On figure skating

First of all, congratulations to Evan Lysacek on bringing home the Men’s Figure Skating gold for the US!  I watched video of his and Plushenko’s performances, and it was very close.  Plushenko had some more difficult elements in his program, but Lysacek was better on the execution of the elements in his program.  The morning after, there’s a lot of chatter out there.  There’s some praise for Lysacek, his artistry, and his technical excellence, there’s a lot of outrage on behalf of sixth-place finisher Johnny Weir, and there’s some bitterness on Plushenko’s behalf, that his greater degree of athleticism (despite a flawed technical delivery) should’ve won him the gold.  Elvis Stojko, former Olympic silver medalist for Canada, posted a blistering attack on the new figure skating scoring system, claimed that figure skating is dead, and decided that hockey is now preferable to the men’s "ice dance" event.

Mind you, I’m no figure skater.  The extent of my experience on skates is, more years ago than I would like to admit, wobbling unsteadily around the perimeter of a municipal ice rink within easy reach of the wall to prevent spills.  With that disclaimer, I have to say I disagree with Mr. Stojko.  So much of figure skating anymore has been quad jump this and triple axel that.  That’s great and all; it’s wonderful to see skating athletes pushing the envelope of what’s possible on the ice.  However, this is not what figure skating has historically been about.  Before the flashy costumes, choreographed routines, and aerial acrobatics, figure skating was all about precision and technical accuracy.  Until 1968, the major focus of figure skating was the compulsory figures, which were judged by the shape and accuracy of the skater’s trace on the ice.  After 1968, the sport became steadily more focused on showmanship in the short program and free skate. 

The new scoring system used in the 2010 Games was designed to minimize subjectivity in judging, which was highlighted in the last Winter Games.  One of the pairs judges admitted to buckling to pressure to rank the Russian pair first despite a pretty clear victory by the Canadian pair.  The result was the current, more complicated, and more technical scoring system.  Difficult elements are worth more, and each element is scored on several technical criteria (jumps take off from the correct edge, spins go a certain number of full rotations, etc.).  This new system takes the sport in a direction that somewhat emphasizes technical superiority over both artistry (a la Johnny Weir) and brute athleticism.  Think of it as more archery than shotput.  If this is the intent of TPTB in figure skating, then it worked.  I think it’s a good direction for the sport, and it’s a way to rein it in a little while giving it a more focused direction.  Then again, perhaps it’s time to think about splitting the sport like Gymnastics.  Athletic gymnastics is all about the flips, jumps, vault, beam, etc., while rhythmic gymnastics is all about artistry, flexibility and dexterity.  Maybe figure skating is due for a similar split, sort of like ice dancing vs. pairs skating.  In any case, using the new scoring system, I think the best guy won last night.  Props to him.

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