Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Dead Poets and the Battle for the Soul of Figure Skating


I'd like to invite Mr. Cinquanta and the ISU Technical Committee to watch my favorite movie — Dead Poets Society. No, I'm not losing my mind. What could figure skating have to do with movie about poetry and a boys' academy? Everything!

In case you ever watched this wonderful movie, you may remember one of the most powerful scenes in the beginning when the teacher, Mr. Keating (Robin Williams), asks the boys to rip out the first chapter of a book on poetry in which the author plots various measures of the poetry's value on a graph to calculate its greatness.

"Excrement!" Keating declares.

"We're not laying pipe!" he says. "We're talking about poetry. How can you describe poetry like American Bandstand? 'I like Byron, I give him a 42 but I can't dance to it!'"

That's exactly what you've done to figure skating, Mr. Cinquanta. You've chopped up the intangible qualities that are part of an artistic whole, assigned them point values, and then added them up at the cash register to produce results and records that mean absolutely nothing. Zip. They are, in Keating's words, excrement.

Keating goes on to say:

"We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion."

And so is figure skating, when done right. Music is passion, and a captivating, heart-searing performance on the ice is all about passion and connecting with the audience.

How can you plot that? What number, what component score can measure passion?! Ultimately, is that the worth of a John Curry, Katarina Witt, Torvill & Dean, Brian Orser, Gordeeva & Grinkov, Paul Wylie, Stephane Lambiel, Sasha Cohen, Johnny Weir, or whoever your favorites may happen to be? Is that what they're all about? A Code of Points?!

Poems cannot be assigned numbers, and neither can a passionate figure skating performance be looked down upon with enough contempt to be broken up and plotted and assigned ridiculous meaningless numbers for interpretation and skating skill and other magical qualities that we instinctively appreciate as a whole.

"This is a battle, a war, and the casualties could be your hearts and souls," Keating sums up in Dead Poets Society.

He's right. So is the battle to judge the sport and art of figure skating. If we do nothing and let Mr. Cinquanta and his cronies get away with treating art like a calculus equation, we allow them to rip the heart and soul out of figure skating forever.


  1. Sonia BianchettiMay 6, 2010 at 5:56 AM

    Gerat article, Monica! You could not describe in a better way what has happend to our beuatiful sport. The Code of Points system has killed the passion, the artistry the creativity of the skaters and has deprived the public and the audience of the capibility of understanding the marks and interacting with the judges in the results' process. And unfortunately nothing will change in the next years. There are no substantial proposals for changes in the Agenda of the next ISU Congress which will be held in June in Barcellona.
    Sonia Bianchetti

  2. Thanks for the kind comments, Sonia. Of course I agree with all you say, except that I never expect any change merely from within. Revolutions don't happen that way. The ISU Congress will not rebel. If we're to hang on to any flicker of hope that there's a future for figure skating, it has to come from the people, the fans, the media, the world outside the ISU.

  3. Using one of my favorite movies to perfectly illustrate what is wrong with one of my favorite sports. Well done Monica, and thanks to Sonia for making sure I saw this.

  4. I have lived skating almost every day for more than 40 years. There is no code of points that will capture the beauty of a child taking his or her first steps on the ice. Figures were the way we transformed into skaters with balance and position. Dance taught us to value every beat oif the music and express a clear and strong personality. Skating in shows brought out our joy of skating. Pairs taught us to show the relationship of every step om harmony with another skater. Jumping and spinning meant that we could fly and defeat gravity for the moment. Above all, the multi generations that shared the ice taught us to look our best and be polite. The magic is still there for many of us. Our lagacy is to share the joy.

  5. Monica:
    Great Article and thought provoking. I sincerely doubt Octtavia will ever read it and absorb the meaning. I have been in skating as a coach and skater for more than 50 years.
    It troubles me too, that this sport filled with the passion and intensity has had its demise.
    Thanks for your continued battle against our "dark Lord"--the Darth Vador of the ISU.

  6. I heard of this site by a posting on my skating bulletin board. These objections are well founded. The CoP system used now, is designed to prevent an individual, crooked judge from affecting the outcome of an event. Trouble is, it is equally effective at preventing an individual, honest judge from affecting the outcome of an ISU rigged event, which is likely closer to reality. The secrecy is a giveaway. You don't hide things when you're proud of them.

  7. Jackson Haines, a dancer, put dance on ice.
    Conflict between art/sport concepts ended in IJS; sport became gymnastic; audience left.
    Reevaluation will be possible either with a new President or after ISU funding of underfunded members ceases. Both will occur, likely together in the absence of TV/Sponsor income to ISU. But it may take a while...

  8. Excellent, Monica! A brilliant parallel to another art form (cinema) that has a spot-on message included inside. I only wish that Cinquanta himself would read your blog...

  9. Elizabeth HanleyMay 7, 2010 at 12:42 PM

    Kudos to both Monica and Sonia: Monica for her 'passionate' article and Sonia for her very relevant comments! As a basic figure skating teacher at my university for several years, and a very basic ice dancer, I must say that you are absolutely correct re the 'passion' being lost. My first real encounter with 'passion' was at the Lake Placid Olympic Games in 1980 when I watched figure skating for the first time LIVE! My second time was in Sarajevo in 1984 and I was totally mesmerized with Katarina Witt, Torvill and Dean, and others.......the same was not quite true in 2006 Torino, nor was it true recently in March at Worlds (with Sonia leading our 'passionate' group!) May revolution happen for the best.......hopefully, in the not too distant future. Elizabeth Hanley

  10. Love the article Monica ! Dead Poets, Emperor's Club & Mona Lisa Smile are all favorites of mine and all offer the same theme along with similar results. The quest for freedom of expresssion confined within a traditional structure. Cinquenta, despite his current position, isn't the traditional structure but rather an aboration of it. He didn't do it alone yet it is done nonetheless.

