Sports

Joannie Rochette: The Fine Line Between Empathy And Voyeurism

Joannie Rochette performs in the short program on Tuesday night.

Joannie Rochette finished third in the short program Tuesday night, two days after the death of her mother. Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images

Canadian skater Joannie Rochette's mother, Therese, died of a heart attack on Sunday while in Vancouver for the Olympics. Last night, Joannie Rochette cried before her short program and after, but not during. During, she was a rock. And now, she's in third place entering the free skate.

It brings to mind the Visa commercial that's been running nonstop during the Olympics, in which speed skater Dan Jansen wipes out following news of his sister's death, then returns years later to win a gold medal. I cry every time I see it, even now, even after seeing it many, many times.

And I ask myself the same thing about Jansen that I asked myself about Rochette as I cried during her performance: Is this phony of us?

It sometimes seems like coverage of the Olympics is nothing but a symphony of athletes' suffering: this one who came back from an injury, this one who competed badly and later made a comeback, this one who grew up using second-hand, half-broken equipment because there was no money to train. It is a highly orchestrated effort to manipulate, and to slather the personal on top of the athletic just to add heft, in case it's not enough to be great at what you do.

The coverage frequently feels positively greasy, covered with a slick of cynical exploitation that reduces athletes whose achievements are about how hard they have trained to quasi-heroes whose real value is in their ability to commit superhuman acts of brave coping. It should be enough to earn your medals with the hours you've spent making yourself ready. It should not require that you find a way to position yourself as pluckier-than-thou, more capable of enduring personal setbacks.

And yet, there is something that is so profoundly human about the way people react to someone like Rochette that it seems equally cynical to dismiss it entirely. Looking at her face before she skated — when she was not steely at all, but was in tears even as she took her last instructions from her coach — how could your heart not go out to her? How would it make you a better person if it didn't?

Crying in your car and other identifiable moments, after the jump.

It's not real familiarity; it isn't a connection with her. It's a connection with your own history. It didn't make me think I knew her, or that we were friends, or that she was suddenly a better skater. But it did make me think of other people I've known who have had to carry on with whatever their business happens to be, even when something awful has happened.

Have I ever known an Olympic skater who had to go on right after her mother died? Of course not. But I've had a friend die of cancer who, in the last year of her life, continued to play with her kids and go to work for as long as she possibly could, and who said to me, "You have to live your life," and it makes me think of that. I've seen people carry on, and Rochette was her mom's daughter carrying on, and the resonance of that is not automatically phony, any more than it is when you read a book that moves you just because the story isn't really happening — to you, or to anyone.

Joannie Rochette cries after her performance in the short program.

Joannie Rochette, at the close of her short program. Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images

The end of her performance is perhaps the part I recognized the most: as soon as it's over and she's done, she again bursts into tears after holding it off the whole time. I know so many people who have been there, including me — you hold it together all day until you walk through the door of your house and push it shut; you're fine until you get in the car and find yourself alone with the road; you're okay until somebody says, "Are you okay?" and then: sobs.

It really, genuinely, no-fooling, is wonderful for her that, given her decision to continue on and skate, it went so well for her. I can't really condemn the idea of responding emotionally to her plight just because the most crass of programmers would so eagerly drool over it.

We don't know Joannie Rochette — in fact, NBC initially misidentified a family friend as her dad. But it's not as if empathy for strangers is the most destructive force you could identify in our national consciousness. I'm probably always going to cry watching that performance, just like I always cry at the Jansen ad. And I'll think about my friend, and crying at my own front door on certain miserable days, and if NBC makes a grand, overproduced package out of Joannie Rochette, well ... nobody said it wasn't still going to be a pretty greasy endeavor at times.

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