Sunday, January 8, 2012

Artistic Heart of Skating Torn Out, Skaters Say

In a recently televised interview, Canadian skating star Toller Cranston stated that he's embarrassed to be part of the sport, and blasted the new system for judging figure skating with his renowned candor. “The way it's judged now, the more you can do the more points you get, so everything is overproduced and generic,” said the 1976 Olympic medalist. He was no kinder to the medalists at the 2010 Winter Olympics, who use the new system to their advantage. They were, Cranston said, like “cats hanging by a claw from a roof."

Although often considered unconventional, even eccentric in his opinions, Cranston does not stand alone when it comes to his views about the state of figure skating today. Skating champions from around the world are expressing their distress about the direction the sport has taken under the International Judging System (IJS), which replaced the century-old 6.0 system back in 2004.

Two-time Olympic gold medalist Katarina Witt recently bemoaned the loss of emotion and passion that used to be the hallmarks of figure skating. “It’s like putting figure skating in a box,” she said in an interview in the Toronto Globe and Mail. Former World Champion Stephane Lambiel was quoted in an Italian skating magazine as saying that present rules favor good jumpers without charisma. American skating legend Janet Lynn, beloved for her musicality and artistry during the 1970s, went as far as calling the IJS “a totalitarian system of measurement that does not breed freedom on the ice or lift the human spirit.” Most interestingly, perhaps, even the current world champion, Patrick Chan, who has benefitted the most from the new system, has harsh words for it. In a December interview he said that skating used to be much more "epic and memorable" in the past. "There was a lot more uniqueness between each skater, whereas nowadays it's almost beco

me a production line.”

Yet in spite of such doom and gloom about the loss of artistry in figure skating, no one seems willing or able to lift a finger to do something about it. Part of it has to do with the political nature of skating and the small but entrenched group of people who make decisions at the International Skating Union—an organization headed by a speed skater, not a figure skater. But in all fairness, the system does have fierce support among its rank and file. Many judges, coaches and skaters love the fact that every move is measurable according to a precise (albeit arbitrary) code of points that encourages skaters to push the technical limits of the sport. The system also allows skaters to receive immediate feedback about their performance, with element-by-element breakdown of their programs. If you want to know why you lost those two tenths of a point that kept you off the podium, the judges' scoring sheets will give you an answer. Neat, clean, precise, and objective—at least in theory. To some, that’s exactly what the doctor ordered when the new system replaced the old one following the pairs scandal at the 2002 Games.

So which is it? Has the new judging system saved or destroyed figure skating? Judging by TV ratings and event attendance, the sport has fallen off a cliff in North America and Europe. Tours have folded, professional competitions are but a faint memory, and opportunities for professional skating are shrinking faster than the polar ice caps. The sport survives as a technical, competitive enterprise. But is it thesame sport?

Historically, skating as competitive sport and as performing art were two sides of the same coin, intrinsically linked into a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. There were always skaters who excelled more at one or the other aspect, and in some cases their strength in one area prevailed long enough to win them a medal or title. But for the most part, the system rewarded those who could strike that magic balance between technique and artistry.

All that has changed. For the first time in the history of figure skating, a change in the judging system has not only changed the way skating is measured, but also the way it is performed. The point system is a radical, unprecedented departure from anything ever used to judge figure skating. With mathematical precision it forces skaters to focus on diabolically-difficult tricks and design cookie-cutter programs that strategically maximize points with every step at the expense of originality and emotion. Even age-old, crowd-pleasing moves such as fast scratch spins and stunning spread eagles, have been abandoned after being deemed unworthy of high scores under the system.

As a result, the artistic heart of figure skating has been ripped out of a sport that has been known for its dual artistic/technical personalities since before the days of Sonja Henie. The champions that captured our hearts were always able to meld the two. That’s what made skating special and that’s what may be forever lost under the new system.

“Figure skating is a different kind of sport [from all others], and you have to accept it,” Katarina Witt said. “You cannot compare it to swimming, which it’s about who’s the fastest.” Skating, she said, is about “who touches your heart. Who makes you remember a program for the rest of your life.” These days, few people remember who won the last Olympics.

When the ISU set out to devise a new system in 2002 it was tasked with devising a new way to judge – not a new sport. With their actions they grossly overstepped their authority and desecrated the sport they were entrusted with preserving.