Mary Arline (queen_of_kithia) wrote,
Mary Arline

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In which I rise up again against Quad Snobbery

There's now a Wikipedia article about the quad jump controversy from the Olympics. And I read it, even though I knew it would make me angry, and even though I don't like myself when I'm angry, tonight I'm in need of a catharsis, so it's just as well.

I find it very interesting that whenever the "Quad Snobs," as I like to call them--specifically Plushenko and Joubert--mention their desire to change the scoring system (agaaaaaaain), they always say that they think the quad should be worth more points; they never say that they think the quad should be a required element (which it currently is not). This perplexes me; if they think it's so very important, if they think it's such a travesty for a man to win an Olympic gold medal without the quad, why don't they advocate that it be a required part of the program, thus assuring that they never have to endure the indignity of watching another man take an Olympic or World Championship without the quad ever again? One possible culprit is poor translation; they were probably originally saying these things in their native languages, but I only see them in English. But what I suspect is that they don't actually want the quad to be a required element because then their competition will be forced to practice it and, consequently, will get good at it and provide more of a challenge to the Quad Snobs as I call them--the Quad Kings as they see themselves. Whereas if it's still not required but worth more points, more competitors will be tempted to try it even though they may or may not have achieved competency at it, making those who have achieved competency at it look even better by comparison, and giving them more points so they don't have to work as hard on their footwork.

Speaking of footwork, the article mentions an e-mail sent by a U.S. figure skating judge named John Inman to other judges and officials in which he quoted Plushenko saying that he didn't have transitions. While I agree that Inman's actions and intentions were ethically questionable, how stupid is Plushenko to admit, on record to the media, that he doesn't do transitions when transitions (unlike the quad, by the way) are a required element? Why would you draw attention to your weaknesses like that? Surely he's been in this sport long enough to know that once you reveal a weakness to the judges they scrutinize that weakness more than ever, so why would you openly admit to a weakness that they apparently hadn't noticed yet? Inman probably shouldn't have disseminated those comments, but on the other hand, I think that Plushenko must be held responsible for making the comments in the first place. And while, as the article pointed out, Plushenko's comments as disseminated by Inman might have hurt his program component score in the Olympic short program, they clearly had no effect on the free skate component scores, in which Plushenko and Lysacek were inexplicably tied.

Another thing that is interesting to me is that, in many of the articles on the subject they mention that Lysacek left his quad out of his programs but do not mention that it was because of an injury. Maybe they just didn't think it was important or relevant, but to me that misrepresents the issue because it makes it sound like it was a political manuever on Lysacek's part, like he was thumbing his nose at Plushenko and the quad and the progress of the sport, which is not the case at all. Another thing that is interesting is that I've never once seen anyone mention the fact that Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland replaced all of his triple axel jumps with quads due to a groin injury. A triple axel is a required element in both portions of men's competion; I'm not sure how many are required in the short program, but two are required in the long program, and one of those must be in combination. However, it's acceptable to substitute a quad jump for a triple axel because a quad is an even more complicated jump. Lambiel substituted quads for his triple axels in Vancouver, but again, this was due to injury and not as a political manuever to demonstrate the all-importance of the quad. Unfortunately for Lambiel, although he has quadruple competency, he failed to land any of his quads cleanly in Olympic competition, thus landing in fourth. Perhaps it's because, finishing out of medal contention, he was not directly involved in the controversy that Lambiel hasn't been mentioned in it, but I think it's kind of unfortunate because he is everything a figure skater should be: athletic, artistic, precise, emotional; he does the technical elements, he interprets the music, his footwork is intricate and exquisite, and his spins are incomparable. Due to his injuries, he has once again retired from competition, which is a great, profound loss to the sport because man, if he had been able to land those quads in Vancouver he would have really rubbed Plushenko's nose in it because in footwork, which is a program component, and spins, which are a technical component, he leaves Plushenko in the dust.

