Mary Arline (queen_of_kithia) wrote,
Mary Arline

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Back to men's figure skating, and looking ahead to the future.

I'm writing this for myself, not because I expect anyone else will be interested in reading it. I have a bad cold, and if I lie down I start coughing, so I'm mostly just trying to distract myself from how tired and miserable I am.

So...I found an article that does a very good job explaining why the men's free skate at the Olympics was judged the way it was. It starts by reaffirming that a free skate program is four and a half minutes long, and a quadruple jump takes all of ten seconds to perform, so no, the quad jump is not the end-all and be-all of men's figure skating competition.

It then goes into a very accessible analysis of why the programs in general and the jumps in particular were scored the way they were, giving concrete things to look for that even the most casual observer can see with the naked eye (like clouds of ice shavings flying up into the air). At the end, it asks rhetorically, "But is Plushenko right? Is the judging system getting it wrong because they're awarding artistry over athleticism?" Which is so ironic because when the new scoring system went into effect one of the main concerns was that it would put too much emphasis on technical elements at the expense of artistry. (Here's another very good article that analyzes the balance of art and athleticism in the wake of the new scoring system.)

However, I think that the question of artistry vs. athleticism is a false dilemma. To me, it's not a matter of artistry over athleticism; it's a matter of precision. I think that all organized sports by their very nature require a certain degree of precision, but some sports require a higher degree of precision than others. In particular, the judged sports, like diving, synchronized swimming, gymnastics and figure skating, require the highest degree of precision.

And precision has always been an important part of figure skating. I saw an interview with Evan Lysacek in which he was talking about the grade-of-execution scoring under the new system, and he said something to the effect of "it's not enough just to land the jumps anymore." I think that the grade-of-execution score has raised the stakes somewhat as far as precision goes, and I don't want to contradict Lysacek because he obviously knows much more about it than I do, but I don't think it's ever been enough just to land the jumps. I remember back in the days when I first started watching figure skating and I hadn't picked up on the subtle nuances of what makes for a good jump and a clean program, and I'd see a jump that would look perfectly fine to me, and the commentators would go, "Oh, that was such a costly error! They're going to take off points for that; you can't make mistakes like that..." etc. So even under the old system they would take off points for technical merit if you had crooked jumps or wobbly landings.

Over the years I've been able to train my eye to recognize those more subtle nuances of performance, so it's still completely inconceivable to me that Plushenko has been going on blaming anything and everything but his own performance for his second-place finish. It's so clear to me that his free skate wasn't anywhere near the caliber he is capable of; I can't understand why he doesn't acknowledge that, because he has to be aware of it. For example, one of the characteristics of a good figure skating jump is that when you land, your face should be perpendicular to the ice, not parallel. There were at least two, and possibly three, jumps in Plushenko's free skate in which he landed with his face parallel to the ice, which means that he almost fell flat on his face. If I'm aware of that he has to be, because if he'd lost his balance it was his bones on the line.

One of those jumps was the quad jump, and it's hard to judge them because they happen so fast, and I haven't seen enough clean quads to know; maybe the quad is an exception and it's supposed to be landed with your face parallel to the ice. However, in covering Plushenko's short program, NBC gave us amateurs a very useful tool for judging Plushenko's quad jumps. During their instant replays of his short program (which, for the record, was much better than his free skate), they showed a slow-motion close-up of his feet during the quad jump. They did that in order to count the revolutions to see if he should get full credit for the quad, but you can see very clearly on the landing that his blade was crooked, it sort of skips and jerks across the ice instead of gliding smoothly, and it kicks up a cloud of ice chips, and it should be obvious to everyone that that was not the best landing.

Plushenko is undeniably one of the greatest contemporary figure skaters as well as one of the greatest figure skaters of all time. His name will go down as a legend in the sport and rightfully so. However, he has dominated the sport for so long that I think he's gotten used to the idea that he will win no matter what, so I don't think that he's committed himself to continual improvement. He came back to compete after three years off, and I don't want to minimize the effort that that must have taken, because it must have taken hard work. But on the other hand, on his comeback he won the European championship with record-breaking scores, so I think perhaps he rested on his laurels a little bit and just assumed that he could easily win the Olympics by skating as he had been skating. I don't want to say that he didn't work hard, because I'm sure he did, but I think that he didn't have the motivation for continual improvement that, for example, Evan Lysacek had.

