Monday 24 February 2014

Unexpected Olympic Grace

By John D. O’Brien, S.J.

There are many things I don’t like about great bloated spectacle known as the Olympic Games, but these gripes have been better articulated elsewhere. Instead, I’d like to focus on one moment of the Sochi Olympics: Yuna Kim’s silver-winning performance in figure skating, which has generated both controversy – nearly two million have signed a petition calling for an investigation into the judging – and inspiration. Her performances are always impressive for their athleticism alone, but Yuna Kim has that extra je-ne-sais-quoi. We might call it beauty; we might call it grace. In any case, she shines, and well beyond the arena ice.

At twenty-three, she holds most the women's figure skating records, and has broken world records eleven times (eight of which were records she herself had set). In her entire career, she has never placed lower than third. She won the gold medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, with the highest scores ever awarded in the event, and was expected to win it again in Sochi. "Queen Yuna", as she is nick-named, may also be the biggest celebrity in South Korea, and is loved, not just for the pride she brings her country, but also for her seemingly incorruptible modesty of character.

Yuna always begins her performances with a discreet bow and sign of the cross. She came to the Catholic faith through the influence of her physician, whose patients at his sports medicine clinic included some nuns. The nuns gave Yuna a miraculous medal to pin onto her outfit, and though she was suffering from a back injury at the time, performed well, even breaking a record. Yuna and her mother later sought instruction in the faith, and the priest who taught them was impressed by her eagerness to learn, as well as her joy and her purity of heart. When she entered the Church in 2008 she took “Stella” as her baptismal name, after Mary, Star of the Sea, for whom she had a great love. She told a Catholic newspaper that she felt “enormous consolation in her heart” and promised God she would “pray always”.

Since then, Yuna has worn a rosary ring on her finger, which she often takes time to explain to her fans who mistake it for an engagement ring. She joined the Korean bishops in a national campaign to explain the rosary, and has donated money to the Salesian brothers for building schools in South Sudan. Yuna is clearly a class act.

Sochi was to be her last Olympics before retiring from the sport. I’m not qualified to weigh in on the judging – though the panel was apparently stacked in favour of Russia. What was more striking, however, and brought tears to my eyes, was the performance itself. Yuna was a dancing ray of light on the ice. Watching it prompted me to ask, what is this elusive transcendental we call beauty? Why does it move us so?

The classical definition, one favoured by Thomas Aquinas, was that beauty in all its forms is reducible to the three qualities of integrity, proportion and clarity. Integrity basically means that all the substantial parts are present. Proportion means there is a harmony or right ratio between those parts. Clarity refers to a kind of inner splendour, in which the object’s essence shines forth with a particular brilliance.

The integrity of Yuna Kim’s performance may be seen as the lack of error in her routine. Its flawlessness made it beautiful; it had all its constitutive parts. The proportionality of her performance would be the harmoniousness of the steps, the right relationship of body to movement. The clarity of Yuna’s routine would be a luminosity that is hard to define, but is somehow perceptible to the spectator. Viewed as a whole, she radiated.

As we know, there is sometimes a relationship between inner beauty (of soul) and outer beauty (of visible form). This is not always the case, as anyone with eyes of love knows well. The beauty of the poor or the broken or the leper, for example, is of a different order. The Cross made all things, even those sub contraria specie (under the contrary form) potentially beautiful. But what Yuna Kim reminds us is that when we order our inner lives to God, his presence in our inmost being grants a kind of beauty that causes the beholder to sit up and take notice. In the case of Yuna Kim, it extended to the grace with which she greeted the news of her loss to Adelina Sotnikova. It was the grace of an inner joy undiminished by disappointment.

(Yuna's performance in Sochi can be seen by viewers in Canada here).


  1. Thanks, Josh. There was great material! I enjoy your articles at Keep up the good work! - John