The Nature of Figure Skating

Woo-hoo! 100 posts! Anyway, one of the big issues that’s arisen during the Winter Olympics surrounds the results of the men’s figure skating competition. The winner, American Evan Lysacek, beat out Russian Evgeni Plushenko despite not completing a quadruple jump, a feat that Plushenko believes alone should have merited him the gold medal. Plushenko went on the record saying that the quad is the only sign of progress in the sport, and he stated that not rewarding the feat with a gold medal holds the sport back. He also raised the question of whether or not figure skating was sport or dancing, as evidenced by Lysacek winning on the strength of his footwork, not his jumps.

To begin with, I saw both of Lysacek’s routines. They were masterful performances. Every jump was crisp and clean. Every spin was smooth and fast. And the dance moves were gorgeous to watch. Lysacek earned the gold medal, fair and square. Regarding his lack of a quad, I ask this: should one trick be weighed so heavily against the quality of an overall routine? It is true the Plushenko completed a quadruple spin and Lysacek did not. But Plushenko just did that trick once. The rest of his routine contained a similar combination of spins and footwork that Lysacek’s did. And when it came down to scoring those spins and dance moves, Lysacek simply scored higher than Plushenko did. While Lysacek did not perform a quad, the rest of his routine was deemed superior to Plushenko’s. And it wasn’t as if Plushenko’s routine was so much worse other than the quad. The total difference in score was less than two points. The quad was scored accurately, and it gave Plushenko enough points to stay close with Lysacek. It just did not do enough by itself to give him the gold, and I don’t believe it should have. Figure skating is about a routine, not a single trick. And Lysacek’s routine was better than Plushenko’s. He deserved to win the gold.

The fact that spinning and dancing garners as many points as it does raises a more interesting questions: is figure skating a dance or is it a sport? I believe it’s a little bit of both. My mother’s dance company espouses the idea that dancers are a combination of athlete and artist. Looking at figure skaters, it is clear that this is the case. It is impossible to deny the physical skill required to perform the jumps and spins so common to competitive figure skating. Personally, I can barely stay upright on skates, so I have tremendous respect for the physical capabilities of these athletes. But at the same time, there is definite artistry to figure skating. If nothing else, consider that figure skating is choreographed to music. It’s a performance. If it were purely a sport, there would be no need for a musical background to the performance. It would just be a series of tricks performed in sequence. The difference is similar to the floor routine and the uneven bars in gymnastics. The former is a dance routine that combines artistry with physical ability. The latter is just an athletic performance. Figure skating IS a combination of art and sport. Because of that, there must always be scoring for the artistic component that balances out the athletic component. Hence you have situations like the one we had in the Olympic Games. Evgeni Plushenko had the more physically demanding performance, I’m not going to argue that. But Evan Lysacek’s performance was the better combination of artistry AND athletic ability. And in figure skating, it’s that balance that determines the gold.

The Games so Far

I’ve seen most of the Olympics that have aired so far, so I thought I’d give my thoughts on the various teams and their strengths.

Hockey: The men are playing right now, so I can’t really speak to their abilities until I get home from work. The women, however looked devastating in their victory over China. They won 12-1, and I was amazed that China even managed that one goal. Now, China is not the strongest program, I get that. But the pure execution of the US Women’s hockey team was absolutely spectacular. They showed no signs of Olympic nerves and look poised to challenge Canada (who also looked pretty good, winning their opener 18-0) for the gold. If they can keep up their offensive juggernaut, other teams will not be able to get the puck into the US’s zone enough to score many points.

Skiing/snowboarding: The ski and snowboard teams for the US look incredibly strong this year. They’ve already struck gold at women’s moguls (Hanna Kearney) and men’s snowboard cross (Seth Wescott), while also achieving a silver in Nordic combined (an American first) and bronzes in men’s moguls and men’s alpine downhill. And some of the biggest stars of these events have yet to compete. Sean White will be the hands on favorite to win the halfpipe. Lindsey Jacobellis will certainly be looking for redemption after losing gold to her own showboating at Torino. We still have 4 events for Bode Miller to finally bring home some gold. And Lindsay Vonn is getting healthier with each weather delay in Vancouver. While the skiing events are usually dominated by the European nations, especially Austria and Switzerland, I see America putting up challenges in most of the remaining events, taking home at least a few gold medals.