I also suspect that Plushenko doesn't have people around him who are willing to give him constructive criticism. I don't think there's anyone close to him who was willing (or perhaps able) to say to him, "Look, that was really good, but it wasn't as good as you're capable of." And maybe part of the problem there is that they are so close to him that they've learned to shut their eyes to the aspects of his performance that falter a little or could use some work. Which is sort of sad in a way, because his broad strokes are so good that if he really committed himself to bringing the little details of his performance to that same level of excellence, he could probably become untouchable.

On the other hand, if he refuses to take responsibility for his own performance and the improvement thereof, he's eventually going to reap what he sows. He talks about the progression and regression of the sport; my perception is that, while he's not regressing, the sport is progressing without him. If he continues to blame his disappointing results on other people, or circumstances, if he refuses commit himself to improvement, if he refuses to take advantage of the new scoring system by putting his more difficult elements in the bonus section, then he's eventually going to be left behind by the sport's progression. It may be years before he's surpassed again, but he's not getting any younger, and the young skaters are being brought up on the new scoring system and they're going to have an ingrained ability to milk it for all it's worth. If he continues the way he has been, the day may not be long in coming when he is surpassed by another Russian, and I doubt then that he'll find the quite the sympathy and support from his country that he enjoyed after the Vancouver Games.

Evan Lysacek has said that he was primarily looking for a personal victory in these Olympics and, having achieved that, would have been just as satisfied to take silver as he was to take gold. So the part of me that hates conflict almost wishes that it had come out that way, with Plushenko taking gold and Lysacek taking silver, because then everybody would have been happy. But the part of me that loves justice says no, Lysacek won the gold, it's his by right. On that occasion, Plushenko didn't skate well enough to justify that high a score, he didn't earn gold and he shouldn't be rewarded for a sloppy performance and bad sportsmanship in the interest of keeping the peace. And even the part of me that hates conflict knows that, if Plushenko took gold skating the way he did, I for one would not have been happy. I don't know how unhappy I would have been, would have represented a failure of the scoring system, and it probably would have convinced me that figure skating was irreparably broken; I won't say that I never would have watched it again, but I wouldn't have been as emotionally invested as much in it as I have been in the past.

Fortunately the system does work, and these recent Olympics have rekindled my enthusiasm for figure skating. I'm really looking forward to the World Championships at the end of this month. I expect Plushenko to compete at Worlds, and I'll be very surprised if he doesn't win it because (a) now he has something to prove, as Lysacek did after finishing fourth in 2006 in Torino and (b) my understanding is that Lysacek won't be defending his world title because he's competing on "Dancing with the Stars".

I have mixed feelings about that. I've been trying to avoid reality TV programming in any form, so I haven't watched much of "Dancing with the Stars". My parents really like it, and as "reality TV" goes it seems mostly harmless. I am somewhat put off by it though, because it validates what I consider to be some of the less innocent, more potentially damaging reality programs by choosing the titular "Bachelor" and Kate Gosselin (in my opinion one of the most morally bankrupt women in America) as competitors. So for someone with integrity, like Evan Lysacek, to compete, it seems like a little bit of a sell-out.

On the other hand, bills have to be paid, and even my other skating hero Michelle Kwan used to do skating specials for Disney and whatnot. Figure skating season is almost over, and this way I get to see Lysacek perform on a weekly basis for however many weeks DWTS runs and make up a little bit of the time I've lost over the past four years. Moreover, because Lysacek IS someone with integrity, I think he will really bring some added class to the show. During the Olympics everyone was talking about his work ethic and how committed he is to perfecting the small details, and I'm sure he will bring the same dedication to this competition. He's such a positive role model and these values he embodies are so positive that I think it's a good thing for him and his great work ethic and attitude to be exposed to a wider audience.

Plus I think he has a really good shot at winning. Apolo Ohno is an Olympic speed skater who also competed on DWTS and won. There's not much of a comparison between speed skating and dancing, but there are obvious parallels between figure skating and dancing. As a figure skater, Lysacek already has experience working with choreography and he already knows what it is not just to compete but to put on a show. I think that that experience combined with his work ethic will make him a formidable competitor. I hope he wins; I hope he shows the world that you can go on TV and become famous by being good-looking or outrageous, but it takes hard work, dedication--and, yes, integrity--to become a champion.
Tags: figure skating, olympics, television
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