Mary Arline (queen_of_kithia) wrote,
Mary Arline

It wouldn't be the Olympics without some sort of stupid controversy, would it?

The men's figure skating final was last night. I was very excited about it because after the short program there were three strong contenders in the top three positions: Yevgeny Plushenko of Russia (2006 Olympic gold medalist), Evan Lysacek of the United States (2009 World Champion) and Daisuke Takahashi of Japan (I don't readily know his stats, sorry). For various reasons, I haven't been following figure skating closely in the four intervening years since Torino, so Plushenko was the most memorable name and face for me; I remember watching him take the gold then, and being genuinely happy for him because he skated wonderfully and had a charming way of making kissy-faces at his new wife into the camera. But I watched all three of their short programs in Vancouver on Tuesday, they were all excellent, and I wouldn't have been disappointed to see any of them take gold, but Lysacek was my favorite--not because he's American, but because he (in my opinion) put the most heart and soul into his performance--so I was really hoping that he would take the gold. And he did, and it was completely awesome and awe-inspiring.

That was last night.

Today apparently Plushenko is going around whining that he was robbed, that he really should have won the gold because he landed a quadruple jump and Lysacek didn't even attempt one. And then apparently Putin got involved and communicated to Plushenko that "your silver is worth gold," which is kind of disturbing, although maybe we should just take him at his word because if the silver is as good as gold then everyone should go home happy.

Anyway, here's my opinion on the whole debaucle. Granted, I'm not a figure skating expert; I can't tell a toe loop from a salchow from an axel, and I still don't fully understand the new scoring system. However, I do know that the points are awarded based on the entire program, not just the jumps. If all that mattered to the medal race was the quad jump, then the whole competition would be each competitor skating out one by one and attempting a quad jump. Maybe it would be like the vault in gymnastics, where each of them gets two tries. It wouldn't be a bad competition, but it'd be a lot less fun to watch. It would lose a lot of what I like best about figure skating, i.e. the theatricality, the performance aspect of it. It also would be a lot of wasted space because you really wouldn't need a whole skating rink just for one jump per competitor per round. But they could do it. Maybe Plushenko and the Russians would like to start a petition to change it. Or maybe not even change it, maybe just add quad jumping as a separate event. But for now, under the current system, it's about more than the quad, and Plushenko trying to reduce it to one jump is a gross oversimplification.

Vladimir Putin's comment makes me wonder if this is more about Plushenko not winning the gold or about Plushenko losing the gold to an American. I wonder if there would be all this controversy if it had been Daisuke Takahashi of Japan on the first-place podium--or, for that matter, Stéphane Lambiel of Switzerland or Patrick Chan of Canada, all of whom skated very well throughout the whole competition and took, respectively, third, fourth and fifth place. As I think about it, I think that for Plushenko it's about the gold medal and the quad jump; if he'd lost the gold to someone who landed a quad he probably wouldn't have said anything. I think Putin saw it as an opportunity to do some retro-Cold War trash-talking, which is mildly disturbing and intimidating, but will probably be mostly harmless. Fortunately, Lysacek isn't allowing himself to be provoked, so--despite attempts by certain members of the news media to fan the flames--I don't think things will escalate much further from here. (By the way, I say "losing the gold" because that seems to be the way Plushenko sees it; I don't consider getting a medal "losing" by any means, regardless of its color, and I can think of at least 27 young gentlemen who probably take a view similar to mine and who are probably playing sad songs for Plushenko on the world's smallest violins even as we speak.)

Something else that's interesting is that I saw an interview with Plushenko just after the medal ceremony last night, and he pointed out that under the old scoring system he probably would have won the gold because he landed the quad, and at the time it sounded less like petulant whining and more like reasoned analysis, and yet I thought it was very, very interesting that he decided to bring up the new scoring system now, because the "new" scoring system was in effect in Torino and it didn't seem to affect him then, and while I could be wrong, I don't remember him saying anything about it one way or the other at that time.

To be fair, Plushenko is correct in saying that he probably would have taken the gold under the old 6.0 system; not because of the quad but because he skated last. Lysacek was the first skater in that final tier, and under the 6.0 system they probably would have scored him low in case somebody else did better, because if everybody following him skated better they would all have to get perfect 6.0's and it would have been a massive tie. This is similar to the situation that happened in the women's competition in Nagano in 1998; by pure luck (or unluck) of the draw, Michelle Kwan had to skate first, was scored low, and therefore got gypped out of the gold, and yes, even though she lost it to another American and it was 12 years ago, I am still bitter about it. But my point is that both systems have their strengths and weaknesses, and excellent skaters have been screwed over by both systems, and whining about it won't help. However, I will go on record and say that I think the new system is much, much fairer because it's not comparative, and I only wish that it had been put in place long, long ago, so that it could have benefited Michelle Kwan in 1998. She is one of the most phenomenal figure skaters ever, and she got screwed over by both systems, but such is life, and there's nothing anyone can do about it anymore.

