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Lights and shadows at the Scandinavium
by Sonia Bianchetti
March 2008

The 2008 World Figure Skating Championships were held in Gothenburg, Sweden, in the wonderful Scandinavium. The arena was packed every day with an enthusiastic crowd and the atmosphere for the skaters could not have been better.

To attend all events was an exhausting endurance challenge. The first day we started with 53 Ladies Short Programs and ended with 20 Pairs' Free Skating. Fourteen hours in a row in the arena are a nightmare even for the most avid fan! Not to speak of the standard of these Ladies, half of whom would not even earn as many points as a Novice skater. Perhaps the ISU should start to reconsider an old idea that was strongly supported until some years ago by the Figure Skating Technical Committee, to use the European Championships and the Four Continents as qualifying events for the Worlds. It really makes no sense to have skaters coming from all over the world with coaches, team leaders, judges and federation officials just to skate 2,50 minutes and then go home.

With very few exceptions, the quality of the skating in all events was more than disappointing. Even the programs of the top skaters were filled with errors, and the judging was embarrassing, to say the least. Very sad!

In the pairs, the first place to Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany was questionable. They won the title but they were not the best in the field, in my opinion. They did not skate at their best. They were not perfect. They opened with an outstanding throw triple flip but on their second element, a triple toe-loop/triple toe-loop sequence, Savchenko had a poor landing on the first jump, and then they messed up their side-by-side triple Salchows when he fell and she put both hands down to keep from falling as well. Through their program they skated with great intensity, in perfect unison, a bit slow. Despite the two important errors, the Germans received the highest Technical Score for the event and they also were scored highest in Personal Components. This, in my opinion as well as that of many other officials and journalists, was not correct. An Easter gift to the European Champions?

Canadians Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison placed second in the free skate and third overall. They skated an excellent program, technically strong, with beautiful lifts and throws. Their only error was a break forward on the landing of throw triple Lutz for which they received GoE points of -0.50. Their program was well constructed and beautifully choreographed to the music. They were passionate and elegant on the ice while interpreting the music with expression and heart. The best for me that evening. Still they earned only the second highest technical score and only fifth in Program Components! A farce.

The women's competition was expected to be a fight between the Japanese skaters and Yu-Na Kim, winner of the Grand Prix final. But things went differently and Carolina Kostner upset the plans.

But here again the judging raised some questions.

In the short program, Yukari Nakano, from Japan, was the first of the top group to take the ice. She skated clean with all her GoEs, zero or more. She landed triple flip/double toe combination and triple Lutz. Her spins were very good, fast and well centred and, except for a level 2 straight line step sequence, all elements were called level 3 and 4. She was scored third in Technical Score but only ninth in Program Components, with component marks in the mid sixes.

The next was Mao Asada, from Japan. She hit all of her jumps easily, seeming to fly above the ice before making her rotations. Her triple flip/triple loop combination, triple Lutz and double Axel were all gorgeous although she had an edge call in the triple Lutz. Her spins and the spiral sequence were beautiful and, on the whole, she gave a lovely elegant performance.

Immediately after Asada was Carolina Kostner's turn. She led off the program with a solid triple flip/triple toe-loop combination but on her subsequent triple Lutz she stepped out of the landing. Her spins were slow and not of the best quality, while she had a very attractive step sequence. Also her transitions were very poor. Waiting for the marks, I was discussing with some skating officials whether she would deserve the second or the third place when the marks were displayed and she was given the first place. We were all just stunned! This placing was definitely wrong! Being Italian, some thought I should be happy and proud for this result, but I was not. On the contrary, I was ashamed because I strongly believe that fairness towards the athletes, whatever their nationality may be, is essential for credibility of the sport. Mao Asada should have been first. Although the difference between the two skaters was only a slim 1.12 points, the result was not correct. It was interesting to note that some of the judges of the Ladies' panel agreed that this placement was wrong. Another Easter gift to the European Champion?

