Tuesday, 12 November 2013
The Darker Side Of Skating "Fandom"
"I'm your number one fan!" exclaimed creepy as fuck character Annie Wilkes in Stephen King's hit book and movie Misery. Kathy Bates may have deservedly won an Academy Award that year for her portrayal of the obsessed fan of novelist Paul Sheldon, but scarily not all Misery's are fictional characters. The skating community has been no stranger to its share of obsessed fans and I highly doubt that the age of social media has made things any easier for skaters: they're all the more 'accessible' to fans... both adoring and absolutely crossing a line from obsessed to at times dangerous.
In 1991, FBI officials arrested Harry Veltman III, an unemployed man with a history of psychological problems at his home in Westminster, California, citing concerns that he might harm his victim - 2 time Olympic Gold Medallist Katarina Witt - at a performance in Inglewood, California that year. Veltman had sent 60 unsolicited and threatening letters to Witt in the course of less than a year, including nude photos of himself and had even thrown some of these letters onto the ice at a live skating event where Katarina had performed. In one letter he had even written to her, "Don't be afraid when God allows me to pull you out of your body to hold you tight. Then you'll know that there is life beyond the flesh". Katarina ultimately had to painfully testify against her stalker in court, explaining to the jury that she "believed he was going to kill me". Veltman was ultimately was found guilty by a federal jury of six of seven guilty verdicts in the charges laid against him and spent 37 months in prison.
Sadly, Katarina isn't the only skater (or athlete... or actor... or public figure) who's had to put up with a deranged "fan" similar to the one depicted in Sarah McLachlan's song "Possession" ( which was also based on very true events). In 2010, Olympic Gold Medallist Yuna Kim became the target of the obsession of a Canadian teenager. He sent an e-mail and photographs to Kim's then-coach Brian Orser asking for his help arranging a rendezvous with Kim. Orser responded thanks, but no. The emails persisted. "A few more e-mails came from the same e-mail address, but now the guy was using a different name each time. He was professing his undying love for her and that he would do anything to meet her,” explained Orser in a 2010 New York Times article. Receptionists and rink staff were put on guard at Kim's pre-Vancouver training base and the fan's photograph was posted like a mug shot at the rink's entrance. Orser's no stranger to obsessed fans himself. He blew his nose in a tissue once in Asia and someone came and took it as a souvenir. It's like the Absolutely Fabulous 'Abba turd', only in real life and just as sketchy.
2006 Olympic Silver Medallist Sasha Cohen has had similar experiences to Katarina and Yuna as well: “Some of them think they are your best friend. They want to fly you to their school, so you could be their show-and-tell. One grandfatherly-like type character wrote letters, then actually flew across the country to take me to Disneyland. He showed up at my rink.” Michelle Kwan received death threats in 1996 from a fan who was enraged when she didn't respond to his letters and was taken into custody in Paris when Kwan was there competing in that year's Champions Series Final.
Perhaps most disturbing is the story of French pairs skater Stephane Bernadis, who received death threats in 2000 leading up to the 2000 World Championships in Nice, France. "Shit got real" when his left arm was slashed by an unknown assailant when he opened his hotel room door in Nice. At a press conference at those Worlds, Bernadis explained "About three weeks ago I received two anonymous phone calls. I knew someone was there because I could hear them breathing. Then later, I parked my car in front of my home in Paris and found a sheet of paper with the message, 'you will die soon'. I didn't panic that much. I was not scared. The handwriting looked really childish so I wasn't that concerned." Bernadis ended up with stitches and painkillers to get through his long program at those worlds with partner Sarah Abitbol, where they won the bronze medal and France's first medal in pairs skating since 1932. That victory probably couldn't have been anymore sweet!
These stories, as chilling as they are, serve as a reminder to respect the privacy and personal lives of skaters. In these times, social media is where it's at. Skaters have Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and Instagram pages to interact with family, friends and fans. Engage with them! That's with these things are for. But be respectful and aware when you do... there's a fine line and as you can see from these stories, many of your favourite skaters have scarily seen it crossed. Harshly criticizing and verbally attacking skaters on social media is the SAME thing - you're bringing negative energy into people's lives that they don't want or need. Constructive criticism is one thing, but when you cross that line you're not only being offensive, you're being downright creepy. Don't be that 'fan'.
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