Here's the real difference between Plushenko and Lysacek, and it has nothing to do with quad jumping: Lysacek came to these games with a grateful heart, grateful just for the opportunity to compete in the Olympics. I felt it all through his short program, and I saw it in the tears of joy that he shed after both the short program and the free skate. Now, in Torino in 2006, I sensed the same sense of gratitude from Plushenko, but the sense I've gotten from him in Vancouver is that he took for granted that, as the reigning Olympic champion, he deserved to be there. Now, don't misunderstand me: I am absolutely not suggesting that Plushenko didn't deserve to come to these Olympics, but he qualified for Vancouver this season, not in 2006. By the way, I'm not the only one who sensed this from Plushenko: Scott Hamilton said something very similar in a preview of the free skate. [Addendum: Specifically, Hamilton said of Plushenko that he'd been "walking around like he's aristocratic."]

Lest I be misunderstood again, I am not suggesting that having a grateful heart makes Lysacek a better skater than Plushenko. First of all, I don't think that Lysacek is necessarily a better skater than Plushenko. I think Lysacek gave a better performance last night, but on the other hand, in Torino Plushenko finished first and Lysacek finished fourth. By any measure they're both first-rate, world-class athletes, unquestionably among the best the sport has to offer, and I would never presume to try to say which of the two of them was better. Second, a grateful heart is not in any way quantifiable, so it's not factor in the judging, nor should it be. What I am suggesting is that having a grateful heart made Lysacek the most fun to watch, and it made me want him to win, and I would have wanted him to win no matter which country he was competing for.

Here's what it boils down to: Both Lysacek and Plushenko executed technically excellent short programs, separated by 0.55 point, and again, I as a layperson would never presume to say which of the short programs was better. In the free skate, Lysacek skated a clean program; I wouldn't presume to say that it was flawless, but if there were flaws I, as a layperson, could not see them. In the free skate, Plushenko landed all his jumps, but most of some of his landings were sloppy. Again, I'm not an expert and I can't tell the different kinds of jumps apart, but I can tell a good jump from a bad jump, and a jump in which you just barely keep your balance is not a good jump. Once again, this is not just me saying this; Scott Hamilton called him a "cat" last night because of his ability to land on his feet when he should have been falling down. It takes a certain kind of skill to keep your feet in that kind of situation, but it's not the kind of skill that Olympic judges give points for; they don't grade for effort. I feel confident in saying that any unbiased observer with even the most basic knowledge of figure skating would agree that Lysacek skated the better program and deserved the gold. (By that token, I'd be interested to know what the Russian commentators said last night about Plushenko's performance, before the whole kafuffle started.)

I was happy to see Plushenko win the gold in Torino, and I wouldn't have been disappointed had he taken the gold in Vancouver, but I'm certainly disappointed in how he's taking the silver. It makes me very sad because I respect him as a figure skater, and I used to like him, but I'm disgusted at his poor sportsmanship. The thing that's really sad to me is that, had he accepted his silver graciously and been a good sport about it, I would have liked and respected him all the more. With that said, I will say in his favor that, apart from bounding across the first place podium on his way to the second, he behaved well for the most part last night and didn't start acting like a petulant child until well after the medal ceremony. Had it been otherwise, had he pulled a Surya Bonaly and walked off the platform or something, it would have put a damper on the experience for Lysacek; therefore I'm happy that Plushenko allowed Lysacek to have that moment, and I respect that moment of good grace from Plushenko.

I have to say, though, that this whole debaucle has really revealed the character of each of these two competitors. Plushenko is acting like a petulant child, while Lysacek is taking it with grace and dignity, or to put it another way, Plushenko is being a poor loser, while Lysacek is being a very good winner. I just barely saw Bob Costas interview Lysacek on TV, it might not even been online yet, and Costas kept reading these sound bytes that Plushenko had given to the Russian media, seemingly to provoke angry sound bytes from Lysacek in return, but Lysacek expressed nothing but respect and admiration and understanding for Plushenko; I think Lysacek is more disappointed and saddened by it than angered, and I think he's far less angry than he has a right to be. And it makes me love and respect Evan Lysacek more and more. I liked him after the short program, I liked him more after he took the gold, and now I love him. He has displayed the true Olympic spirit this whole time, and even if there were a valid question as to the merit of his program last night (which there is not) I would say he deserves the gold purely because of his attitude.

The most deserving athlete took the gold, and the best man won.
Tags: figure skating, olympics
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