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.


  1. Plushenko is back in competition. Today he competed his short program at the 2010 Russian Nationals.

  2. Finally, someone is addressing the issue of the quad - it may be an athletic accomplishment, but for many people it is just plain "BORING", i.e. it is over before you know it. I would much rather watch a big single jump ..remember Josef Szbovchek (spelling ???) or watch Kurt Browning or Alexi Yagudin do some of their awesome footwork. I've been a diehard figure skating fan for over thirty years and it amazes me how the powers that be just don't get it - most people watch figure skating for "entertainment" not to see some skater perform a feat that is over before they know what happened. Remember the skit by Brasseur and Eisler where he dressed up like a woman (Patricia) and Isabelle wore a suit - it was fabulous "entertainment" - even non-figure skating fans enjoyed that one. Surely, Battle of the Blades should be a wake-up call with respect to the importance of the entertainment side of figure skating as opposed to the physical feats of the quad - I have watched some of the performances from Battle of the Blades over and over again because they are very "entertaining". I believe it is important to expect a reasonable level of difficulty in ISU events, however, I also believe it is VERY important to remember that the level of entertainment is what is going bring the fans and sponsors back to figure skating - let's face it, its more fun to watch a majority of "clean" performances than it is to watch skater after skater fall while attempting to do some ridiculously difficult feat which is over in the blink of an eye.