Thursday, December 24, 2009

Top Contenders Injured: Sport or Battlefield?

With less than two months to go till the 2010 Winter Olympics, two of the male skaters considered to be among the top contenders for the title —  Evgeni Plushenko and Brian Joubert — are sidelined with injuries. World silver medalist Patrick Chan is having a rough season after recovering from a serious injury of his own. Two-time world champion Stephane Lambiel's comback is in doubt in light of his continuing struggle with a recurring groin injury. And 2008 world champion Jeff Buttle retired from competitive skating early this year to save his body from this kind of abuse. Many war veterans come home in better physical shape then Olympic figure skating contenders.

It's too soon to know if either Plushenko, the reigning Olympic champion, or Joubert, the 2007 world champion, will compete in Vancouver. Both expect they will. Even in the best case scenario, however, the training time lost in these crucial pre-Olympic months may impact their ability to do successfully.

Sport and injuries have always gone hand in hand, and skating is no exception. Ice is slippery, blades are sharp, and human muscles and ligaments are not made of steel. But what's happening to the men lately is out of the ordinary — as is the difficulty of what they are attempting to perform.

Plushenko's injury is reported to have occurred while he worked on a mind-boggling triple axel/quadruple toe combination, something never done in figure skating. The quad and triple axel on their own are the two most difficult jumps in the sport. Put them together and you have 7.5 rotations in little more than it takes you to say "wow." And Plushenko is also working on quad/quad combinations as well! Stunning athleticism, but the impact of halting these rotations on the skater's knees, ankles and hips is almost beyond our comprehension. When practiced over and over daily to achieve the consistency needed for competition, serious injury is almost unavoidable.

No other skater is attempting these particular combinations, but the top contenders are trying feats that are not too far off. While learning these jumps most competitors are not old enough to drink or vote. Yet they're punishing their bodies like never before attempting tricks that are nearing the limit of what the human body can do — or what it can withstand. Plushenko already had multiple surgeries on his knees. How many more can he endure? How many of today's skaters will get through their skating careers without doing lasting damage to their bodies?

One may well argue that at the age of 27 and in his second Olympics, Plushenko is old enough to make his own decisions, whatever the consequences. Fair enough. He makes decisions for himself, not for the future of the sport and the youngsters who are likely to try to emulate him. But the sport has a body overseeing it. Does the International Skating Union have no responsibility to draw a line in the sand at some point? It's never easy to do so. But that doesn't mean an attempt shouldn't be made. 

How far is far enough?
Many will ask, how do we know when we near the limit of the human body? Why didn't we stop with the double, the triple, or the triple axel? Why the quad? I argue that there is indeed something very different about the quad.

Incredibly, the jump has been landed in competition for nearly a quarter of a century! Yet how many clean quads are being landed even today for every 100 that are tried? A handful is probably an overestimate, and there are no more than a few skaters in the entire world who can land quads on anything resembling a consistent basis. By comparison, within less than five years after the first clean triple axel was landed, all top men were doing it. Doesn't that difference tell us something? Moreover, those who land the quad are not necessarily the best skaters overall. They just mastered one trick.

That's why we have to remember that the Olympic motto of "Swifter, Higher, Stronger" is not as applicable to figure skating as it is to other Olympic sports. Skating has the unique distinction of being a blend of athleticism and art — a judged sport, not one measured by a timer. We may each assign different weights to skating's inseparable identities, but we can't dismiss either entirely. But if the current trend towards maximizing points under the new judging system continues, all efforts will go into landing increasingly-superhuman tricks. Performing them cleanly and with sensitivity to the music, choreography, and audience enjoyment is becoming but an afterthought.

If this trend continues unchecked, figure skating will lose its identity entirely and become merely gymnastics on ice, with half the sport's competitors sidelined with injury at any given time. Maybe that's perfectly legitimate for the glory of sport. But it's not in keeping with the spirit and beauty of figure skating — and the sport is already paying a heavy price. TV audiences are dwindling, sponsors are turning their backs on skating, tours are folding, and professional skating is but a memory. 

