Today over at Los Angeles Review of Books our Poetic Olympians, Sarah Blake and Stephen Burt are telling us all about fencing and women's basketball.
By Sarah Blake
Picture the fencers. Picture them, without their gear, covered in bruises. All the weapons leave bruises, from thrusts, flicks, and the sabre's slash. They leave welts as well.
When I fenced in high school, we were proud of the marks. Mostly, it didn't hurt to get them. Or hurt isn't the right word because it feels good to hit someone, to be hit, in a bit of flesh that gives to the point.
I don't mean to sound masochistic or sadistic, but the pleasure exists. And I was never interested in fencing for the grace or technique of it. I was competitive, physical, and enjoyed the fight.
Even now, some ten years later, I remember how it feels to land the point of my foil in someone's side, to turn my hand, to push so the blade bends out to the side, to understand the belly anew, as a soft target.
Some parts of the body are protected. Women wear a chest plate, made of plastic, and shaped like breasts, as if women wear perky Victoria's Secret bras while they fence, instead of sports bras that flatten them. Even in the Olympics you can see these rounded cups through the lame and jacket.
As a poet, sometimes I feel this way, that I've geared up like a poet, but that my lines about motherhood, about sex, my method of engagement, my very words have flagged me as a woman poet, and then I'm standing there with plastic breasts that are the same size and shape as every other woman poet.
But if our breasts matter at all, our breasts are different.
Only one person, that I know of, has died from fencing. Vladimir Viktorovich Smirnov. He was the gold medalist in men's Individual Foil at the 1980 Summer Olympics. In 1981, he won the World Championships. In 1982, he returned to the World Championships and fenced with Matthias Behr.
During the bout, Behr lunged, landed his point on Smirnov's chest, the blade bent, as it should, but then snapped, and Behr's forward motion continued, driving the broken blade through Smirnov's mask and into his brain. While death was not immediate, death did come.
Safety precautions changed. So changed the metals of the weapons, the mesh of the masks. But I know, maybe all fencers know, it could happen again. The full force of the body, the power of forward momentum, the frequency of broken blades, the mesh still only mesh, and our fragile faces.
Poetry is dangerous. It can be. We don't typically use the word danger. We use words like risks and stakes. The risks of the poet and the stakes of the poem. But danger is implicit, sometimes explicit.
I've always valued the danger in poetry. I might value it above all else in poetry. Be it a weakness or a strength, it is a symptom of my fighting heart which led me to fencing in the first place.
When I fenced, I always felt the connection to sword fighting, to duels. The fights to the death or just to first blood. A mere scratched arm. Honor and disgrace doled out at once.
Sometimes the Olympics, with its rules and lights and wired bodies, hides this connection to fencing's history.
On July 30th, 2012, the rules required a young woman sit on the piste for about an hour while she waited for the results of an appeal. She cried much of the time.
Articles said she "broke down in tears," "was reduced to tears," "was in a flood of tears." Some mock her and some defend her.
To me, she sat as if at the foot of the world and hid nothing from it. And while challenges of judges are common in most sports, it was still brave of her, to compel the deliberations, to sit and continue sitting.
But for a time, her seated, weeping body, lit up on the piste, ruined my romance with fencing.
This year, I'm watching most of the games with my 14-month-old son. I'm happy to report that fencing had him transfixed, at least for one bout.
The first time I watched Olympic fencing was when my coach played VHS tapes of men's Individual Foil. I thought they had special foils, different from my own, because theirs whipped about wildly as if they were not made of metal. But it is just the strength of the men's arms. I was in awe.
I read today, "the tip of a fencing blade is widely considered the second fastest moving object in sport, behind a marksman's bullet." Awe is still the right word. And perhaps awe is what my son experienced as he watched that bout from my lap, quiet and still.
I pretended to fence my son with my finger. "Chh, chh, chh," I said as I moved my finger between 4 and 6. Then I poked him.
I asked him, "Are you going to be a really great fencer one day?"
And he answered, "Uh-huh"—a word, a perfect sound, that he's only been making for a few days.
It will not be hard to encourage him. Peter Pan's dagger against Captain Hook's sword. The Princess Bride. When he's older, The Three Musketeers and Cyrano de Bergerac.
It will be harder, I worry, to foster a love of poetry in him. But another part of me thinks he will find poetry as I have found it: threatening, urgent, and utterly magnetic.
