The invisible brain dance is a beautiful thing to witness, and there is surely no greater forum to observe this curious behaviour than a top level skydiving competition.
All about the place you can see it - solitary figures carving out a little personal space to imagine and idealise over and over whatever it might be that they need to achieve with the next jump. Sometimes you have to look closely - into an otherwise normal scene but for the closed eyes and slightly twitching hands, a person resembling a dreaming puppy chasing winged steaks through the sky. Sometimes it is initially more apparent, but still almost completely internalised as the vessel stands tall and statue still, headphones on and staring blankly into middle distance, the entire process happening inwardly. Sometimes the invisible brain dance is worthy of being called a performance in its own right, staked out somewhere along the line that you didn’t know existed between Tai Chi and mental illness.
There is plenty of time for visualisation, since the first two days throw a slate-grey sky over southern Bohemia and send forth proper, stubborn rain. For a little while it looks so grim that we begin to discuss what happens if the crappy weather continues to a point where no real competition can be held. My suggestion, that we might gather in front of the stage and take turns to perform our imaginary brain dances to a piece of carefully chosen music and award each other points like the Eurovision song contest, goes largely ignored.
The weather breaks and the competition happens, played out in full. There is much high-fiving and flag-waving. For freefly, the points on the board do not properly represent how the competition panned out.
I came into this competition hoping for a place in the top ten - maybe a place in the top half of the table. To come away with sixth place is a good result, of which my team and I can be proud. Our GB teammates took fourth, and that is a thing to be celebrated. It doesn’t matter that two weeks from now we will go head-to-head, tooth and nail, for the honour of being national champions for the next twelve months - for here and now we are on the same side.
The scores were tight throughout, especially amongst the top eight. Despite this, halfway through the competition there began to take hold a gradually building sense of resignation that the results are largely decided in the opening few rounds, and little or nothing can be done by the teams to alter their fate.
A very important point to make is that this confusion and frustration does not come only from disgruntled teams attempting to excuse or explain away bad performances or low scores when they think they have done well. It emerges equally from jumps that are freely admitted to have been a terrible, dreadful shambles and yet are awarded equal or even better points than can properly be rationalised.
By the time we reach the last few rounds, we are truly wondering where the judges might be getting the scores from. Are they throwing chicken bones into a dustbin lid? Did they sacrifice a goat and wiggle their fingers in its still-quivering entrails? It certainly seems that they are not watching the videos. All told, the positions we arrive in are largely deserved, but that does nothing to alleviate our collective bamboozlement. We pounce on the opportunity for a feedback meeting with the judges like a horny honey badger.
We congregate in the sports hall of the leisure complex that is the venue for the climax of this whole show. This is our chance to give it both barrels. The right questions are starting to climb tentatively out of the askers when the half-drunk Russians arrive, lifting the atmosphere by oozing happiness in the way that becoming world champions will have on people, and getting it done with impeccable skill and good grace.
They are followed by the all-the-way drunk Australians, who were far and away the most fun to have around, and played it down so much from the start that it was a joy to learn that they are actually really rather good. They also have the best ridiculous handshake in the game.
Things are just getting interesting, mostly led by piercing questions from the U.S. team Ignite, when we are interrupted by a weird-looking lounge lizard (who turns out to be the Prostejov mayor), thumping madly on the viewing platform window to signal that we are about to miss the awards ceremony. So we bail, right before the knives come out, because we are hungry and thirsty and there is free wine and little fancy cakes. Everybody loves little fancy cakes.
Artistic competitions need to be - are crying out to be peer-reviewed. If you are involved at this level you have somehow or other made freefly a substantial part of your life and have spent years developing your skills. You are the only people who can properly assess, deconstruct and value it in any way that really means a goddamn thing to one another.
Freefly used to be, is supposed to be, the punk rock of skydiving - spitting at the crowd and giving everybody the finger. What the fuck happened to us?
I am and will remain proud to be a part of this, to stand up next to and maybe even be counted amongst the best flyers in the world, but there is a part of me that struggles and strains at the leash of formality - like a circus dolphin tricked into performing somersaults for fish that forgets to dream of the ocean.
Some ideas were presented for possible future alterations to the competition. More compulsory rounds? Less compulsory moves? Less free rounds? Only free rounds? Notes were made and chins were stroked, but nothing is decided, so it remains to be seen if anything gets changed, and what the result might be. For now there are medals to be handed out and a party to happen.
The arena for prizes gets rowdy as events progress. People take it in turns to nip out to round up some of the free booze. The hungriest and wiliest among us use the distraction of respectfully standing for each other’s national anthem to spend some alone time with the buffet. I stuff myself to the point that it is uncomfortable to remain standing and sneak back into the increasing voluminous auditorium hopefully before anyone really notices I have gone anywhere. Then I sit back and watch people que up for food and drunkenly fall into the fountain.