We Can Be Heroes: The Winter Poetry Olympics Part V: On Skeleton and Skeletonists

LARB returns with a sequel to its “Poetry at the Olympics” series, featuring poets from across America responding to the Winter Olympics at Sochi.

By Lynn MelnickFebruary 15, 2014

    We Can Be Heroes: The Winter Poetry Olympics Part V: On Skeleton and Skeletonists

    THIS ISN’T A BOYCOTT; it’s a puzzlement.

    I had wanted to write about skeleton, a sport that I previously knew nothing about, wholly because of the name, of course, so let me start with that. There is no clear idea about where the name originated. However, the legend from which its name is taken — its first participant died and was only discovered after he’d become, well, a skeleton — is in fact, just legend. According to the Federation Internationale de Bobsleigh et de Tobogganing (FIBT), skeleton most likely acquired its name from an incorrect Anglicization of the Norwegian word for toboggan, or else it was inspired by the look of the metal framework of the sport’s sled itself.

    And here’s what skeleton is (since you may, like me some weeks ago, have no idea): a fast sliding sport in which an individual person rides a small sled down a frozen track while lying face down. Skeleton is perhaps not unlike poetry, because it is a leap of faith and a bit reckless and yet, if you don’t go down the course in some kind of controlled, head-first, completely batshit brave way, then you won’t be able to use “medal” as a verb. 

    Like poetry, non-enthusiasts might find skeleton nuts or cool or ridiculous, but most likely they’ve hardly heard of it at all. It’s only being shown on American television a handful of times and always during non-prime slots like, for example, 2:30 a.m. What I like about the less popular sports, and what, as a poet, makes me feel a kinship with the athletes, is that these competitors can’t just do the thing they love and make a living. No one is a full-time professional at skeleton, just like no one is paid just to sit and write poems all day. We do it because we do it, because we’re poets. Or skeletonists.

    Oh yes, the skeletonists: Katie Uhlaender from Colorado had been an odds-on medal favorite until she was derailed by hip surgery and grief over her father’s death. Teammate Noelle Pikus-Pace was a gold-medal contender back in 2006 before her leg was run over and shattered by a bobsled. She retired, then she unretired — so stay tuned. Ranked 9th in the world (that’s 9th in the world), John Daly could be the first American to win a skeleton medal in over a decade. And I might watch and I feel kind of invested but…

    …the Olympics are leaving me cold this year. As with most everything these days, I am increasingly confused every time I think about one of the many complicated issues surrounding the games. Like, isn’t a glaring problem with this Winter Olympics (and really with any of them) the overwhelming whiteness, and the suggested class privilege that comes from being able to compete in these specialized sports in the first place, with all of their expensive equipment and need, quite often, for relocation to cold climates or connections to sponsors and special training facilities?

    Of course you’ve heard and read a lot about the major controversy of these games: the absolutely disgusting way in which gay athletes are being treated by their host country, Russia, and the way in which LGBTQ people are treated in Russia in general, every day, whether or not the world is watching. I was thinking yesterday that I might have some kind of inherited trauma and distrust of Russia, given that most of my ancestors lived each day not knowing if the Russians would ride into their shtetls to rape and murder on account of their being Jewish. It’s fear on a cellular level; I don’t fault Jewish magazine Tablet for refusing to cover these Sochi games at all. And I admire so much all of the protestors in Russia who, like my ancestors a century ago, are protesting for their lives.

    But another thing that troubles me is: why is Russia being singled out for world condemnation? In general, people are rightfully outraged over their hateful, dangerous policies. But Russia is far from the only country to enact such policies. I mean, lawmakers in Uganda attempted to pass legislation making homosexuality a crime punishable by death. (They’ve since pushed through a bill proposing life imprisonment as the punishment; the bill is currently awaiting signature by Uganda’s president.) And there are far too many countries that are horrid to their LGBTQ population.

    Like, um, what about the United States? Granted, 12 years ago the world was much less evolved on equality issues, but I don’t remember a lot of concern about Utah’s hateful laws during the Salt Lake City games, including their anti-sodomy law, which wasn’t struck down by federal invalidation until 2003. Anti-gay laws still exist in Utah, including a ban on teachers presenting homosexuality in a positive light. Or, as Utah likes to put it, “prohibiting instruction [...] in the advocacy of homosexuality.” Focusing on the easy outrage against Russia’s bigoted laws feels like a convenient way to forget our own complex hatreds and to feel superior, when we are so often not.

    All of this to say: I can’t pin down how I feel about any of these thorny issues, and each move that my mind makes brings up more contradictions and troubles. So, instead of watching the games, or writing any more about them, I am going to put my helmet on and downtrack headfirst into some other unknown, and maybe write a poem about it.


    Lynn Melnick's first collection of poetry, If I Should Say I Have Hope, was published by YesYes Books in 2012.

    image: Jon Wick, via Flickr

    LARB Contributor

    Lynn Melnick’s first collection of poetry, If I Should Say I Have Hope, was published by YesYes Books in 2012.


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