    What Skating was when I began 50 years ago exists only in a very few rare competitive performances by extra-ordinary skaters guided by extra-ordinary coaches. Merely good skaters, who could grow into great ones given a little time, are being pushed too far, too fast and then pushed out. Not by competition but rather, by frustration and damaged bodies. So is the audience that indirectly sponsors them. As in the referenced movies, even those forced to fall on their swords effect only the next generation and of those only a precious few. I am deeply saddened by what is being discarded and disheartened in my own failure to provide a possible solution.

  11. There's only one problem with your argument - elegant though it might be - it wasn't the CoP that lost figure skating its audience - it was a skating culture that allowed cheating judges to exist. The Olympic judging in both Salt Lake City and Nagano did incredible damage to the sport. No subjective judging system is ever going to please all of us, but this is one heck of a lot closer to it than what existed before. No it's not perfect, and it remains to be seen just how much politicking is still going on, but I'm willing to give it a chance. It needs work to address some of the problems that have been mentioned, but let's not throw out the baby with the bath water.

  12. Wow, Monica! What an article? What a comparison? I had the privilege of attending Andre Rieu's recent concert in South Africa. It included a member of his orchestra playing a cello solo with the kind of passion you, Monica, described in your article. My recent experience of musical passion could only be rivaled by my being present at John Curry's moving performance at Innsbruck's Winter Olympics in 1976. Take such passion out of life and we become less than human. Bravo to Monica and Sonia for their ongoing battle to save figure skating.

  13. Thanks everyone for your very kind and insightful comments. Two quick comments:

    Mark: "I only wish that Cinquanta himself would read your blog..."

    Anyone have his email? : )

    And Elizabeth ... we had very similar experiences and reactions to skating. My very first live competition was 1984 Worlds. Wow, what a generation of skaters. I had seen them all on TV, of course, and some in the World Tour from a long distance, but suddenly they were all there at their best. Underhill & Martini in one of those magical moments you never forget ... Katarina Witt ... Torvill & Dean ... Brian Orser ... and so, so many all the way down to the lower groups, most of of them adding their individual artistic statement, even if they couldn't jump. Like you, I was in Torino for Worlds this year. A few good performances here and there, yes. Dance was good. But overall I left in a very gloomy mood. This was the first time I left a Worlds feeling this was not my sport anymore. It was all smart choreography to get points. The passion was gone.

  14. I would agree with everything you said only if figure skating wasn't an Olympic sport. That's what "anti-skating" groups have been saying all along: figure skating isn't sport, it's art. Take it out of sports compeitions and enjoy it as recreation. If that's what you're advocating for, this article works. Sadly, I like the competitive part of figure skating, as much as I enjoy its artistic meris. And competitions, must be measured and ranked. There's no way around it.
    And it's not like before the new judging system we had an overwhelming number of amazing skaters- at any given decade there's always the top few and the average. In 2002, we had some really creative programs, but technicaly it was weak. Wrong edges and under rotations were only too common. Fine if you just look at it as arts, but not enough if you want to be taken seriously as a sports.

  15. To Anonymous:

    1. I completely disagree about the quality of skating before the new system was implemented. I think we had far more artistic skaters and bigger stars. Just look at popularity of skating back then and now (ratings, shows/tours, TV contracts, everything) . Our sport has taken a serious nosedive.

    2. Skating is not more difficult today, as you claim. Yes, the programs are packed to maximize points to the detriment of artistry. But if you talk about jumps, which most people associate with "sports" and "difficulty", please remember that quads were being landed in the 1980s, and the programs were pretty similar back then and now. Elaine Zayak did seven triples back in the early 80s. How many women do so many now? (And yes, I know Mao Asada does triple axels. So did Midori Ito in the 1980s. Both are exceptions, not the rule.)

    Skating today is not more of a sport or more measurable under IJS. It's just more boring and uglier and we lost the stars (and the tours and everything else that went with it). Worth it?

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  17. If skating continues on its present course, due to the total reorganization of our sport by a speed skater, it will completely disappear. I foresee the day when the IOC will actually drop figure skating from the games due to lack of interest by the media and public. Perhaps this was Cinquanta's goal all along....bury the sport. And the third world ISU members have made it possible for him to enjoy the perks of first class hotels and travel for another two years. Cinquanta was very clever to give membership to countries that are now beholden to his generosity. Perhaps they will make him ISU President for life....Just like the movie "The Dictator". These are sarcastic comments because there is almost nothing left to be happy about in international skating. So sad for coaches, skaters and rink owners.

  18. Why not split the ISU into separate sections for figure skaters, speed skaters and hockey players? Each section to be headed by an expert in the respective sport. Then we would not have the ridiculous situation of a speedskater making decisions about figure skating

  19. Also stop giving credit for "attempting" a jump even if done incorrectly. This leads to skaters who fall being marked above less difficult but faultless programmes as happened at Worlds' 2013. Also use the IJS for technical merit ONLY and return to either the 6.00 or 10.00 for artistic impression