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?