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Lights and Shadows in Paris
by Sonia Bianchetti
October 2009

The Trophee Eric Bompard, held in Paris on October 15 and 16, opened the Olympic figure skating season. It is the first of the six Grand Prix events that will lead to Vancouver 2010.

This is a crucial year for revitalising the image and the popularity of the sport. If this is not achieved with the Olympic Games, I am afraid we will have missed our last and only opportunity.

The list of the skaters named by the ISU to take part in the Troph Eric Bompard was exciting. It included most of the skaters who, at least on paper, might claim a medal at the next Olympic Games: in Ladies, reigning world champion Yu-Na Kim, the legendary Mao Asada, Carolina Kostner and Kiira Korpi. In Men, Brian Joubert, Thomas Verner and Nobunari Oda. In Pairs, three-time world champions Savchenko/Szolkowy, Dube/Davison, and Muchortova/Trankov, and in Ice Dancing, Virtue/Moir and Pechalat/Bouzard.

It looked like the dress rehearsal before the big show in Vancouver.

But if the skating in Paris is an indicator, I am afraid that we will all be disappointed. Granted, the middle of October is early in the skating season, and the competitors may have not reached their best condition. Yet what we saw in Paris cannot be explained away just with early timing.

Except for the top three finishers in men, ladies and pairs, which were really outstanding, the rest of the skating was simply depressing, in both the short and free programs. But what was even more depressing and worrisome was the poor quality of skating and the total lack of choreography and musicality.

The love has been squeezed out of the sport.

In Paris, I experienced two opposing feelings: on one side, my distress in seeing many talented top world skaters virtually falling apart both in short and free skating (only five free programs out of 30 in singles and pairs were clean, and many were marred with big falls!), and on the other, my joy in seeing some really outstanding programs which made my trip to Paris worthwhile.

The women's competition was the most exciting; it was a fight just between the Japanese skaters and Yu-Na Kim.

Yu-Na Kim, coached by Brian Orser, was by far the best, placing first both in short and free. Skating to George Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F. Major, Kim was invincible in combining speed, athleticism and grace. She started her free program with a perfect triple Lutz-triple toe-loop combination, and, except for a triple flip at the beginning of her program that she omitted completely, she was flawless till the end while seducing the audience with her expressiveness.

Her jumps are of the highest technical quality, properly started and landed, without any visible effort. She is as light as a feather.

What is even more important for me is the way she uses her arms, her head and her body while skating on deep edges.

She is in a class of her own, on another planet. She is breathtaking on the ice. A real marvel.

She surely is a natural talent, but, in my opinion, great credit must be given as well to her coach, Brian Orser, who is able to find the correct balance between the IJS requirements to get points and the needs of a sport that must be artistic and must transmit emotions to the public and the television audience.

If a program gives you an emotion, it is a good program; if it doesn't, it is not.

The second best program was Mao Asada's, coached by the legendary Tatiana Tarasova. Mao had placed third in the short program, having singled her triple Axel/double toe-loop combination. Skating to "Bells of Moscow" by Rachmaninov, the 2008 world champion started off her free program with a beautiful triple Axel/double toe-loop combination, but stepped out of a downgraded second triple Axel that was also downgraded, as was the triple loop, and she fell on a double Axel towards the end of the program.

Third was Yukari Nakano of Japan, who skated to Stravinski's "Firebird".

Yukari opened up with a well executed double Axel/double Axel sequence, followed by a triple Flip/double toe-loop combination. Her triple Lutz as well as her triple Salchow were poorly landed and downgraded.

It is interesting to note the abyss between Kim's total score and the total scores of Mao (36.00 points); the best placed American skater, Caroline Zhang (56.88 points); and the best placed European skater, Carolina Kostner (62.40 points). Will anyone come even close to Kim in Vancouver?

In the men, Nobunari Oda, coached by Nikolai Morozov, skated a clean program to an entertaining Charlie Chaplin medley. He performed a triple Axel/triple toe-loop combination and six more triple jumps. He chose not to do the planned quad toe-loop, and probably it was a wise decision.

Second placed Tomas Verner of the Czech Republic, coached by Huth, skated to "The Godfather" by Nino Rota. Verner started off with a perfect quadruple/triple toe-loop combination followed by five clean triples, including two triple Axels, but he doubled a Lutz and a loop in the second half of the program.

Both his short and free programs are very well choreographed. I was particularly impressed by his elegance, by the way he moves on the ice, feeling and expressing the music. An excellent performance.

Third placed Adam Rippon, USA, coached by Brian Orser, skated to a "Concerto for violin and orchestra" by Samuel Barber. Adam completed a triple flip/triple toe-loop combination and four more clean triple jumps. He seemed to have problems with the triple Axels. He stepped out both of them.

But his program was very pleasant to look at. Good steps and step sequences. I very much appreciated the moderate and appropriate use of his arms and hands. He definitely is a promising young skater.

