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The Magic of the Olympic Games
by Sonia Bianchetti
February 2010

The 2010 Olympic Winter Games are over. These Games were seen as crucial for revitalizing the image and the popularity of the sport. But it does not seem to have happened. Figure skating used to attract millions of fans and tens of millions of dollars in rights fees from TV networks. It was the marquee that held up the whole Winter Olympics.

Not anymore. Before the start of the Games, NBC stated they could lose as much as $200 million on these Vancouver Games. According to an article in the Washington Post on February 27, 2010, NBC's ratings for the second week in Vancouver are starting to fade. Tuesday's coverage was seen by an average of 21.3 million people, compared with 25.1 million for the comparable night in Turin, Italy, four years ago, according to Nielsen ratings. It marked the second night in a row that Vancouver's viewership was down from four years ago, after it had been up every night since then. One reason may be the lack of an American favorite in women's figure skating, the Winter Olympics' marquee event. But, sadly, the main reason lays in figure skating's loss of its appeal, its beauty, its credibility; the heart of the games has been stolen from the Winter Olympics. The sport without the art doesn't sell.

I was not in Vancouver and I could only watch part of the events on TV when they were broadcast delayed. Because of the time difference, in Italy the competitions were shown live in the middle of the night. Watching the various events I experienced two opposite feelings: on one side, my distress in seeing so many talented skaters virtually falling apart, with poorly choreographed programs, scratchy skating, arms flailing all over the place without any meaning, and the usual plethora of falls. On the other, my joy and intense emotion in seeing some really outstanding programs which gave me the hope that figure skating is not dead and can still be saved. But for every Lysacek or Kim there are dozens of talented skaters who are struggling to master the system, and this is cause for great concern.

In the pairs, two historical records have been achieved: the first Olympic gold medal in figure skating for China and the first time since 1960 that a Russian or Soviet pair is not on the Olympic podium.

The Chinese, Shen and Zhao, won their gold medal with an outstanding and magnificent performance, even if they did make one mistake. She slipped down his back during one of their lifts. But they recovered immediately, and finished the program with a beautiful carry lift that covered half the ice rink. Their interpretation of Adagio in G Minor by Albinoni was really captivating.

Each movement was perfectly executed in time with the music and expressed its character, the choreography was original and well conceived and the skating soft and easy, emotional and full of passion. The fluidity, the speed with which they executed their most difficult jumps and lifts was just fantastic. She is like a butterfly flying in the air in her breathtaking throw jumps.

The crowd rose to its feet before the music even finished and gave them a well-deserved standing ovation. This is skating! And this is what the public and the audience in TV want to see.

The silver medal went to Pang and Tong (CHN). They deservedly won the free skating and jumped from fourth after the short program to second. They skated the only flawless program of the event. The fluidity, speed and difficulty of their lifts and twists were just stunning, and their throw jumps were, in my opinion, by far the best of the evening, with perfect and smooth landings. What was most impressive was the unbelievable improvement of the quality of their performance. Their interpretation of Impossible Dream was just great. The crowd gave them a standing ovation and when they finished, he bowed and kissed the ice as she skated around him full of joy.

Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany, winners of the last two world titles, dropped from second to third with a flawed free skate. They skated beautifully to Out of Africa, their new, original and well-choreographed free program. But they struggled with the side by side jumps. He fell on the double Axel. They also had problems with their combination spin.

A general comment on the pairs event: I was frustrated watching all the ladies executing the new grab-the-skate death spiral! This new feature to gain a few more points has simply destroyed the beauty, the elegance, the harmony of one of the most attractive elements in pair skating. Wasn't this a fantastic idea?

The men's event, as expected, was most exciting and spectacular, and the most controversial as well.

Evan Lysacek (USA) placed first and became the first U.S. man to win the Olympic gold medal since Brian Boitano in 1988. He skated a flawless program. He did not attempt any quadruple jump, but everything he did was technically perfect. His program was a well-balanced package and was cleverly constructed to squeeze as many points as possible from each single move. Figuring out how to win a competition involves a lot of math. This is just what the new scoring system imposes if one wants to win. Evan didn't skate with all his usual flamboyance and charisma but executed eight clean triple jumps and triple/triple jump combinations, five of which were executed in the second part of the program, which earns more points in the new scoring system. He also had good spins and intricate footwork. He definitely deserved to win.

Evgeny Plushenko (RUS) placed second and won the silver medal. Skating to Tango Amore, Evgeny started off with an excellent quadruple toe-loop/triple toe-loop combination. He was the only competitor to do such a difficult combination. For the rest of his program, though, he played safe. He executed seven triples (plus the quad), several of which had shaky and uncertain landings. It was thanks to his great experience that he did not fall. It was notable, also, that his other jump combinations consisted only of triple/double jumps. His spins weren't quite as good as Lysacek's, either, and he got fewer points for one of his step sequences. To me, Plushenko's program did not reach the level of intensity and emotion that I expected from him.