On the subject of media reporting, I find it quite interesting that none of the NBC coverage of the men's figure skating competition in Vancouver mentioned the fact that Plushenko left out a planned double loop in his opening jumping pass. The commentators during the Worlds Championships (broadcast by Universal Sports, which is owned by NBC) hearkened back to it quite frequently; there seemed to be consensus that the want of that double loop was the difference between silver and gold for Plushenko. Under the old scoring system, leaving out a planned jump was considered a HUGE technical error. HUGE. If a skater left out a planned jump under the 6.0 system, they'd be lucky to score over 5.0 for technical merit, and anything in the 4.0-4.9 range was a very poor score. Under the new scoring system, it's not quite so cut and dried: the skaters will face huge deductions for leaving out a required element, but if something is not required, leaving it out is not a big deal. Hmmm...I was going to say that it's apparently okay for skaters to substitute jumps under the new system, so long as they don't substitute something that's not required for something that is, because Johnny Weir had a quad planned in his Olympic free skate, but substituted a triple something instead (I forget what specifically, but it was a triple jump), which means he was taking out a non-required element (a quadruple) and replacing it with something that was required (a certain number of triple jumps are required in every program). On the other hand, he ended up getting unexpectedly low scores in the free skate, scoring nearly 5 points behind Lysacek and 3 points behind Plushenko for technical merit, so maybe the judges did hold that against him (although that doesn't explain the low component scores). In the quad controversy article, it mentions that the ISU may review and possibly revise the scoring system in favor of more technical difficulty. Whether they change that or not, they should refresh everyone's memory on how the programs are being scored and clarify how those sorts of substitutions are going to be scored.

It probably goes without saying, but I'm against another revision of the scoring system to favor more technical difficulty (for lack of a better term). Two-time Olympic silver medalist and original Quad Snob Elvis Stojko says that more difficult jumps will bring in more spectators. I disagree entirely. People who don't watch figure skating now will not start watching it if the jumps get more difficult (although they might start watching it if there's ongoing controversy about the difficulty of the jumps, so maybe all this whining is a calculated manipulative manuever on the part of the Quad Snobs to fabricate controversy and thus draw in more spectators). If the artistic aspect, the program components, get sacrificed in favor of more complicated jumps in greater number, it will alienate the devoted, long-term fans of the sport (such as myself). Those spectators will stop watching, new spectators will not start watching, and so all you boys will all be jumping around in near-empty stadiums for yourselves. Is that what you want, Stojko? Is that progress? Is it worth pushing the envelope if no one's around to see it?

Here's my opinion on the subject: Jumps are neat, but if they aren't a part of a well-choreographed, coherent, and interpretive program, they aren't that interesting. The most memorable, transcendent figure skating performances are those in which the skater(s) connected emotionally to both the audience and the music. Or to put it another way, the most memorable, transcendent figure skating performances are those in which the skater(s) created an interpretive bridge between the audience and the music. I think a lot of people, expert and amateur alike, underestimate the importance of music in a figure skating program. I honestly believe that Plushenko's choice of music in his 2006 Olympic free skate did as much to help him win gold as anything that he did on the ice. The music was from the score of The Godfather, and it was so powerful, so energetic, so dramatic and so emotional that I think most people, myself included, were tricked ("bamboozled," as Dick Button put it) into thinking that we'd seen more than we actually had. (I think perhaps it also helps that his short-and-sassy Dorothy Hamill haircut in 2006 made his programs prettier to watch.) Not only was the music so powerful in itself, but it was a well-known piece of music, connected to a well-known and well-loved film, which I think might have swayed some people, possibly including the judges. Plushenko's programs in Vancouver were much stronger artistically than his programs in Torino, but his music was less well-known and possibly less powerful (particularly in the free skate). Incidentally, I recently read another very interesting, detailed, and thought-provoking article critiquing Plushenko's artistic vision. It's a lengthy, in-depth and somewhat dense analysis; I think it suffered somewhat from the translation and it's kind of hard to follow without a prior knowledge of Russian (pop) culture, but I found it to be a worthwhile read.