In pairs, a real shock was the free skating of the reigning World Champions, Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy. After an excellent performance in the short program, where they placed first, in free skating they ran into trouble right at the beginning of their program. Aliona fell in the spiral sequence and in the death spiral and singled the final throw triple Salchow, while Robin fell down on the side by side triple Salchow. Definitely a bad day! They still ended up third in the final.

A lot of discussion was raised by the fact that in the short program, skated to "Send in the Clowns", they both had their faces painted in white, to simulate a clown masque. In my opinion, as well as that of many others, this was not the best idea. Figure skating is and must remain a sport and this masquerade is definitely not necessary. Their costumes alone are enough to reflect the character of the music.

First place deservedly went to Mukhortova/Trankov, from Russia.

Skating to the sound track of Love Story, they performed a flawless program highlighted by breathtaking throw triple jumps, high triple twist jumps, a side by side triple toe-loop/triple toe-loop sequence, an excellent death spiral, beautiful and very difficult lifts and spins. Besides all these difficult technical elements, impressive was their elegance, their beauty on the ice. Even their costumes this year are of great taste and class.

I did love this pair. Congratulations to their coach, Oleg Vassiliev.

Second place went to the Canadian pair, Dube/Davison. Skating to the music from the movie The Way We Were, they showed interesting and original lifts with many changes of positions from Jessica. Unfortunately, they made many mistakes: she two-footed the throw triple Lutz and touched down with her free hand on the throw triple loop.

I will not comment on ice dancing because, as is well known, I am not expert in this discipline. However, I cannot refrain from expressing my admiration of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir for their unforgettable performance.

Skating to the Adagietto from Gustav Mahler's Fifth Symphony, they showed a beautiful, flowing and romantic performance, capable of stirring up a real artistic emotion, so rare these days. Thank you, Tessa and Scott!

I may be too old and old-fashioned, and perhaps I expect something that the skaters can no longer offer, but this is what I believe figure skating at the top level should generate: an artistic emotion.

And now let's take a few moments to consider the sad side of this Grand Prix, the poor performances by the majority of the skaters present in Paris.

Most of them possess the talent and the technical capabilities to perform good programs, and could be good from an artistic point of view, as well. Why, then, such a disaster? What prevents them from standing up and skating?

The answer you get from the coaches is always the same. The programs are too demanding; the spins and the step sequences, with all the "features" required to get high levels, are especially exhausting. In order to gain points, the artistry has completely vanished. No time for the choreography.

We have heard this hundreds of times. It is useless to discuss it at length again.

What we cannot ignore, though, is that we are no longer seeing the skaters' passion, the skaters' joy during their performances; we are only seeing skaters suffering and struggling to get to the end of overly demanding programs. What a relief when the music stops!

Is this figure skating? In a program I want to see passion, I want to see the joy of the skater, his feeling for the music, his personality. A skater must be fascinating, captivating and appealing for his art. A real champion is beautiful to look at because he is elegant, because he is harmonious and expressive, intense and communicative.

If a program does not reach the heart of the spectators, in my opinion, it is not a good program. It may be technically well executed, and perhaps the fact that figure skating has been turned from a beautiful and artistic sport into a difficult, unattractive one is considered satisfactory by some people, but if the emotion it gives you is as intense as that provided by the Zamboni, I am afraid something is wrong. Is this what the world is looking for?

The ISU had a unique opportunity this year to review the IJS and develop a series of proposals to be considered by the 2010 Congress, to be effective after the Olympics.

As a matter of fact, a review committee chaired by ISU Vice President David Dore was announced after the World Championships in Los Angeles.

The news created great expectations in the skating world until the composition of this Working Group was officially announced. Rather than including some world top coaches and a wide range of experts within the skating community, as one might have hoped for, the Working Group was limited to the key players in the day-to-day development of IJS since the beginning.

Alongside David Dore on this committee are: Peter Krick, ISU Sport Director; Ted Barton; Alexander Lakernik, the chair of the ISU Figure Skating Technical Committee; and Robert Horen and Joanne Shaw, members of the Ice Dance and Synchronized Skating Technical Committees, respectively.

Nobody can question their competence, but it is hard to believe that they will be able or "allowed" to really review the system.

At best, we can expect a few minor changes here and there, just a facade rather than a comprehensive review of the system, including the mathematics.

Yes, because, like it or not, the IJS is a measurement system for skating, and what has been missing is an expert creating a realistic, practical, easy to use, working measurement system.

We will very likely continue to have the same mathematical aberrations such as the fact that a poorly executed quadruple jump gets more points than a well executed triple, which is unfair and wrong. Or, for a triple toe loop, where -3 takes away 75% of the base points and +3 adds 75 % of the base points. But for quad toe loop, however, -3 takes away only 49% of the base points and +3 adds only 31% of the base points. Does this make sense? And these are just two examples. But perhaps even a review of the mathematics is considered too complicated and dangerous for the ISU experts.

Good luck to figure skating!