In the final free, only three skaters out of 24 performed "nearly" clean programs: Sarah Meier, from Switzerland (she had a wrong take off in the triple Lutz); Yukari Nakano (whose triple Axel and triple Flip were downgraded) and Yu-Na-Kim, although she had a small mistake in the landing of the triple Salchow. The rest of the skating was more or less a disaster.

Carolina Kostner placed third in the Free Skate and ended up second overall, missing the gold medal by only 0.88 points. She started off with a nicely executed triple flip/triple toe-loop/double loop combination, but she put a hand down on the triple Lutz and had a step out of the triple flip. Then she nearly fell on a triple Salchow/double toe-loop combination. Carolina also had a hand down on the toe-loop in the double Axel/triple toe-loop combination, and was also scored slightly negative on a double Axel with an awkward landing. Even with all these errors she was only 0.01 point behind Asada in technical score and only three points behind Kim.

Mao Asada's first jump was supposed to be a triple Axel. She had landed a perfect one during the warm up. She started off her program with speed and determination but as she approached the takeoff of the planned triple Axel, she leaned back, stumbled badly, slipped off the edge and went sliding across the ice towards the barrier. Her heart just stopped, and so did the hearts of the 8000 spectators. She got up and looked astonished but she pulled herself together, and with unbelievable determination she was able to perform an outstanding program. She has beautiful step sequences and spins and she is very expressive and artistic too. The fall on the Axel, however, was not her only error in the elements. She had an edge call on the triple Lutz and a downgrade on the loop in the triple flip/triple loop combination. Asada had the second best technical score, by 0.01 point over Carolina Kostner, while in Program Components she was scored best, with a total of 60.57 points.

Yu-Na Kim won the free skating with a splendid performance. She opened with a gorgeous triple flip/triple toe-loop combination and landed a total of five triples, ending the program with a double Axel and a beautiful change foot combination spin. Her program was nearly clean. She only had a couple of minor errors: a poorly controlled landing on a triple Salchow and a singled planned triple Lutz. Her technique is pure and she moves beautifully on the ice. She is a joy to watch. In my opinion she was by far the best skater that night. Still, her marks in the components did not reflect this. Her total score was 58.56, just 0.4 ahead of Kostner and almost 1.03 less than Asada. Had she been marked correctly, although she was only fifth in the short program, she might have won the World title.

The Men's final went from tragic to sublime, all in the last group to skate. This just proves once more that there is no consistency in the performances of the competitors and that their success depends on the luck of the day.

The first skater to take the ice in the top group was Tomas Verner, the European Champion. The high point of his performance was an opening quad toe-loop on which he put his hand down—the first of seven elements with errors. In addition to the quad he landed two triple jumps, a triple Axel and a triple flip. He fell on an attempt at a second quad toe-loop, was downgraded on a triple Axel, and singled three triple jumps. A miserable performance! Still, despite all these errors which completely disrupted the program, he received for Program Components 69.92 points, the sixth highest of the Free Skate. How is it possible that he got marks in the sevens in what we can call the "artistic" part of a program—Performance/Execution, Choreography/Composition and Interpretation? With all these mistakes there was nothing left in that program. How could the judges give him 2.50 points more than Patrick Chan, from Canada, who, although with a couple of errors, skated beautifully and performed one of the most artistic programs of the night? One can only wonder what the panel of judges was watching during that performance. His free skate at the Europeans on their computer's screen, perhaps? An even bigger Easter gift to the European Champion!

Next to skate was Johnny Weir, from the US. He opened with a quad toe-loop attempt. The landing was two footed, and the jump downgraded. This was the only element in the program with a major error. He had a couple of poor landings on a triple loop and a triple Lutz, and a solo triple flip had an edge call. Johnny started slowly and looked cautious, very tense. It was only after his second triple Axel that he started to look secure and skated the second half of the program confidently. Weir has an excellent technique, he skates on deep edges and has good running edges also in landing jumps as well as between jumps in combinations. He is one of the most elegant and artistic skaters. His component marks, though, were in the mid sevens, and he was ranked only fifth best.