Fans never flocked to the sport to see a quad. Ninety-nine percent of those watching can never even recognize it. But they can appreciate a rousing performance, the likes of which we only see once in a blue moon these days. If the ISU doesn't care about these young people's health, maybe it should check its bank accounts and reconsider if these quad combinations are worth the toll.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Mr. President, You Don’t Understand Our Sport


Ottavio Cinquanta's vendetta against artistry in figure skating is nothing new. With every action the president of the ISU has ever taken he’s dragged the balance between sport and art increasingly away from the beauty that has captured the hearts of audiences worldwide for nearly a century.

But by actually claiming in a recent interview that the sport has become "too hard" to create stars, he in fact admits to having driven skating into near-oblivion with his new scoring system while simultaneously showing how precious little he understands about the sport he presides over.

"The standard of skating is increasing and it will be difficult to have stars, because there are big names who perform the double axel only,” he told Reuters. “Now, if you don't do a triple axel you are number 30 in the world championships."

Now?! As it happens, triple axels have been routinely performed ever since the 1980s, a period many consider to have been a golden age of figure skating. That’s two long decades before the International Judging System went into effect. Brian Orser landed the first clean triple axel back in 1981, and by the 1988 Olympics no man was in medal contention without at least one — just like today. And women were doing roughly as many triples back then, too. (Midori Ito was landing triple axels back in 1988 and 1989.)

Yet throughout the 1980s and 1990s we had stars. Big stars that were household names, and big rivalries, the likes of which we don't see anymore. Katarina Witt and the Battle of the Carmens (Witt and Debi Thomas). The Battle of the Brians (Orser and Boitano), Torvill and Dean, Gordeeva and Grinkov, Paul Wylie, Kurt Browning, Michaelle Kwan, Sasha Cohen, and too many more to list. These skaters grabbed our imagination not because they favored art over jumps. They were all superb athletes. What made them great is that they had a balanced package — the true and historic trademark of figure skating. And just importantly, they competed under a system that recognized and reward this precious balance. The current one scorns it.

The difficulty of figure skating doesn't come — or should not — from doing endless series of multiple revolution jumps. Why bother with music then? Or with costumes more elaborate than those of speed skaters? Just line up the skaters and let them jump until only one's left standing. Is that what Mr. Cinquanta wants? Today’s four minute programs pack so many elements back to back that skaters have no time to catch their breath in between elements or interpret music, resulting for the most part in cookie-cutter, error-ridden programs that also put skaters at constant risk of injury.

True, a well-executed triple does add pizzazz to a program when used to accentuate the music. A series of jumps done at random to collect points add nothing to the audience's enjoyment. Difficult, quality skating means performing the tricks in sync with the music, with good form, and clean execution. It also includes a seldom-mentioned but key element of skating: masterful use of edges which give figure skating the flow and effortless feel that separates it from all other sports on blades. 

By using jumps as the principle defining measure of a champion, the system makes skating itself secondary and art irrelevant. As a result it has become increasingly difficult for a quality skater to stay at the top for any length of time and become a star — as Cinquanta himself rightfully noted. All it takes is for the other guy to do one extra jump and cash in a dozen points. Bingo, a new champion is crowned while the old one falls back out of the limelight. 

At first sight it may seem fairer to have surprise after surprise. But in fact it is not, because the real qualities of a champion — something audiences can sense intuitively — extend beyond that one jump to the overall greatness of the performance. That’s something that none of the "component marks" can measure. That's what we remember when we think of someone like Paul Wylie at the 1992 Olympics — not how many triples he landed.

And that's something Ottavio Cinquanta will never understand. Perhaps it’s too much to ask that a speed skater like him understand a sport so different from his own. But if so, I would humbly suggest that he should refrain from overhauling our rules and in the process change the very fabric of our sport. Is that really such an unreasonable request?