Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Remembering the Champions: Olympic and Otherwise


As the Olympic torch completes its journey to Vancouver, we are increasingly reminded of the glory of past Olympic champions and the indelible mark so many of them left on the sport of figure skating. There are many of them indeed, and it's on their shoulders that new champions rise to greatness. 

But by focusing so narrowly on Olympic gold medalists to the exclusion of all others, we do a disservice to the sport. This is true for all sports, considering that the difference between gold and also-ran is sometimes measured in milliseconds. But it is even more so for figure skating, a judged sport in which the Olympic title is not always decided by objective measures but by intangibles, such as reputation or the whim/taste/politics of the judges. Until the last couple of decades, champions were often crowned on the basis of compulsory figures, not performance abilities. And with the new scoring system, in close competitions even random luck  could make the difference, as the computer throws out some of the judges’ marks at random. 

So this is a good time to remember that the difference between gold and silver is not necessarily as deep and wide as history books and endorsement contracts would lead us to believe. 

Many skating champions who lack the most coveted of titles have often had as big an impact on the sport as the greatest gold medalists at the Games. In fact, some of them have won more medals and dominated the sport for a longer time than some Olympic champions whose star at times faded quickly after a moment of brilliance. How many people in middle America would be able to identify Sarah Hughes, Alexei Urmanov, or even Shizuka Arakawa, in spite of their well-deserved victories? Chances are a lot more casual Olympic viewers would recognize the names of Michelle Kwan, Brian Orser, Sasha Cohen, Paul Wylie, Kurt Browning, Irina Slutskaya, Todd Eldredge, or Toller Cranston, depending on how far back their skating memories reach. 

The path these skaters carved was not blazed on one night, but over long years of competing at the highest levels of the sport. Stardom and longevity go hand in hand in a sport focused on personality as much as figure skating. Remember the media circus around Sasha Cohen’s attempted comeback at the U.S. Nationals just last month? Cohen doesn't even have a world title to her credit, let alone an Olympic one. Yet she has something more highly coveted and rarely seen these days: star quality. She captivates, and the cameras follow her every step, indifferent to accolades. 

Or consider Brian Orser, first known for landing the first clean triple axel in competition and then for combining his athleticism with artistry to dominate men's figure skating throughout the 1980s. He missed his first chance at gold in 1984 because of compulsory figures, even though he defeated Scott Hamilton to win both the short and the long program. Soon thereafter, he and Brian Boitano captivated world attention with their epic "Battle of the Brians" rivalry, which culminated at  the 1988 Games with one of the closest results ever. 

A decade later, Michelle Kwan won nine U.S. titles, five world championships, and two Olympic medals.  But as fate would have it, neither of the Olympic ones were gold. Does it matter so very much? Obviously so. But should it? Do the accomplishments of a Brian Orser or a Michelle Kwan add up to a whole lot less than those of the skaters who edged past them on a fateful night of competition? 

How about Paul Wylie, one of the most beloved artists in skating history? He didn't even need a national title to be a fan favorite throughout much of the 1980s and early 1990s. His surprise silver medal performance at the 1992 Games was one of those unforgettable moments in Olympic history, arguably overshadowing Viktor Petrenko's gold medal win. 

Then there's Toller Cranston, who along with John Curry in the 1970s made artistry in men's figure skating a new standard of excellence for decades to come. Curry deserves the lion’s share of the credit, both for leveraging his talent into Olympic gold and for his extraordinary musical sensitivity and style. But the era of men's artistic skating was heralded by his competition with Cranston, an artist whose expressive style and dazzling costumes — much like Johnny Weir’s today — made it possible for male figure skaters to express themselves in ways never before seen in the sport. 

Many others who “failed” in their attempt at Olympic glory deserve credit as well for pushing their rivals — and thereby the entire sport — to greater heights. Debi Thomas pushed Katarina Witt to become a better jumper. Midori Ito’s superhuman leaps, including her triple axel, served notice that ladies skating was on a par with the men’s. Irina Slutskya kept challenging Kwan, who in turn pushed their younger rivals, who eventually leaped ahead of them both. 

Evgeni Plushenko didn't win his gold medal till 2006, but his rivalry with Alexei Yagudin in 2002 made them both better skaters and may have paved the way for Plushenko's own success, which he now carrys into yet a third Olympics. Kurt Browning never won as much as an Olympic medal, let alone a gold, yet he became one of the most popular entertainers on the pro circuit, a legacy that many Olympic champions would envy.  