Stephen Burt on Women’s Basketball
It wasn't supposed to be hard. American women's basketball team has won gold at every Olympics since Atlanta in 1996, where U.S. success—anticipated and then realized—helped to launch the WNBA. The W, in turn—though teams come and go— remains the world's best showcase for professional women's basketball: this year's U.S. team had nothing but WNBA all-stars, including the three best scorers in the league, its strongest pure low-post player, and its two best point guards. The volatile, exuberant Diana Taurasi can score from anywhere on the court, and dominate almost anybody one on one, as long as she doesn't foul out; Seimone Augustus has cultivated what might be the purest, most beautiful jump shot in the history of the women's game, with Maya Moore's two- and three-point arc close behind. Sylvia Fowles, whose musculature reminds me of several comic-book superheroes, can hold a position like nobody else, and elevate like a military helicopter. As for the point guards, the players (often shorter than all the others) who bring the ball up the court and often control the flow of the game: Sue Bird has a legion of imitators for good reason, and Lindsay Whalen seems to have jet thrusters in her sneakers, the ability to pass through solid objects (e.g. defenders), and eyes in the back of her head.
Other national teams have one or two or three internationally recognizable stars; the U.S. team is as deep as it has ever been, and deeper than all its competitors—so deep that coach Geno Auriemma can send all his starters off the court, replace them with bench players (as in hockey ) and suffer for nothing, except perhaps at center. Where, on the men's side, some players turn their country down, fearing injury or conserving their strength for the pro season, on the women's side almost every player asked to represent the U.S. does; one exception this year, center Brittney Griner of Baylor University (you may have heard that she dunks), will likely say yes when she's finished with college play. (Another WNBA star, the sharpshooting guard Becky Hammon, wanted to play in the Olympics—or perhaps to build up her savings—so badly that when Team USA turned her down, she accepted, for pay, Russian citizenship, and now plays on the Russian national team.)
For all that talent Team USA brought to the UK, observers saw problems, structural ones, beforehand. WNBA salaries are respectable (comparable to assistant professors) but not stratospheric, so most elite players take wintertime jobs with better-paid teams overseas: that means they play year-round, and wear out their bodies and spirits, on average, faster than their male counterparts, who take the NBA off-season off, and faster than Europeans who take non-Olympic summers off. Year-round play also means that between their overseas teams in the winter and the W during the summer, American Olympians don't practice together so often as other national teams. That perennial problem might have been assuaged, this year, because so many of the Americans played together, in college, for the same coach: six of eleven represented UConn under Geno Auriemma, the wisecracking perfectionist whose teams have won six of the last twelve NCAA crowns.
And yet, in the first Olympic game, the cracks showed. Team Croatia, not expected to make it out of the preliminary round, pulled ahead several times during the first three quarters. It was a low-scoring match, frustrating to watch, for those three quarters, unless you supported particular Croatians: 6'6" Marisa Vrsaljko, for example, who appears not to have played for teams outside Croatia, kept outworking the Americans to hit open outside shots. Jelena Ivezic connected on trey after trey, and 6'9" center Luca Ivankovic used her big body to keep the U.S. from the lane. Team USA looked surprised, underwhelmed by their own lack of coordination,and unable to play as a team.
But that was the first 30 minutes; it's a 40-minute game. Whalen came through, with assists and with fast twisting layups. So did Angel McCoughtry, who has brought into the pros her collegiate habit of trying to score all the points herself: she didn't have to do it here, though she looked ready. U.S. perimeter defense picked up, Croatia wilted, and the Americans rolled, 81-56. Announcers like to talk about veterans, and most of the U.S. players have gold medals from 2004 or 2008, but the keys to the runaway win Saturday were the players—Whalen, McCoughtry, Candace Parker—never invited to the Olympics before.
Was this game a tuneup, a demonstration of nerves, a way to get going, even if it took a while to bring the team up to speed? Or did USA vs. Croatia show other teams, with more talent, how to beat the USA? Likely more of the former, but maybe a bit of the latter. Team USA in 2008 had moments when no outside shots were falling, and veteran center Lisa Leslie—nicknamed "My Pretty Pony" by WNBA fans for her hair ribbons and her self-centered demeanor—saved the day with her repertoire of low-post moves, making it hard for most fans to keep hating her. Leslie has now retired, and other nations have big women who match or exceed what Team USA supplies, as big as the 6'6" Fowles and more skilled than Ivankovic: Australia's 6'8" Liz Cambage, for example. The Australian national team, called the Opals, had no trouble in their first match against Great Britain; Opals forward Lauren Jackson, who also leads the WNBA's Seattle Storm, can take over a game inside or outside, and has a legitimate claim to be the best women's basketball player in the world.
Other elite teams, though, had bigger scares. Most experts pick the Opals to finish second, as they did in Beijing, and in Athens, and in Sydney; the same experts mostly expected the Russians in third. But that team nearly lost to Canada Saturday; led by Kim Smith and Shanna Thorburn (who played together at the University of Utah), the Maple Leaf squad had more fun, played better together, and led till the last few minutes, when Hammon scored eight in a row. The favored Czechs lost to the Chinese, and the Brazilians—who have a great Olympic history, but are missing their best guard—lost badly to France. Everything so far points to yet one more championship in which the U.S. sees—and struggles to beat, but finally beats-- Australia.
