Alexei Mishkin, Plushenko's coach, jumped on the outrage train and produced this little gem:
“Without the quad, there is no difference between the men’s competition and the women’s. Why not let them skate together? Why not have it as a unisex competition in the Olympics?”
At first I was offended by what I perceived as a slam against female figure skaters. But now I'm thinking...Well, why not? Seriously, why not have a unisex competition? If we respect female athletes as much as male athletes, if we acknowledge that female athletes are just as strong and capable as male athletes, then why not let them compete against each other?
The thing is that their strengths and capabilities tend to be different; not lesser or greater, just different. Quad jumping is not unheard of in women's competition, but it's much rarer than it is in men's competition. In this article that defines figure skating terms, it says that the only quad jump ever successfully landed by a woman in competition was the quad Salchow, but it's a little unclear as to whether that's the only kind of quad jump to be landed by a woman but has been landed more than once, or if the one jump was a completely isolated incident.
Then further down in that article it talks about the Biellman spin, which "is performed almost exclusively by women. (Yevgeny Plushenko is one notable exception.)" It's interesting to me that he didn't do it in Vancouver; since he's one of the few male skaters who can do it, I would think that he'd throw it in there in an attempt to set himself apart from the pack. There are many possible reasons why he didn't, though. Maybe it's harder for him after being out of practice for three years. Maybe it's not as high-scoring an element as he would have wanted. Or maybe he didn't want to seem effeminate, which would bring us right back to that double standard of anything that's primarily associated with women being viewed as inherently weak. Which is ridiculous of course; no one who can hold their foot above their head and grab onto it with their hands--let alone while spinning around--could be considered weak, and the fact that Plushenko can (or could) do it when most men can't is a rare and special gift.
No, I don't really think that men and women should compete against one another in singles' figure skating, although it would be interesting to try it just once to see how it came out. But it is also interesting to examine how expectations for the competitors fall along gender lines. (I'm talking here primarily about the singles' competitions; pairs and ice dancing have a different dynamic because men and women do compete together as teams.) I think that, at least in America, female figure skaters typically get more respect than male figure skaters, but that figure skaters as a whole usually get less respect than athletes in other sports (male and female alike). But I could be wrong about this; I recently read an article, which unfortunately now I can't find, in which some entity (I think Sports Illustrated) conducted a survey of Americans' favorite athlete of all time, and the winner was Dorothy Hamill. Watching the men's and women's competition in the Vancouver Olympics, I think that women are given a little more license to be expressive and artistic and graceful than men are. Or to put it another way, I think it's more acceptable for a woman figure skater to be perceived as powerful and athletic than it is for a male figure skater to be perceived as graceful and emotionally expressive, and once again, that goes back to the stereotype that emotional expression is considered to be a feminine characteristic, and that kind of expression in men is often perceived as weakness, not just in figure skating but in life.
And there is still an inherent male chauvinism in figure skating competition, far more blatant than in other sports. Plenty of sports have separate competitions for men and women, but most refer to them as "men's" and "women's" competitions. In figure skating it's "men's" and "ladies'". It should either be "men's and women's" or "ladies' and gentlemen's"; the current configuration seems rather condescending to women. (You may notice that I always refer to them as the "men's" and "women's" figure skating competitions; I'm trying to be a trend-setter.)
Anyway, all this discussion of these issues has led me to contemplate again the definition of courage. I found out today that Evan Lysacek had two versions of his free skate program, one with the quad and one without. He attempted the quad at the U.S. National competition and fell, and decided not to attempt it at the Olympics, partially for fear of injury and partially because it wasn't one of his stronger elements, and he strategically formulated his Olympic programs to play to his strengths.
If taking a risk is a necessary component of courage, then it could certainly be argued that it would have been more risky, and therefore more courageous, of Lysacek to attempt the quad even when he wasn't one hundred percent sure of it, rather than playing it safe. However, I suspect that while taking a risk might be a necessary component of courage, pushing the envelope is not necessarily so (regardless of what Elvis Stojko says). The way I see it, it was a very big risk to come to the Olympics without the quad. It may not seem that way after the fact when we know how it came out, but to attempt to even medal without the quad, let alone take gold, was a huge gamble because the rest of his performance had to be impeccable, which is never a guarantee. Michelle Kwan quotes her father by saying, "ice is slippery"; pressure can affect people in different ways, and so many uncontrollable factors can come into play on any given day. For example, Lysacek came down with stomach flu at the Torino Olympics and skated abysmally in the short program because of it. In Vancouver, he did skate almost flawlessly in both his programs, but all he had control of were his own performances. It's entirely possible that someone could have landed the quad AND skated with the same precision as Lysacek throughout to take the gold. Taking a look at the resumés of the top six finalists in Vancouver, Plushenko is an Olympic gold medalist and a three-time World Champion, Stéphane Lambiel of Switzerland is a two-time World Champion, Johnny Weir is a three-time U.S. National Champion (and I think each of them have landed quads in competition before as well). In other words, they have all won out over Evan Lysacek in the past, so it was certainly within each of their capacities to win out over him at the Olympics, and there were others (like Jeremy Abbott, reigning U.S. National Champion) who had the proven capacity to win out over Lysacek but didn't perform that well at these particular Olympics.
I'm not a fatalist, yet it's tempting even for me to assume that what happened at the Olympics was the only possible result, but the truth is that it was never a foregone conclusion that Lysacek would win the gold. He took a huge risk and it paid off for him, which makes for a happy and satisfying ending to his Olympic profile in courage.