Speed Skating: To begin with, I love Apollo Ohno. I think he is a phenomenal athlete racing in a dangerous sport, and he does it without losing his charm and charisma. He has several events left, including the one he got gold at Torino for, and I see him breaking the record for most medals in a Winter Olympics by an American. As for the longer speed-skating races, I think the best is yet to come. While we didn’t look good in the 500 or 5000 meter races, I think the strongest races are still coming. Stephen Colbert would not have sponsored this team if he didn’t believe in them.

Ice Skating: The pairs didn’t medal, but they looked stronger than the US has ever looked before in pairs’ figure skating. This bodes well for the future of the program. Next up we have the men’s figure skating, which features a US Champion, a World Champion, and Johnny Weir, who I hate. I’m not as familiar with the women’s squad, but America traditionally has very strong female figure skaters who are always on or around the podium come the finals. I wouldn’t be surprised to see us medal in both individual skating events.

Curling and Bobsled/Luge/Skeleton: I have no idea if we’ll be good or not, but I seem to recall our bobsled and skeleton teams are at least competent.

So there you have it: the future looks strong for the U.S. in Vancouver. I firmly believe that the U.S. will win both for overall medals (we’re currently in the lead) and for gold medals won, which would be a first for us.

Analyzing the Opening Ceremonies and the Olympics

Everyone watched the Opening Ceremonies wondering if Vancouver would try and top Beijing in spectacle. To be sure, it would be a tall task. Between the drums, scrolls, and flying people, not to mention the differences in budget and levels of talent of the artistic directors, it would be almost impossible to do. So Vancouver never even tried. By most objective criteria, Vancouver’s Opening Ceremonies paled in comparison to Beijing’s. This does not mean that the Opening Ceremonies were bad, they were just different.

Perhaps the differences begin with the cultural differences between China and Canada. China is a giant nation filled with people. Its history is rife with violence and aggression. Its government believes it is the greatest nation of the world and seeks to constantly emphasize its dominant qualities. Canada is very different. While it is a giant nation in terms of land mass, it has fewer people in it than the state of California. There is no history of violence in Canada. The people are kind but deferential. Whereas Chinese culture could be described as aggressive and dominating, Canada’s may better be described as quiet and reserved. The leaders of Canada had to implore their citizens to show enthusiasm and competitive spirit for these games, knowing this was contrary to their nature.

So we wound up with an Opening Ceremonies that did not strive for the aggression and raw power of Beijing. They chose to go with something quieter, gentler, friendlier. Something that better spoke to the cultural aspirations of the host country, not to any manufactured pressure to be better than every host country before it. For this they should be commended, even if what they produced was a little bit boring.

There were still some very cool moments to what went on last night. The video of the snow-boarder going down the giant slope was awesome. Bringing back Bryan Adams was a hoot. And how cool was it to see Bobby Orr again? Anytime you can get Bobby Orr, Steve Nash, and Wayne Gretzky together for one thing, you’re doing something right.

My friend pointed out that the Olympics are different from other sports because there’s very little money to be made in any of the events (hockey being the exception). This means that the athletes train and perform for no reason other than love of sport and a desire to show off what they and their countries can do. This training without monetary reward is honorable, and it imbues the Olympics with a sense of camaraderie that replaces the sense of rivalry found in other sports. This is not to say that athletes don’t compete. But the hatred that is so common to sports, especially among sports fans (think Red Sox-Yankees), is just not there in the Olympics. Everything is a little bit kinder, a little bit more in the spirit of togetherness. I’ve said before how sports bind communities and rivalries emerge out of a societal need to create an “other” to define oneself against. Well, the “other” in the Olympics is just a different country, and that is too large a concept to define oneself against. Hence this self-definition goes away in lieu of a group definition. We are all of one world, and this is the best our world has to offer. The purest.

So it’s with that in mind that I watch these Olympic games. Every competition is comprised of people from different parts of the globe, yes. But every competitor is essentially the same. They have the same drives and motivations. They carry the same expectations upon their shoulders. And they compete knowing the reward waiting for them is not monetary, but rather just the knowledge of being the best there is at what they do. So until next time: U.S.A.! U.S.A.!