Point Me

Monday, February 15, 2010

Skate me

The Olympics are on! I've been catching bits and pieces of it these last few days. I find it kind of frustrating to watch, especially when they spend so much time talking about the weather conditions and the specific athletes, basically turning 75% of the broadcast into a human interest story montage. Just cut to the competition, so I can speculate about obscure sports that only pop up every four years, and arbitrarily pick a team to root for, perhaps based solely on their outfits.

Figure Skating is being put out as the flagship sport of the games again this year, with competition broadcast squarely in prime time. As a kid, I loved watching the skating. It was very dramatic back then, with all that Nancy Kerrigan/ Tonya Harding stuff. I was really engrossed by it, and was actually watching live when they discovered Nancy with the crow barred knee. A few weeks later, I made a giant snowman with my dad and brother and named it Jeff Gillooly, after the obese "bodyguard" Harding hired to rub Nancy out.

Beyond the petty in-fighting stuff, I also loved the creative and masterful performances. My favorite was Scott Hamilton. While others were doing very solemn numbers to Swan Lake, he was doing campy Calypso numbers. His performances had a silly touch of vaudeville to them. He'd hop up on the judges table and flirt with them mid-performance. He would also do full layout backflips, which was so unique and exciting. I would watch these competitions with my dad, who had a huge crush on Kristi Yamaguchi.

Lately though, there's been lots of talk about figure skating's decline in America. We don't have a compelling front-runner for gold at these Canadian Olympics, and the national interest in the sport is falling fast here, while becoming immensely popularity in Asia. This piece from NPR blames downfall on the new scoring system that puts more emphasis on technical excellence than on artistry. According to skaters, the new program only allows 10 seconds for creative expression in a 4.5 minute program.

While the artistry and storytelling of skating is important, I can't say I agree that this new scoring system is the culprit. I actually think focusing on the technical perfection of jumps and spins is way more important than the gimmicks of a performance. As much as I loved the clowning of Scott Hamilton, it gets to a point where the focus on a theme distracts from the athleticism. Besides, if you want to make it all about the theatrics, you should watch figure skating's lame cousin, Ice Dancing, where you're not allowed to do any throws or jumps.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I feel like the power of a beautifully executed routine outweighs the storytelling. Take a look at this gold medal performance from Don Jackson in the 1962 Olympics. The artistry is all about the perfection of his execution. There's not a huge storytelling angle, and still the audience gets all worked up after every single jump. "He did it for Canada."

I also really like how excited they get about his triple jumps, because they were so new and novel.

I suppose that the grace of figure skaters is what makes them so captivating. But I don't see why the grace and beauty of their movement can't be assimilated into flawless execution to create a great performance. And if the grading system was really to blame, would skating still be so popular in Japan? I think a grading system that focuses on the athleticism of a sport is better than an arbitrary system open to such subjectivity and personal preference. I also don't think it's going to stop people from creatively expressing themselves in new ways:

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