- but then again, she might have ended up in third or even fourth place.

Asada's plummeting to 16th place in the short program and the lackluster performances by Suzuki Aiko and Murakami Kanako kept Japanese well away from medal contention and thus a safe distance from South Korean anger over the final result. Given Japan's relations with both South Korea and Russia, being away from the fray is very definitely in the national interest. (Link - Nota bene: if you have to put "politely" in your message, your request ain't too polite.)

Asada seems destined to go down in history as the magnificently flawed hero, the skater who was at her best only when she was at her worst, driving her countrymen and countrywomen to distraction and despair.

So Mori-sensei, keep voicing amazed frustration. It is a feeling one can enjoy on its own terms, without explanation.

Later - To clarify what I mean by sexism, Asada Mao falls down once and earns demeaning commentary. Male singles Olympic champion Han'yu Yuzuru falls down twice and is a national hero.


*「頑張ってくれと見ていましたけど(浅田)真央ちゃん、見事にひっくり返りました。あの子、大事なときには必ず転ぶんですね。」If anyone has a suggestion on how to translate this passage so as to better capture the semi-sarcasm of migoto ni please post it in comments.


Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, "Well, leave it to Mao. When the chips are down, she always manages to fall."

And, since you're taking requests... You've often hinted that Suga Yoshihide is "the power behind the throne." Can we have the lowdown on him, please.

Anonymous said...

Another chapter for someone to add to Ivan Morris's The Nobility of Failure.

MTC said...

Anonymous -

... You've often hinted that Suga Yoshihide is "the power behind the throne." Can we have the lowdown on him, please."

Yikes. How about something simpler, like explaining the significance of the Taniyama–Shimura–Weil Conjecture?

Anonymous said...

Now you have really whetted my appetite!