I have a VHS somewhere of Martina Navratilova winning her ninth Wimbledon. I taped every match of hers that summer and would watch them over and over. I’m not sure I knew at that point what it was I was looking for. It’s true she was amazing. Nobody played like her, nobody was as strong. The baseline is boring as a suburb and Martina left it behind and came to the net. If you watch videos of her on YouTube you can feel when she’s about to come forward. The crowd gets excited and she’s so fast and you don’t need to know anything about tennis to know it’s over for her opponent. She’s super muscular. She doesn’t look “American” in the way that the other U.S. players of that era do. Which makes sense because she defected from Czechoslovakia. She’s big and strong and tough. She yells and she cries and the crowds took a long time to like her. By the time she won the ninth Wimbledon Chris Evert was out of the sport. It’s undeniable though that a good deal of the American public’s perception of Navratilova was shaped by the rivalry between the two and Evert’s not so subtle comments about Navratilova’s “swagger.”
Martina Navratilova was involved with Rita Mae Brown for many years. I read about it in her autobiography, Martina. It was a trade paperback I’d saved up to buy. That was the year all the boys wore Calvin Klein Obsession for Men. I picked up one of those sample sheets at G. Fox and placed in the book as a bookmark. The summer of the ninth Wimbledon she wasn’t with Brown anymore. She was with Judy Nelson, the former wife of a Fort Worth doctor. They were raising Nelson’s two teenage sons. Judy didn’t look like any other lesbians I’d seen. She was super made up, had big hair, wore a lot of jewels and expensive sunglasses. And there she was, sitting in the family box for each match, often next to Billie Jean King, the first openly gay professional athlete. I was transfixed. The commentators called her Navratilova’s “friend.” I knew what that word meant. I wanted one of those.
(When I was in second grade I rode the bus to and from school. Some afternoons our bus driver’s teenage daughter, Candy, would ride with her mother. She was pretty and nice. I was one of the last stops (I think) and so I was sort of alone on the bus with them. Sometimes her boyfriend, Keith, would ride along. She’d sit on his lap or rest her head on his chest. He played football and his hair was always slicked back. He’d link his arms around her waist. They’d kiss when her mother wasn’t looking. I’d walk past them getting off the bus and they’d always say goodbye really nicely. I’d walk home wondering what it would be like to have a girl feel that safe with me, to have her rest her head on my chest.)
Nobody had ever won nine Wimbledons. It was unthinkable. Grass is so hard to play on. It depends on the length and the wear and the weather. You get funny bounces like you get on clay but it isn’t as slow so you have to respond even faster. Navratilova won on every surface but to really understand her brilliance you had to watch her play on grass courts. She just drove people crazy. She could read the court and make the ball speed up or die at the net and drop so her opponent looked flat-footed. For two weeks a person could sit and watch the best grass court player in the history of the sport decimate her opponents. And you could watch her “friend” taking it all in, chatting with her boys, cheering, looking nervous. You could see Navratilova look up at her. You knew she was looking up at her.
Then she won. She beat her friend Zina Garrison in the finals and fell to her knees. She got up and went into the stands and climbed past people and went right up to Judy Nelson who was crying and hugged her and hugged her. They were both crying and so were Nelson’s sons. People talk about Ellen and she’s real important but for many of us that was the moment the closet door opened on T.V. And it wasn’t make-believe. It was two women who made a life together. It was (to be impolitic) a muscular, handsome woman who was the best in the world at what she did, being loved by the girl who’d married the quarterback. It was that dream for all of us to see. It wasn’t just a gay dream. It was about possibility and anything being yours if wanted it badly enough. I played the moment over and over. I thought about it and didn’t feel ashamed. They aren’t together anymore but, really, it wasn’t so much about them as the possibility of that kind of victory.
It’s eight days past the Olympics and I’ve been thinking about Johnny Weir. He skated the skate of his life. In the midst of all the press it is worth starting there. Johnny Weir is nearing the end of his athletic career. He will probably skate on the same touring circuit as other former Olympians. He’ll have a television show and become even more of a public figure. But let’s start by saying nobody who is serious about skating thought he would win a gold medal. I say this not to diminish him but to say that above and beyond identity, Johnny Weir proved a lot of skating fans wrong. You can hear how excited the American commentators are. And you can tell the crowd knows something very special is happening. He didn’t skate well enough to win gold but his scores were shockingly low and one has to wonder. He posted an elegant, athletic and technically beautiful skate. And it doesn’t even come close to his grace and strength in the face of the homophobic banter of the commentators from Quebec. To my mind the most powerful statement he made was not about his sexual identity (though he was beautifully articulate in that). The most remarkable thing Johnny Weir did was say that he would not ask for a retraction because he believes in the First Amendment rights of all individuals. It was the most patriotic moment of the games and it happened in a press room.
Like Navratilova before him, Johnny Weir made himself an example to us by being himself. Neither Wimbledon or the Olympics are a sideshow. They are places where the best in the world compete. Weir stated that he didn’t want children to feel that they couldn’t excel in something because they’d be made fun of. It’s a mature and deeply nuanced statement. It opens the discourse to Queer identity. I watched Weir on tape and I thought how brave he was not to say the word “gay” but to leave it more open ended and dangerous. The commentators from Quebec said Weir should be tested to determine his gender. His statements clearly take this into account. His statements acknowledge the greater discomfort surrounding difference in general.
The downside of the Olympics is that the same feel good stories that bring non-sports viewers to the television (the Jamaican bobsled team of years past being the most famous example) often pulls attention away from true contenders who spend at least part of their lives on the margins. We look at Johnny Weir, Martina Navratilova , Shani Davis and all those snowboarders excelling and we see the culture shifting. We have to deal with our prejudice whether it’s about gay and lesbian identity, queer identity, race, those damn kids with their loud music and baggy jeans who have the audacity to smile when they lose. Johnny Weir said those men had a right to speak and also should be ashamed of themselves. And he said he could take it but that maybe there were little kids out there or other fans who couldn’t, and that’s who they should apologize to. Which was his way of saying, “I’m an Olympian.”
It’s good to watch people who are different be the best. We make the tracks faster, the jumps higher, we ski from further up the mountain. Some people get left behind. That in itself draws attention to the gross financial inequities between the countries competing in the games. Any serious viewer, like any serious reader, watches sports and cannot help but consider there own culpability in the way these games play out on and off the field. Johnny Weir had the skate of his life. I sat and watched his press conference and it made me want to go do the thing I do best in this world.
Next week, baseball. I’ve got a good Greek boy I want to tell you about.