As you watch the rest of the prelim games, keep your eye on Australia's Jackson and Cambage, and also on Opals point guard Kristi Harrower, who is tiny (for this level of play) and plays smart—she was one of my favorites to watch, a few years ago, when she was in the WNBA. If you watch Russia, ask whether they can play together, and whether they're asking Hammon to do too much. As for Team USA, ask where they keep, or lose, focus; whether and how they can out-rebound other top teams; whether Taurasi (whose WNBA play has suffered from strings of minor injuries) looks healthy and happy; and whether the players from UConn (Bird, Cash, Taurasi, Jones, Moore, and Charles) can extend their chemistry to the folks who have not played for Geno before.
Women's basketball, even more than men's hoops, is a team game; excellent individuals can beat bad teams, but when the best teams face each other, it's essential to make the right pass; to work together on defense; to know where your teammates are. That's why it's sometimes annoying to watch McCoughtry, and why her team, the Atlanta Dream, lost to my Minnesota Lynx in the WNBA championships last year; the Lynx, led by Whalen, could see the floor together, respect one another, and hear their coach. So can the UConn teams, year after year; if Geno can get the same cooperation from Team USA— which seems likely—their depth, and their guard skills, should carry the day, though you might still worry about the low post.
Some Olympic sports have little historical connection to the writing of poetry, so that the poets who cover them for this journal—hi, Lynn!—have something close to clear ground. That's not the case for basketball, which has an intimidating tradition of verse second only to all those poems about baseball; Yusef Komunyakaa comes immediately to mind, and there's a decent anthology (edited by Todd Davis) of poets, men and women, on James Naismith's game. Don Johnson (not the cheeseball actor, but the Appalachian poet) wrote a terrific book about poets on sports: Johnson's The Sporting Muse argued that poems about basketball see both hoops and lyric as ways to stop time, defy gravity, violate physical law, as players (streetball or pro) rise up to do the impossible. What do these Olympic women—and the women's side more generally—add to such accounts of poems and hoops?
We might say they put poetry back on the ground: they remind us that the kind of effort that makes poems memorable, and makes elite games winnable, involves something that by its nature has to be shared. For poets it's language, a set of expectations, a history of forms, a context of usage; for women's hoops it's the basketball itself, as well as the game plan, on offense and defense, and boards. People who watch the men but not the women like to talk about dunks, individual shows of strength; the woman best known for dunking, Brittney Griner, is the best U.S. player not in London, and women's hoops—with or without Griner, even at its highest levels—generally takes place on the ground. The women's game, more than the men's, is a game about teamwork, shared defense, picks and thread-the-needle assists; it's about making the right number of passes, moving the ball inside, and perhaps back out. (The best men's teams can do that too—think of the San Antonio Spurs—but the women must do it, all the time.) Whalen can arc her body spectacularly in midair on the way to the hoop, but she belongs at the Olympic level (she belonged there in 2008 too, by the way) because she can see the whole court and make the right pass. Moore and Seimone Augustus can send the ball like a guided missile right into the net, but they also know where to catch, how to set a screen, and how to let their teammates set them up. (Moore, with her guard skills, can set all her teammates up too.) Augustus made the transition from college to pro excellence by learning to rebound, to play consistent defense, and to contribute even when her shots did not fall. To watch women's hoops in general is to think about collaboration, and to think about how collaboration inflects even individual achievements, like those embodied in lyric verse: to put together a piece of language so that it might stick around for 200 years, you have to have a sense of what the words you use could mean for other people, of how the language you use, that means so much to you, might sound in somebody else's head.
And the women bring basketball, and the aspirations it represents, back down to the ground in other ways: to watch them is to remember the practical constraints of their lives, even as the game they play tries to defy gravity and time. The women's lives, unlike the men's, are obviously affected by their salaries, and by the opportunities they seek, or forgo, to earn money for playing year-round. They're also affected by pregnancy and motherhood; just one of this year's Team USA players has kids (Candace Parker, who gave birth in 2009), but plenty of other elite players have to figure out child care just like those of us in other professions. The starting center for the Lynx, Taj McWilliams-Franklin, had two children as a teenager, raising one of them as a single mom; Taj and her husband Reggie, who recently left the Army, also have a nine-year-old daughter. Taj turns 42 this year. You won't see her in London, but you might see her as a commentator by the time of the Olympics in Brazil; you might even see her daughters by her side.
Want more on women's hoops, U.S. or otherwise, at the London Olympics or afterwards ,when the WNBA (or later the NCAA) resumes play? I used to write for womenshoopsblog.wordpress.com, but it's in better hands with its current sole editor Helen Wheelock; she'll give you links to all the reports, eyewitness and otherwise, that you might want to see.
For more Poetic/Olympic Coverage join us at The Los Angeles Review of Books.