Although to be back on the Olympic podium after four years break should be considered a great accomplishment, Plushenko was not at all satisfied and felt he had been robbed of the gold medal. After the event he declared: "If Olympic champion doesn't know how to jump quad I don't know. Now it's not men's skating. Now it's dancing. That's my point."

How sad and wrong! Evgeny doesn't seem to realize that his narrow loss to Lysacek was not a repudiation of the quad, but rather the victory of the total skating program. Personally, I am very happy that Evan proved that a competitor in figure skating, or artistic skating as we call it, can win a gold medal without a quad. What was wrong in the marking of Plushenko was not the final placing but rather the marks awarded to him for the Program Components. Nothing new! He received the same total score of 82.80 as Lysacek. And this is definitely wrong. Lysacek was by far better.

I do agree with Plushenko and his coach, Alexei Mishin, that the system needs some major adjustments to reward and encourage the skaters who try more difficult elements. I do agree that the scale of values of the jumps is wrong and does not reflect their real difficulty, and there are too many incongruities such as a quad or triple jump fully rotated but landed on ones bottom getting more points than the same quad or triple properly landed but a quarter of rotation short! Many proposals on how to improve the system have been submitted to the attention of the ISU, several times. We can only hope that they will consider them and will adopt the necessary changes. The skaters and the coaches can give great contributions.

But as long as this system is there, good or bad as it may be, the skaters, the coaches and the choreographers have no other choice than follow it, even if it is a real nightmare for all of them.

Daisuke Takahashi (JPN) placed third and won the first Olympic medal in men for Japan. Skating to La Strada by Nino Rota, he performed an outstanding program. His only flaw was a fall on his opening quadruple toe-loop. His steps are fantastic, skated on deep edges at great speed and changing directions. The choreography is wonderful and he expresses the music through each movement of his body, his arms and his face. He played to the judges and the crowd. This was the program I liked best for the perfect interpretation of the music and the quality of movement. It is the type of skating that we should be encouraging for the successful future of our sport.

In Ice Dancing, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir (CND) placed first, winning an historic gold medal, becoming not only the first Canadians, but the first North American couple to take this title since Ice Dance was included into the Olympic Winter Games in 1976. Skating to the romantic Adagietto of Gustav Mahler's Symphony #5, they performed one of the most beautiful programs I can remember. They were just magic. Their skating, on deep edges, was so smooth that they seemed to float over the ice. They had great power and speed, and they executed original and innovative lifts with the same grace as ballet dancers. Even their costume reflects their style and class. Beautiful and simple: unusual in ice dancing, unfortunately. Thanks, Tessa and Scott! You gave me a moment of intense joy and emotion that is so rare in skating nowadays.

The silver medal went to Meryl Davis and Charlie White (USA). They were also incredible. Skating to the Phantom of the Opera, they performed an excellent program, skated perfectly to their music with fluidity and speed, flying across the ice in perfect unison on deep edges in the fast part and using deep edges to convey romance and lyricism in the slow portions. They were very strong in the technical elements, with beautiful and innovative lifts. The only flaw was a deduction because of a too long duration of a lift.

The bronze medal went to Oksana Domina and Maxim Shabalin (RUS). Skating to The Double Life of Veronique, they performed a rather theatrical program with difficult lifts, but the sport now requires good skating skills, power and innovation, and Domnina and Shabalin didn't quite have it. Frankly speaking, their placing is quite questionable. They placed first in the compulsory dance, but their original dance was very controversial, with dazzling, faltering moves, and they looked just terrible in those costumes with green leaves hanging out of them. To me, and not only to me, Belbin/Agosto as well as Faiella/Scali were far better.

The Ladies event was really wonderful. The final six skated excellent programs of a very high technical standard.

Yu-na Kim (KOR) was by far the best, placing first in both the short and the free with a total score of 228.56, a world record. She was so superior that the competition was for second place only. Skating to George Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F Major, Kim was insuperable in combining speed, athleticism and grace. Her jumps are of the highest technical quality, properly started at full speed and landed without any visible effort. Her spins are done with great flexibility. She was flawless till the end, seducing the audience with her expressiveness. But what makes her so captivating is her presentation, the way she uses her arms, her head and her body while skating on deep edges. She is as light as a feather. She is breathtaking on the ice, a real marvel. Yu-na is in a class of her own, on another planet, as I think of her. She had one of the greatest performances in figure skating history.

Mao Asada, skating to the Bells of Moscow by Rachmaninov, started off her free program with a beautiful triple Axel followed by a second triple Axel/double toe-loop combination. Mao was the first woman to execute a triple Axel in the Olympic Games since her compatriot Midori Ito landed one in the 1992 Olympic Games in Albertville. Mao is a great fighter because to skate immediately after Kim must have been very hard for her. She skated with good speed. Her spins and the spiral sequence were beautiful. She had a couple of flaws, though: the triple flip was downgraded, and she stumbled on the footwork into her triple toe-loop and she singled it. On the whole she gave a lovely, elegant performance.

