BWW Commentary: Ponder THE GREAT LEAP From Sports to Politics at the Guthrie's Proscenium Stage
The Guthrie''s Proscenium Stage recently opened a production of The Great Leap, where playwright Lauren Yee envisions two basketball games between the United States and China through two university teams: San Francisco University (SFU) and Beijing University. One of the play's premises asserts that the SFU coach, Saul, claimed to the Beijing coach Wen Chang at the first 1971 game: "No Chinese team will ever beat a US. basketball team."
Nineteen years from that first 1971 match when SFU coach Saul staked that claim, a rematch happens between the two teams, and hence, the two coaches. The SFU team travels to Beijing in June, 1989 to answer the invitation to play a "friendship game' and set against China's protest in Tiananmen Square. While Yee's play posits numerous personal tensions between the two coaches, of survival in family and their respective careers. At that game, the future of one of SFU's players named Manford, hangs in the balance of the outcome.
In subtest, The Great Leap explores the collision of international sports and current pervading politics. Is there any instance where international sports become devoid of any politics? Is sport ever pure sport for a "friendly" competition? Often the results of these competitions transform the individual athletes' and participants' lives forever.
One exceptional example from the Berlin, 1936 Olympics reiterates this "friendly" competition that contrasted world politics. Hitler, as the Chancellor of Germany hosting the games, wished to prove that an Aryan white race ruled supreme in these games. African American Jesse Owens, son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave, stood on the podium four times, to accept four gold medals in track and field and disprove Hitler's propaganda. Less known, two Jewish athletes, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, were pulled in track and field events so as not to embarrass the German team by their wins and were unable to compete. In Yee,'s play, Saul is asked to pull his Chinese American student, Manford, to hinder the American team from winning against Beijing University, and insure Wen Chang's assent to fame through China's political unrest during the 1980's.
Mexico's 1968 Summer Olympics brought protests from two African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised the black gloved fist of the Black Panther movement during their awards ceremony when the U.S. National Anthem was played. The 1960's brought racial tension to the U.S., and the athletes protest of human rights instead of purely racial rights were played across the world. In addition, Australian medial winner Peter Norman and the two Americans all wore human rights badges on their uniforms. Smith documented the gesture and protest in his autobiography Silent Gesture, and the medal ceremony became one of the most photographed protests of the decade. This protest echoes Yee's portrayal of Manford, the young Chinese American and basketball player, who is caught, then photographed, participating in the Tiananmen Square protests.
In 1972, the Olympics return to Germany, Munich this time, pervaded by the quote: "They're all gone." Palestinian terrorists claimed hostages and lives, Israeli athletes and coaches, in one of the blackest Septembers, one of the most horrifying news stories ever to come from international sports. Eleven Israeli's were murdered during the "friendly" and supposed peaceful games.
Jim Mckay, ABC's news commentator at the time, ended his Olympic report from Germany with those three devastating words. Munich, 1972, became the first time an actual terrorist attack was reported and recorded on national and international television, broadcast around the world. In all, five terrorists died with one West German policeman during this devastating sports event that changed the future course of athletics and individuals competing at the international and national level.
In the eighties, the so called "Miracle on Ice" elevated the United States Olympic Hockey team, who defeated the four time defending gold medalist Soviet Union team. This startling event transformed how Americans viewed their hockey indefinitely. The win ultimately reverberated throughout the U.S. until present day, and hockey stands, for men and women, boys and girls, a revered sport in America.
Also in play during the 1980's, two olympics were boycotted, the 1980 Summer Olympics and the 1984 Winter Olympics due to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan because the summer olympics were being held in Moscow. The disappointed U.S. Olympic team's hopes crumbled, years of training now unused, and hundreds of competitors' lives changed because of political policies under President Jimmy Carter's leadership. Sixty five other world teams followed suit and supported the U.S. To return the apparent 1984 rebuff, the Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics along with 14 Eastern Bloc allies.
In more recent history, January 2018, the International Olympic Committee banned Russia and their 43 athletes from competing in the 2018 Winter Olympics due to doping and drug charges. Often these drugs enhance athletic performance to ensure a country's wins and chances for medals in the elite competitions. Held in PyeongChang, South Korea, the 2018 tensions between North and South Korea brought consternation and uncertainty to those Winter Olympic games, reminiscent of Munich, besides Russian athletes being banned from any competitions.
These few events over decades include only a very few incidents related to competitive sports played against political upheaval. Who completely comprehends or understands the multiple and varied incidents that go unreported, including the controversies surrounding scores at International Figure Skating competitions, and a host of other contentious events that create controversy? Who can completely comprehend how lives are transformed in multiple ways on a personal level, as in Yee's play, that few people will ever hear about?
This might include Nigeria's first ever Olympic Bobsledding team in 2018, who competed to protest President Trump's comments about the contemporary state of African nations. Similar to Wen Chang's response in Yee's play, a coach, and his team team committed by his country to produce, under any circumstances, a win for Beijing University that will nullify the challenge from SFU in the 1989 "friendship" match. This competition, as Yee says in her notes, becomes a metaphor for life. When Yee's plays ends, the audience understands the severe consequences of these matches and decisions, the sacrifice individuals and teams personally make to compete and be a part of international competitions.
While international sports play outside the context of the Olympics, these competitions become the most familiar and well recognized. Originally founded in Athens, in 1894, the first International Olympic Committee (IOC) and subsequent games were staged in Athens, Greece that same year. Games where the goal of the Olympic movement was written to be: "Contributing to a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport, practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with that spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play."
How fascinating in Yee's play that she sets her drama amid the protests that were heard again, around the world, near Tiananmen Square, where the media replays continual commentary and news 24/7. Media becomes another character in sports, which unfolds for individuals and their respective countries as their faces flash across screens of every size. When audiences ponder the upcoming Olympics in Tokyo, 2020, and the consequences for the characters in Yee's play, perhaps the audience could consider what the future holds for competitors appearing on this world stage.
How does the world bring the Olympics, the sport, back to the original intent of the thrill of competition? Is this somehow even possible in today's current status quo? What unspoken personal costs haunt these competitions and their participants as events unfold? How does the world, and every participating country, make 'The Great Leap' from pure sports, the thrill of competition, the best interest of the individuals who appear to make the world a supposed 'better' place through solidarity-- A world where politics often, or perhaps almost always, takes precedent in international sports over friendship, fair play and ultimately peace?
The Guthrie Theater presents Lauren Yee's THE GREAT LEAP in the McQuire Proscenium Stage through February 10. For information on the season, or tickets to the performance, please contact: www.guthrietheater.org.