Weir was followed by Daisuke Takahashi, from Japan, who was third in the short, and one of the favourites for the gold. Takahashi landed an outstanding high, clean opening quad toe-loop. He then fell apart and made major errors on three jump elements. He fell on his second quad toe-loop attempt and had a near fall on one of two triple Axels. He also had a major brain seizure near the end of his program by improvising a triple Lutz/double toe- loop combination which counted as a fourth combination/sequence and was given zero points. This probably cost him the bronze medal. Despite the technical errors he skated with speed, and managed to keep the overall flow of the program. He was scored third best in Program Components. He ended up in fourth place, 1.73 points behind Weir.

Next to skate was Stephane Lambiel, from Switzerland, the 2005 and 2006 World Champion. He also made a mess of his program. Five jump elements received negative GoEs. He missed two quad toe-loop attempts, one of which was downgraded. Triple Axel, loop and flip also had major errors. This was another program where the errors disrupted the performance and yet the component marks remained in the mid to upper sevens for a total score of 75.72, the fourth best, ahead of Weir! Unbelievable.

Lambiel was then followed by Brian Joubert. Three quads were planned in the program but after landing the first one correctly, he left out the next two. On his second element he executed triple Salchow instead of a quad and he replaced a second quad toe-loop with a triple flip/triple toe-loop combination, and his final combination, planned as triple Salchow/double toe-loop/double loop, was replaced by double Axel/single toe-loop. Both the triple flips had edge calls. Brian, probably thinking that Buttle could not win without a quad, dumbed down his program to a dangerous level. His program was well skated and he was given 79.36 points in Program Components, the highest of the event. Joubert was the leader in the overall score with only Buttle left to skate, and he surely must have thought the gold medal was his as he kissed the ice at the end of his performance. But it was not going to be so.

Jeffrey Buttle, from Canada, took the ice and skated a clean program with eight triple jumps, including two triple Axels and a triple flip/triple toe-loop combination. The quality of all his elements was superb as well as that of his skating. His total element score was an extraordinary 84.29 points, more than 10 points more than Joubert, especially considering that it was achieved without a quad. Quality won over simple difficulty!!! His free program was very beautiful and appealing as well. At last a free skate that one would like to watch again and again. However in Program Components he was scored only second best, 0.58 points behind Joubert, and this is just ludicrous if not outrageous.

During the press conference following the event, Joubert expressed his disappointment at the result "because Jeffrey did the perfect combination but he didn't try a quadruple jump. The scoring system has changed so much. It is better now to do simple and clean to try something difficult."

Joubert also expressed the opinion that we need to give more points for the quads, which is correct. The scale of values of the jumps should be totally revised. Still, Buttle fully deserved to be first in the technical score due to the quality of his skating and of all his elements. Even if the ISU leadership claims that in figure skating, being a sport, difficulty must prevail over quality and artistry, it would simply be suicidal for figure skating if one single jump, as difficult as it may be, could determine the overall result.

As Jeffrey said, "Figure skating is everything. It is not just about the jumps. I definitely feel like I earned the title and I am happy. And I started skating because I watched Kurt Browning and Brian Orser. You remember the programs, not the elements. That's what I'm most passionate about." Correct, Jeffrey! And what appears very encouraging to me is that it seems that this is the prevailing philosophy also among the Canadian officials and coaches: Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison in pairs, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir in ice dancing, Joannie Rochette in ladies and, of course, Jeffrey Buttle in men are perfect examples. Definitely encouraging for our sport and a great comeback for Canada. Congratulations.

As to ice dancing, not being an expert, as is well known, I can only express an opinion as a spectator. Some programs were really outstanding, with beautiful and enjoyable skating. The one I preferred was that of the Canadians Virtue/Moir, followed by Delobel/Schoenfelder and the Italians Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali.

With the World Championships the skating season comes to the end. As a general remark I would say that it is just depressing to see all these talented skaters, some of whom are real marvels, who are unable to perform at their best because they are required to execute elements beyond their capabilities just to get the highest possible number of points.

The music is just background noise to most skaters and the multitude of restrictive boundaries kill choreography as well as the development of a personal style and creativity in a sport where such elements are essential.