In the Hovering Parents competition at Lake Placid, the most Olympian performer was Virginia Fratianne, the mother of Linda. Leaping to a triple jump and double axel, Mom Fratianne told reporters of a warning she gave to an influential coach during her daughter's competition. The coach, Mrs. Fratianne charged, was meddling in the judge's deliberations on her daughter's performance. If Linda loses "I'll do everything I can to sue you for the difference in the money she might realize (in the pros) between the silver and the gold medal."
The threat of a lawsuit -- presumably for both punitive damages as well as a compensatory sum for Mrs. Fratianne's years of freezing in the bleachers of ice rinks -- didn't unhinge the coach. The beleagured fellow, who was once Dorothy Hamill's mentor, doubtlessly had seen hundreds of mothers like this over the years. They are dedicated car-poolers driving their daughters to practice sessions year after year while driving everyone else who questions the obsession half-mad.
This "My Child the Champion" syndrome is probably the least-analyzed aspect of American athletics. Arthur Miller touched on the deviation in "Death of a Salesman." Willy Loman reminisces about his boy, a potential superstar, who had the printers ready with new type to reset the record books: He was "like a young god," says Willy. "Hercules -- something like that. And the sun, the sun all around him. Remember how he waved to me? Right up from the field, with the representatives of three colleges standing by. And the buyers I brought, and the cheers when he came out -- Loman, Loman, Loman! God Almighty, he'll be great yet. A star like that, magnificent, can never really fade away!"
But he did, as already the meely silvered shine of Linda Fratianne is fading. Without a gold medalist to hype, the Ice Capades may have to get along another four years with Dorothy Hamill. At 23, she is almost, but not yet, ancient.
An athlete with perspective is rare. It's trouble enough to be stuck with a mother in the stands fantasizing about all the beer or camera companies swooping in with contracts someday. But even recognizing the difference between professionalizing your talent and commercializing it is difficult. No loss of integrity is found in making a living in your sport by working to be a winner. The cheapening occurs when money is sought as the consequence of winning. Then you belong to the packagers.
It is the same in all professions. Sean O'Casey, the Irish writer, was approached once by an agent promising $100,000 for a screenplay. O'Casey dismissed him with contempt: "In spite of powers thrusting big money before an author for work he doesn't want to do . . . it is better for him to go his own way, even if it be with a limp. It is not a happy way, but it is his only way is he wishes to remain true to himself and right with God."
It is too early to tell with certainty, but Eric Heiden, the speed skater, appears to have a little O'Casey in him. The winning of five gold medals was the fulfillment of a great athletic goal but it wasn't THE goal of his life. That, according to his announced plans, is still ahead of him: a career in sports medicine.
Heiden's attitude is as refreshing as his speed skating was amazing: Whether he won or lost, he would still have been secure in the larger commitment to medicine. What attracted him to his sport wasn't enough -- as it shouldn't have been -- to enslave him to it.
Unlike Fratianne, he competed as a human being happy to test his skill, not as a product in search of fulfilling his or his mother's marketing dreams.
At Lake Placid, a remark both poignant and telling was heard when a figure skater came off the rink. "How do you feel," Dick Button asked her. "I'm glad it's over," said the young woman. "Now I can start to enjoy my skating."
Mom, probably Dad, and surely the world, would no longer be watching her. Skating would be humanized again. It would be a sport, not a marketing opportunity. It would provide its own reward, offering a physical and emotional richness that no agent could ever package.