The bronze medal went to Joannie Rochette (CND). She did not skate as well as she did in the short program. Her performance was not perfect; she two-footed and stepped out of a triple flip and had shaky landings on a couple of other jumps. But the program, skated to Samson and Delilah, was very emotional and expressive. She moves well on the ice and is very elegant. The emotional strain she must have been under with the sudden death of her mother a few days earlier must have been unbearable. Nevertheless she skated as well as she could for her mother and her country. She proved to be a unique and fantastic girl. The whole world was with her. For this she deserves the gold medal.

Mirai Nagasu (USA) placed fourth. Skating to Carmen, she executed an amazing program. She hit all her jumps at great speed as if she were flying on the ice. Her spins were the best in the event and her flexibility unique. She is a wonderful young marvel, a great hope for the future.

Of course I cannot refrain from expressing all my sadness for Carolina Kostner (ITA). There is no doubt that Carolina, the reigning European champion, is a very talented skater and she can easily execute all the elements required to be among the top skaters in the world. But what happened in Vancouver clearly showed that, unfortunately, she has not yet overcome her psychological problems. Too bad.

And now let's face the judging controversy, just what the sport needed and just what it deserves. The rules may be different now, but the controversy continues.

The prime purpose of the new and unimproved scoring system was to better quantify the various elements in a program required jumps and spins so that the famous dishonest judges would have less room to cheat. But the new system is even worse than the old one; it can be fully controlled. While with the old 6.0 system the judges sometimes propped up their favourite skaters by using the Presentation mark, now the judges do the same thing by using the five "program component" marks with the difference that now the public at home or in the arena do not see those marks but just mysterious numbers on a screen determining winners and losers. In other words, the judges now have five marks instead of one to play their games if they want, and are protected by anonymity! And the whole procedure is much more expensive. What a waste of precious energy and resources! And for what? Can we consider this an improvement? Furthermore, now only nine judges judge an event. Two are thrown out completely by random draw, so seven judges contribute to the results. Then the high and low marks are thrown out, so five marks for each element and component determine the results. An average based only on five marks has very poor statistical accuracy to base a gold medal on!

Eric Zitzewitz, professor of economics at Dartmouth College, is of the opinion that the anonymity has possibly made things worse. His analysis found that under the new system, skaters have benefited even more from having a countryman on the judging panel. On average, the home-judge advantage of the part of the score that judges influence is 20 percent higher than under the old rules, Mr. Zitzewitz said.

After eight years and millions of dollars being spent on this new scoring system, nothing has actually changed. I would say it is worse because now the audience and the fans are lost in mysterious numbers and just cannot understand what is going on and how the judges come to the result. Moreover, by emphasizing the technical aspect, the new system diminished the emphasis on artistry and grace.

In a recent interview with Jeff Lee in the Vancouver Sun, Mr. Dick Pound, IOC Member from Canada and also on the board of directors of the Vancouver 2010 Organizing Committee, declared "Figure skating remains a nightmare sport that has yet to solve the inherent problems of corruption within its judging system and I don't see much improvement. You don't know what's going through [the judges'] minds. It's so corrupt that the judging is anonymous. Any time you've got judges not having to account for the scores, that's a problem. In my respectful view, they don't have control of it yet."

Another big flaw with the new scoring system is that the crowd cannot see a quarter-turn under-rotation in jumps or a spin that is one turn short. It is getting to the point where it's ridiculous. It hurts the sport. It has become overly faultfinding, too weighted toward negativity in taking points away from skaters, too eager to reward difficult but boring technical skills over risk, creativity and originality. As I said many times, to me, what always made figure skating so special was that it was a perfect mixture between art and athletics. Now athletics definitely prevail and art is gone.

While the system still has “artistic” marks (the so-called “program components”) it cuts a performance up into so many pieces that the result often makes no sense to the audience in the arena or in TV. It is as if one were judging the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci not by the overall impression of the painting but by whether Leonardo's brush strokes or use of a color on Jesus or each of the Apostles conform to some code of painting.

Johnny Weir said to the New York Times that skating has become a math test.

Sasha Cohen said the new system forces competitors to focus on counting even while they're competing. She said that a skater's head must now be stuffed with numbers. "It takes away the individuality and a little bit of the freedom of the sport," she said. "Did I spin eight times? Did I hold my spiral six seconds? If you hold something one second less, your whole spiral sequence doesn't count and that's eight points less." In her view, bean counting has become an Olympic sport.

Katarina Witt, who won two Olympic gold medals in women's figure skating under the old scoring system, said the new one is "more accountable" but "makes the sport about (simply) collecting those points. Sometimes it is difficult then to really be emotionally involved."

Will the ISU listen?