Time and time again the issue behind the whole controversy is framed as a dilemma of athleticism versus artistry. I've said it before and I'll say it again: this is a false dilemma. It has nothing to do with athleticism versus artistry; it has everything--EVERYTHING--to do with precision, or a lack thereof. Plushenko is undeniably a strong skater, a powerful skater, a talented skater but what he is not--and probably never will be--is a precise skater. I've criticized the precision of his jumps and technical elements before, so now I'm going to criticize the precision of his program components. His choreography never seems to change much from program to program, his choreography from program to program is basically variations on a pre-established pattern regardless of the music. Generalized, recycled choreography is not interpretation of a specific piece of music; therefore, it is not precise. Daisuke Takahashi's choreography in his Olympic free skate was a literal, concrete interpretation (almost a pantomime), Evan Lysacek's choreography was an abstract interpretation, but what they both had that Plushenko lacked was a sense of coherence; in both cases everything in the program seemed to be of a piece, tonally related, and distinct from the short program. I think that's important; your two programs can be tonally similar and thematically related, but the choreography for each should be distinct.

Tone is another thing that holds Plushenko back; all of his programs seem to be of a similar tone: dark and dramatic. Lysacek's programs in Vancouver were also dark and dramatic, but his "Rhapsody in Blue" program, with which he won the 2009 World Championships, was light-hearted in tone. This shows that he has more range but, unless you do two tonally different programs in one competition, that range doesn't factor into the judges' scoring in any given competition. Nevertheless, I do think that the lack of tonal variation has stunted Plushenko's growth as a skater.

Another problem with Plushenko's choreography is that 60-80% of it seems to be arm movements. That's not necessarily a bad thing from an interpretive standpoint, but it is a bad thing if you're being judged specifically on your skating skills, i.e. footwork, which is another program component. I really want to show an example of what the footwork sequences are supposed to look like: Here is Stephane Lambiel's short program from the European Championships, in which he ultimately placed second to Plushenko. The difference in quality between his footwork and Plushenko's really shows up well in this program because he is skating to the William Tell Overture. Notice how intricate his footwork is, how precisely it is timed to the music. He is moving his arms, but his arms aren't doing anywhere near as much work as his feet and legs are.

Now watch Plushenko's short program from European Championships. Pay attention to his footwork sequences; notice that his arms are moving at about the same rate as his legs and feet; whether intended or not, the frenetic motion of his arms draws the eye away from the feet. I do believe that it's intentional; I believe that he's delibrately trying to distract the judges from his feet, and apparently this sleight of hand works because those European judges only judged him 0.55 points behind Lambiel in the program components (who finished fifth in the short program because he fell on his quad).

I mentioned Lambiel's timing, which brings me to another criticism of Plushenko's choreography in general, though it doesn't really apply specifically to his performance in Vancouver: generally speaking, his choreography is not well timed with the music. He has a couple of arm movements (of course) that are Mickey-Moused to specific licks in the music, but if you watch and compare his performances throughout the season, as I have done, you notice it's never quite the same program twice. The lack of timing is particularly evident in his free skate at Europeans; at several points in the program he just stops, and sometimes it feels like he's just making stuff up as he goes along which, I need hardly point out, is not precise. In both his short program and his free skate at Europeans he seemed to finish before the music did, so he just stood there and flirted with the audience. There's a deduction if you finish after the music, but I don't know if there is a deduction for finishing before the music. I don't think there is, but I think maybe there should be, because that is not precise. To be fair, ideally previous performances should not come into play when judging the current performance, and I will say in his favor that his Olympic programs were much cleaner in that regard than the other programs I've seen from this season.

Maybe this is my emotion talking, maybe my love for Evan Lysacek is clouding my vision and objectivity, but the more I watch and think about it and analyze it, I'm increasingly shocked that Plushenko has had as much success as he has under the new scoring system. I've been shocked the whole time that he's been as vocal as he has about the results in Vancouver considering that he already had one Olympic gold medal under his belt, but I'm now at a loss to understand how he won the first one. At any rate, even Irina Rodnina, Russian Olympic champion in pairs skating, asserts that the Vancouver results were fair under the current rules.

However, as we have seen, rules can be changed. If the ISU revises the rules next month to favor more technical difficulty, we will all have to accept those changes. If not, however, then the Quad Snobs will just have to abide by the current rules, and if they don't like it, they don't have to compete. Whatever the ISU decides next month, I just hope it will maintain the importance of precision in the sport, because that's the one thing that has remained constant throughout its entire evolution.
Tags: figure skating, idiocy
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