Saturday, June 17, 2000

Coaxing Olympic Competitiors to Wax Poetic

By Janet Rae Brooks

Hockey players in tutus. Speed skaters reciting poetry. Skiers collaborating with jazz musicians.

It could happen at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, where organizers hope to merge art and sport in some intriguing ways.

But forget the tutus. The Canadian hockey team can dance in whatever it wants, says Raymond T. Grant, director of the 2002 Cultural Olympiad.

A required part of the Games, the Cultural Olympiad is designed to showcase art in the same way the Olympics showcase sport.

But Grant hopes to bring artists and athletes together in new ways in Salt Lake City. He wants modern-dance companies to hold workshops at the Olympic Village, and perhaps even on ice. He'd like athletes to recite favorite poems from their countries. He wants to give European athletes, where American jazz is particularly venerated, the chance to collaborate with its purveyors.

He is already talking to performers and athletes about the idea. "The artists love it," he said. "For the athletes, it's a little greater leap."

A Canadian speed skater doubted she had the complete movement repertoire of a dancer. "But Ray," she said, "I only turn left."

Although sport and art have come to be treated separately in the modern Games, their links actually extend to antiquity.

"There is certainly an ancient precedent," said David Romano, professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania. "In the ancient Olympics, athletes, dignitaries, trainers and coaches would mingle with poets, sculptors and artists. It would have been in keeping with the Olympic ideal."

Discus and javelin throwers practiced to the rhythms of double-piped flutes, Romano said. Athletes, their families or a benefactor often commissioned poets or sculptors to commemorate victories.

Think of the modern-day benefits of reuniting sport and art. If U.S. hockey players at the Nagano Olympics had danced away their rage and frustration after being eliminated from medal contention, maybe they wouldn't have trashed their rooms at the Olympic Village.

Grant says athletes and artists have a lot in common. Both live on the edge, require discipline, focus on greatness and are accustomed to picking themselves up after they fall.

"All of that is as applicable to the downhill as it is to a Rachmaninov concerto," he said.

Some athletes say they will be too focused on winning medals to think about art. Grant says organizers will just have to be flexible.

"If the Canadian hockey team is in contention for a medal, they are not going to have the time to collaborate. But if it's not the Canadian hockey team, maybe it's the Jamaican team, if there ever was one."

Others worry about twisting an ankle during a pas de deux and missing the competition of their lives.

That's OK, too, Grant says. But athletes out of medal contention, or those who don't leave Salt Lake City immediately after their competitions, could get involved.

Just don't expect to be able to buy a ticket to watch Michelle Kwan, Picabo Street or Jaromir Jagr gyrating on stage. The artist-athlete collaborations will mostly be confined to the privacy of the Olympic Village, Grant says.

"That's not to say that if something starts to work we can't do it in a more public place," he added.