SOCHI, Russia - Why do we still bother with Olympics? Why digest the staggering corruption, the splurging of funds, the gloom of security, the bummer of doping? It's because they still can usher us to uplift. They still can take us to unforeseen moments such as one last week at pairs figure skating, even if you wander to pairs figure skating only because you ought to see pairs figure skating in Russia the same way you ought to see tango in Argentina or opera in Italy.
There, high above the ice, you might have observed two people -- Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford -- starting their short program. You might have found their music hauntingly beautiful. You might have checked the scoreboard for the composer. The scoreboard might have listed as composer "Eric Radford," just as the skater clearly also was "Eric Radford," so that either there's a Canadian skater named Eric Radford and also a talented composer named Eric Radford, or whoever typed in the scoreboard information erred, understandable with a all the biographical data churning around an Olympics.
No, the skater Eric Radford and the composer Eric Radford are the same 29-year-old Canadian, originally from Red Lake, Ontario (pop. 4,670), last town before Manitoba. They -- sorry, he -- would be the same man who at age 7 saw Nancy Kerrigan skate her long program on TV from Albertville in 1992, and decided he wanted to do that, too. He would be the same man who left home and his excellent parents to live with skating families in various Canadian cities at an unusually sturdy 13. And he would be the same man who forged what figure skating experts call rare to the verge of "never": someone who can skate expertly enough to finish seventh in an Olympics (as he did with Duhamel last week) and also can write music expertly enough to make the neck hairs salute.
So this must be the Olympics and, this being the Olympics, it's not just music. It's music dedicated to a "third parent," as Radford calls the former coach who shaped his game and guided his training from age 15 to 21 and until late March 2006, when Radford learned of Paul Wirtz's illness. It's music written the day after hurrying to the hospital to say impossible thanks, the day after Wirtz died at 47 of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, the day Radford fled to his haven, his piano.
In the steep waves of fresh grief, he began composing in that curious way his brain tends to compose. He envisioned each piano note as a specific color, following the sounds of the notes and the mingling of the colors as they led just past noon on a devastated Friday. "It's only happened a few times, actually, that I've written pieces, that at comes at once from beginning to end," he said. Within half an hour, alone in his house in Toronto, April 2006, this 21-year-old man had two minutes and 15 seconds of music he found appropriate.
"He was really, really funny, and I would say he was really charismatic," Radford said outside the Canada House near the Olympic Stadium, his Olympics complete. "Of course, I was younger and he was known to be kind of scary, like a scary coach. He was very, very strict and I think it was almost like he was more dedicated to the skating than the skaters were, and he demanded that you be as dedicated as him, which was impossible so he would, like, get angry at you for not living up to his standard.
"But he was an amazing technical coach. I think he used to just sit at home and think of ways to get people to do triple jumps, all the time. That's why I felt like I needed to write the song in the first place, because he gave me all my technical background and also kind of molded me and shaped me and guided me into the style of skater that I am. Yeah, he was a technical coach who could really get the best out of people he coached, and I mean, he took people where, you know, you wouldn't think they had a lot of potential, and he would make them into national champions, like novice and junior national champions. He could get so much out of a skater that you could never imagine."
The departure of such a principal figure felt like the removal of bedrock, so the two minutes, 15 seconds of music Radford titled "Tribute" stayed close in consciousness thereafter. By late 2008, he had arranged it himself on a computer program and thought he might skate to it in singles even as he trained mostly in pairs. Friends would hear it and suggest he skate to it, but there's a long trek from that notion to turning up at an Olympics -- in pairs-skating haven Russia -- with your name on the scoreboard as the composer. The marriage of music and program might be as complex as a marriage of person and person. For various reasons, the idea receded.
Radford and Duhamel ultimately succeeded -- a bronze medal at the world championships, three Canadian national championships -- so he found the means to seek professional orchestration, and he did what people have done throughout history: He went to Google. He typed in "composer" and "orchestrator" and "Montreal," and the name "Louis Babin" popped up first. Come April 2013, Radford and Duhamel and their choreographer and one of their three coaches went to hear Babin's work through a 16-piece orchestra.
Duhamel feared having to tell Radford that "Tribute" didn't work for her, while Radford feared playing bulldozer. His top priority, he said, would be whatever dovetailed with their program regardless of composer. "You know, up to that point in my life, we had just won our world medal, and standing on that podium was one of the most incredible moments of my life, and then hearing the orchestra play the piece for the very first time . . . Instantly we knew it was going to work. And it was just like, we all had chills and it was amazing to hear for the very first time, have one of my pieces played by live instruments other than me on the piano. And oh my god, it was amazing. It was incredible."
Ten months thereafter, the Olympics became their fifth competition skating to music Radford intended as "melancholic and inspiring at the same time." "Tribute" accompanied their short program in the team and pairs competitions, and if a skater always risks public humiliation by trying something delicate, then a skater-composer surely doubles said risk. With all that risk accepted and surmounted, Radford got to the "very, very end" of the pairs short program, as he put it, and he thought about Wirtz. "I kind of pictured his face and, you know, so much is happening at the moment, I can't just sit there, I'm not just thinking only one thing," Radford said. "But you know, there was a moment when I just thought about everything that it meant. Just had a moment on the ice," almost eight years on from the notes and the colors of the grief.
He had become another of those reminders that the Olympics bring find surprises, another of those reasons we still watch the Olympics. We watch for the competition, of course, and for the inspiration of hardship overcome, sure, and for the internationalism, certainly, but also for the sight and sound of human talent you might even deem outrageous.