None of this is to take away from the many Olympic champions whose legacy in the sport is unquestionable and everlasting: Dick Button, Peggy Fleming, John Curry, Dorothy Hamill, Robin Cousins, Scott Hamilton, Katarina Witt, Torvill  and Dean, Gordeeva and Grinkov and so many more. They have changed our sport for the better, but not because of a lucky night of competition. They had lasting power, rose to the occasion when it counted, and had an impact on the sport in the years following their competitive victories as well. 

The Olympics is a time to trumpet their accomplishments. Yet it takes nothing away from their glory to remember and honor many of those who are not part of the most exclusive club of gold medalists but who have nonetheless enriched our sport just as much. Many of the silver and bronze medalists in Vancouver will no doubt do the same.


  1. Silver medal winners have almost always been my favorites. I covered skating for years (Tracings, ASW), analyzing every bit of it out of pure love & I can say with certainty, I always prefer the underdog. Especially in pairs or dance. A Hough & Ladret or Rahkamo & Kokko is what I still watch to this day.

  2. It could be arguably said that the most dramatic impact was made by a skater who never won a world title and only managed a bronze at the Olympics--JANET LYNN. The scoring between figures and free skating was so disparate that Janet had a chance at the gold, she was so far behind when free skating began. But she was clearly the best in that segment, even when falling, as she did in Sapporo in 1972. Perhaps because of the uproar when she did not medal in 70 or 71 at worlds, the figures were reduced in value, the short program was created, and, eventually figures were eliminated completely, allowing free skaters to take places on the podium denied them previously due to mediocre scores in the private figure competition. Talk about an impact on your sport--she is still held up as a role model in expression and grace, nearly 40 years after her Olympic medal.

  3. Something tells me that after this Olympics is said and done, that there will be no one to add to any of the various lists that you mention above. Perhaps however, a new list will be created - Olympic champions MORE unrecognizable and MORE forgettable than Shizuka Arakawa or Alexei Urmanov.

  4. Michelle Kwan said it best, after Tara took the gold: The first night, she couldn't even look at the medal. And then she got up the next day, and said, "you know, I didn't *lose* the gold. I *won* the silver." That's a champion.

  5. Thanks for this great tribute. Skaters like Paul Wylie, Sasha Cohen, Brian Orser make me tingle with happiness. And look at Orser ... he's coaching a champion of his own now! What a legacy!

  6. Going way back, no one captivated on the ice like Janet Lynn. Yet often, she finished out of the medals in both Worlds and Olympics. I believe I remember that the short program was added to the competitions basically as an answer to Janet Lynn's inability to conquer the basic "school figures." She was an artist and technician on the ice...always beautiful programs.

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  8. In total agreement with the comments about Janet Lynn. I focused on the more recent history, but her impact on the sport in the early 1970s is undeniable. Skaters who were held back by figures, such as Janet Lynn, Brian Orser, or Midori Ito, were in a way the worst victims of this Olympic gold obsession: they were the ones who kept winning the parts of competition that should have really counted all along: the freeskating the public enjoys.

  9. I really can’t see why Alexei Urmanov is being so underestimated. It is perhaps because he hasn’t been playing with the audience the way Kurt Browning did and Evgeni Plushenko does. He has been a great artist on the ice (I refer especially to his beautiful program to Swan Lake (in 1995)).
    The same relates to John Curry. One couldn’t follow his way easily, because that was not the plain emotions that he brought on the ice, but something much more fundamental: quality and sense.
    I think the most interesting about wining a gold medal is what happens with the happy owner next: that is, how he is going to use the benefits of it. It comes out _why_ he wanted this medal so dreadfully. And Curry does win above everyone at this point (in my mind at least).

    What I want to say: the main thing about a skater (or an artist in general) is _what he was on the ice_, what he delivered, and _not_ how he’s been judged (by judges or audiences) and whether he is remembered by many or not.
    If he was good, and his performances have been captured somehow, it is always going to be enough people that will find about him and appreciate. It is quite enough, if somebody like Toller Cranston says: "Of all the male skaters I have known during nearly five decades of life in figure skating, no one is more important than John Curry. Yet it took me thirty years to recognize that simple truth." (He did wrote this once*, and I do admire him for that even greater.)

    For instance, I doubt that many skating fans in Russia (I pick out this country, because I was bone there) remember Janet Lynn or John Curry. Sad as it is, it has no effect on how great this two were.

    (* Master of Classical Expression From ICE CREAM by Toller Cranston & Martha Lowder Kimball)

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