Monday, February 15, 2010


As is usual every two years, my wife and I hooked up the rabbit ears last Friday night so we could watch the Olympics....especially the part of the Opening Ceremony when all the athletes process into the stadium (much of the Opening Ceremonies bores me, or annoys me....digressing already, I see). I'm always struck by the confidence of youth that's on display during that parade of optimism. All the smiles, laughter, cutting up, taking pictures, the energy, the self-wonder, the physical expression of being the best in world (or at least in the company of the best in the world). I notice this Titanic confidence most of all in the athletes who have won before, and are back for more medals: confidence piled on confidence, masters of all they survey at such a young age. I see them competing, being interviewed: Usain Bolt, Phelps, Shaun White, Ohno. They reign supreme, exude an air of omnipotence. They're the best, and they know it, can't hide it, and don't try: the Conquerors. It's not in the nature of youth to soft-pedal, and I appreciate not having to endure bleats of false modesty.

Anyway, for the last couple of Olympics, this youthful barrage of virtuosity kept reminding me of something, or someone. I dimly recalled a definitive display of the boundless confidence of youth: watch me, I'm the greatest; I'm incredible, nobody else can do this as well; I'm in awe of myself, aren't you; I don't mean to brag, but I am the best in the world, it's just a fact; I love being the best and you can love it, too.

What was that definitive, physical expression of Omnipotent Youth? Some sports event? Something military? Political? A movie scene? No, no...all examples of barking up the wrong trees. And it wasn't Mr. Olympia, Arnold Schwarzenegger, either (why would you think that?); it was Van Cliburn playing the piano. Van who?

When I was a kid in the 1900s, Van Cliburn was a big, big deal. Wikipedia says:

"The first International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 was an event designed to demonstrate Soviet cultural superiority during the Cold War, on the heels of their technological victory with the Sputnik launch in October 1957. Cliburn's performance at the competition finale of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 earned him a standing ovation lasting eight minutes. When it was time to announce a winner, the judges were obliged to ask permission of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to give first prize to an American. "Is he the best?" Khrushchev asked. "Then give him the prize!" Cliburn returned home to a ticker-tape parade in New York City, the only time the honor has been accorded a classical musician. His cover story in Time proclaimed him "The Texan Who Conquered Russia."

America was crazy for Cliburn. My parents & grandparents, who played classical music around the house, made him a dinnertable topic. He was on TV. He was on the hi-fi. He was practically a kid.  He beat the Russians at their own game. He exposed me to Tchaiko and Rachmaninoff at an impressionable age. And he was gloriously full of his own potential. Just watch this world class performance:
YouTube - (Cliburn)Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.1 Mvt III
Could any Olympian revel in his victories more than this giant-killer?

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