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A World Without Sky
by Sonia Bianchetti
December 2007

The Grand Prix Final is the most important international competition in figure skating. Only six skaters in each category (Ladies, Men, pairs and dance) are allowed to participate, based on the best results obtained in two Grand Prix events this fall. The 2007 Grand Prix Final was assigned to Italy, the first time it was held in a country outside the Grand Prix circuit. Torino and its beautiful Palavela, the same arena where the figure skating events were held during the Olympic Games 2006, was chosen to host "the cream of the crop" of figure skating.

The announcement created great expectations among the fans and the arena was crowded at least for the ladies and pairs free skating.

The list of entries, though, did not correspond to the expectations. Some of the top world single skaters unfortunately did not qualify: World individual champions Miki Ando and Brian Joubert were out, as well as Sarah Meier, Tomas Verner and Kiira Korpi, silver and bronze medallists at the European Championships.

They all messed up their programs badly in one or both of the Grand Prix events where they competed. For the Ladies it will be the second year in a row that the reigning world champion did not qualify. Last year Kimmie Meissner did not make it.

Unfortunately there is no consistency in the performances of the competitors; their success depends on the luck of the day, rather than their capabilities. The kind of champions we were used to, who developed slowly and proved to be great year after year, championship after championship, do not exist any longer.

Now the skaters are like meteorites; they rise to the top, cross the sky once and then disappear. This is sad. The skating fans love to identify with stars shining for a long time, not winners who are mostly just lucky that day. Who would bet on a falling star?

Despite all that, the list of the skaters announced was a guarantee that we could expect some wonderful and exciting programs. And so it was!

Still, as was the case during the six previous Grand Prix Events (Skate America, Skate Canada, the Cup of China, the Trophée Bompard, the Cup of Russia and the NHK Trophy), very few programs were clean. In pairs only three short programs were clean (none in free skating); in the ladies, two in short and one in free, and in men, three in short and one in free. Pretty depressing!

On the other hand, as Jack Curtis, a well known American mathematician and figure skating judge, has demonstrated through his studies, when you have seven jump elements with an average success rate of 54% each (as was the case in the Ladies' event at the World Championships 2007) for the very best performers, your probability of a clean program is under two percent, meaning you could expect a clean program only two times in every hundred performances. That is now the standard imposed by the rules.

For the first time in many years in a major ISU international competition, in my opinion, the best event was the ladies'. Although only one free program was clean, Asada's, we saw some very artistic, well choreographed and exciting programs.

Yu-Na Kim from South Korea, coached by Brian Orser, won her third Grand Prix gold medal of the season with a passionate and precise free skate. Skating to the sound track of "Miss Saigon", Kim opened with a triple flip/triple toe-loop combination. After falling on her second jump, a triple loop, she recovered her form and performed all elements, ending her program with a double Axel and a beautiful change foot combination spin. Yu-Na, although only 17, is a mature skater; her technique is pure and she moves beautifully on the ice. She is a joy to watch.

Mao Asada, from Japan, coached by Rafael Arutunjan, moved from the 6th place in the short program to second overall, with a magnificent free program, well choreographed and pleasant to watch. Skating to "Fantaisie Impromptu" by F. Chopin, she opened with a beautiful triple Axel, followed by a triple flip/triple toe-loop combination. Her technique is pure and she is very expressive and artistic too. Her choreography is just built around the music and she skated with her heart.

Carolina Kostner, from Italy, won bronze. Carolina looked very determined on the ice although very strained. She opened with a triple flip/triple toe-loop combination followed by a triple lutz/double loop combination which gave her enough confidence to skate through her program with speed and elegance. Although she singled the flip and had a step out just on her closing double Axel, her presentation was excellent. Still not enough passion in her skating.

A very promising young marvel was Caroline Zhang, from the US. Caroline is just 14 years old, and looks like a little bird on the ice. She easily masters almost all the triple jumps, even if her technique must be improved, but what is especially impressive is her flexibility. It really seems her spine is made of soft rubber! Her layback spin is just unbelievable! Let's hope she can develop into a great skater.

In the pairs, Aljona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, from Germany, won the gold medal. They opened up with a long throw triple flip followed by a fabulous triple lutz twist lift. Although they had a small error in the triple Salchow, they skated beautifully, with great intensity, in perfect unison. In my opinion they were by far the best that evening. The American pair, McLaughlin and Brubaker, unfortunately had to withdraw because of injury.

In ice dancing, Russians Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, skating to "Masquerade Waltz", won the ice dancing title ahead of Americans Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto, who skated to a selection from Chopin. France's Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder took the bronze, dancing to music from "The Piano". Not everybody agreed on these results. As a spectator, I preferred Belbin/ Agosto, who were very elegant on the ice and whom I also credit with having chosen dignified and appropriate costumes. At least one team did!

The men's event, usually my favourite, this time was, in my opinion, the most disappointing. And not because of the skaters! Lambiel, Lysacek, Takahashi and Weir all possess the qualities and the capability to offer the best possible technical and artistic performances, each one with his own personality and style, if only they would be allowed to express themselves freely.

In Torino, only Daisuke Takahashi, from Japan, skating to "Romeo and Juliet" by P. Tchaikovski, executed a perfect and very attractive free program. He was like a feather on the ice, hitting all his jumps, including a quad toe-loop. His body and arm movements were rapid but not frenetic, as they are with some skaters. They just fit the music. A great performance.

All the other programs, although beautiful and well choreographed, were marred by falls. Today the top skaters are trying to perform elements beyond their capabilities, including really good athletes. Even worse, the elements on which they concentrate are increasingly unattractive. And still worse is that these extreme elements are turning what once were performances into lotteries with lower chances of success upon any given day. There is not a single skater whom one would call a star. What was once a dance form is now more similar to gymnastics, poorly performed. The memory of what a "free program" was is fading away.

More telling than my words are those of Lambiel and Lysacek , quoted in the Sunday, December 16 issue of the Turin "La Stampa". Lambiel, whose first place raised some questions, tried to explain the reasons why he preferred rather than taking risks insisting on a quad jump, very difficult to execute and not sufficiently rewarded, to choose jump combinations, easier to do and with higher values. He closed his interview saying that his choice "has worked, but I believe that some corrections are needed". And: "The artistic side is an important part, we have to attract the people or they will get bored and will go to see Holiday on Ice. Now, both the short and the long programs are packed with compulsory elements, there is no way to create something personal. Even if I know that I cannot influence the system, I wish that things may change next year". Lysacek added: "[The system] takes away any free creativity, but my problem is even more specific. I contest the values assigned to some jumps: the triple Axel is the most difficult, still it weighs very little, it does not reward the risk and I believe that even the public would get more excited". What more can I add? Only: ISU leaders WILL NOT ignore their appeal.