It’s not easy being a figure skating fan these days.
And I’m not talking about the corrupt judges, or the cockamamie scoring systems that have been tried this season in an effort to make the corrupt judges behave. I’m not even talking about the smart alecks who insist that skating is about nothing more than sequins and whacks on the knee — that it isn’t even a sport at all.
No, with figure skating, the worst problem of all is simply trying to find out what’s going on. We’re told that skating is one of the most-popular sports in the world. One poll in the 1990s had it coming in second to football, and it’s long been the most-watched sport at the Winter Olympics. But you’d never know it from the media coverage. Just try to find results for any skating competition (except for U.S. nationals, worlds, or the Olympics) in the next day’s newspaper. If we’re extremely lucky, some stray sportswriter will do a couple of paragraphs. Most of the time, though, any analysis we get is on the level of a bunch of eighth-grade girls composing a gossip column for the school paper. I realize that the majority of skating fans are female, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t handle a little serious commentary now and then.
There’s not a chance you’d know the results from actually watching the competition, since most of them are aired at least a week after they take place, if at all. This fall, the first major international competition of the season, won by Michelle Kwan (filling in at the last minute for injured Olympic champion Sarah Hughes), was preempted in the Washington, D.C., area for a showing of Disney’s A Bug’s Life. If that had happened with a football game, WJLA’s programming director would still be running for his life.
Lately, like every other frustrated consumer, skating fans have flocked to the Internet. A novel chain of communication has sprung up, one that blends modern technology with a news-gathering system that looks like something out of 1940′s His Girl Friday. People who attend competitions post to fan-site message boards at a feverish rate (or else rush to a phone at every opportunity to give someone else the information to post). The fan sitting at home, by hitting “Refresh” a dozen times or so within a couple of hours, can find out who landed a triple-triple, who doubled a jump, who fell, and who’s in the lead. You can take my word for it, though, that it’s not exactly the same as watching it happen.
When an event finally does make it to TV, you’d better have a good cable system if you want to see the whole thing. It’s not uncommon for short programs to air on ESPN — or even ESPN2, as with this week’s U.S. nationals — most long programs to appear on ABC, and ice-dancing long programs to turn up a few weeks later on Lifetime, of all places. And those skaters we do get to see — we can’t see them all, or there wouldn’t be enough time to run puff pieces on what skaters eat for breakfast and where they shop — are usually accompanied by an incessant stream of chatter from ABC commentator and two-time Olympic champion Dick Button, the Dan Rather of the sports world. (Recent quotes include “What more do you want in that spin, the kitchen sink?”) Hardly an international competition goes by without Uncle Dick fondly recalling how he once pinched current world champion Irina Slutskaya’s rosy cheeks when she was a little girl.
See, football fans don’t have to put up with this stuff.
Nevertheless, something keeps drawing us back despite all the obstacles. I think it’s the very fact that the smart alecks like to jeer about: that figure skating is one of the few sports where the artistic requirements are as important as the technical ones. If Serena Williams, for instance, shows up one day and plays sloppily, she can still win as long as she can get the ball over the net. When a football player kicks a winning field goal, no one is examining the angle at which his foot is turned out. But in skating, technique and artistry feed off each other. Perhaps no other sport pushes the athlete as hard in as many different areas. To get to the top and stay there for any length of time, a skater has to have the total package of strength, speed, timing, flexibility, grace, and expression. No one is scoring goals, but a perfect spiral, layback spin, or jump is going to be remembered and celebrated for years — perhaps just as long as a game-winning touchdown. (Just ask Dorothy Hamill or Peggy Fleming.)
The American ladies’ field this year is a case in point. Our pairs and dance teams haven’t made much of a splash on the world scene for some time, and our men’s field isn’t exactly on fire right now, either. With the recent retirement of former world champion and six-time U.S. champion Todd Eldredge, one of the few American men who actually put some expression into his skating, the best we’ve got left is Tim Goebel, who won the Olympic bronze medal but still has a lot of polishing to do to his performances. Most of the rest of our top men’s skaters are too busy concentrating on quad jumps to give much thought to what they’re doing while their skates are actually touching the ice. It’s been a long time since the days of Brian Boitano, Scott Hamilton, and Paul Wylie.
But our women’s field is the strongest in the world. Both Russia and Japan also have several top contenders, but most of their skaters are strong on technique and weak on artistry (except world bronze medalist Fumie Suguri of Japan, who’s strong on artistry and weak on technique). The American ladies, however, have a long tradition of excelling in both departments — at least one American woman has medalled at every Olympics since 1968 — and this year is no exception. We not only have the Olympic champion, plus a two-time Olympic medalist and four-time world champion. We also have an 18-year-old with no world championship or Olympic medals who, under a new coach, has a good chance of beating both of them for the national title this Saturday.
While Hughes’s muscle tear kept her out for most of the season, and Kwan was cutting back drastically on her competitive schedule, two-time U.S. silver medalist Sasha Cohen was busy winning two gold medals and one silver on the international circuit. She even beat Slutskaya (who, admittedly, has had a mediocre season after a long illness), and at a recent pro-am event, she beat Hughes as well. Pro-ams are generally considered “fluff” events, but the psychological boost couldn’t have hurt.
Cohen’s greatest strengths, besides the determination that’s all over her face every time she steps onto the ice, are her magnificent artistry and musicality; it’s no exaggeration to say that no other Olympic-eligible skater in the world except Kwan can match her in these areas. (As Chicago Tribune sportswriter Philip Hersh once pointed out, the majority of skaters today might just as well be skating to the banging of trashcan lids for all the attention they pay to their music.) But Hughes usually has the technical edge, as she demonstrated at last year’s Olympics — her long program was the most difficult ladies’ Olympic program ever skated — and she’s no more timid than Cohen is about going after what she wants. Meanwhile, Kwan, who’s won six national titles, isn’t ready yet to concede to either of the young whippersnappers. And if any of those three should make one slip, at least four or five other senior ladies are right at their heels just waiting for a chance to grab one of three coveted U.S. spots at the world championships in March.
As we’ve seen so many times — as at the past three Olympics, with Hughes, Tara Lipinski, and Oksana Baiul — anything can happen. Even in a sport plagued by judging scandals, there are a lot of things that aren’t determined ahead of time. And with a ladies’ field this strong, this is going to be the most exciting U.S. championship we’ve seen in years.
You football watchers can console yourself with that thought this weekend as your wives and daughters take command of the TV. Our day will be short, but we’re going to enjoy every minute of it.
— Gina R. Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint Online and a graduate student at George Mason University.