You may not know this because I'm pretty sure I've never mentioned it in this space before, but if I was ever addicted to anything, it was figure skating from the mid 90s to the early 00s. I got addicted during the 1994 Olympics, like a lot of people did, but not because of whole big Tonya-Nancy beatdown. Yes, there were things about that whole mess that were undeniably delicious, but the reason I personally became such a skate junkie in 1994 was this guy you see here above. His name is Elvis Stojko, he won three World Championships and two Olympic silver medals, and I've had a big whopping crush on him for about 12 years now. I once met him at a reception following an ice show in Vancouver, and he was very nice to me even though I talked his ear off and he kind of looked like he wanted to call security.
Anyway, in the years following the 94 Games, they started showing tons and tons of skating on TV during the winter. And I watched all of it. Unfortunately, most of it was pro skating, which tended to be the same 10 or so skaters "competing" against each other every weekend, skating the same programs you had already seen them skate 50 times or so. After a while, it got really boring. What was never boring was the amateur, or Olympic-eligible competitions. In these competitions, there were actual rules about what you could or couldn't do, and the skaters were young and many weren't established, and there was the actual sense that what was happening was really important. In the men's competition in particular, there seemed to be a real battle raging about choreography and the way the sport was changing. Guys like my friend Elvis were skating to music that wasn't classical, using choreography that wasn't based on ballet. They were skating to rock and to the musical scores from action movies and that kind of thing. The judges weren't always buying it, and there still seemed to be a preference for the more traditional ballet-influenced style skated to classical music, but a few skaters (Elvis, Todd Eldredge, Michael Weiss, Timothy Goebel, and the 2002 Olympic champion, Alexei Yagudin) won competitions by emphasizing the more athletic side of the sport and skating with a more masculine edge.
I haven't watched much skating in the past four years. Not because of the judging scandal in the pairs competition at the Salt Lake Games -- that made me sick, but I wasn't particularly surprised by it -- but because Elvis has retired and no one else has really caught my attention in the same way, and also because my life is a lot busier. Due to having school-age children and an actual social life, I no longer have the time or the inclination to do geeky things like spending hours every day reading and posting on the figure skating Usenet group with all the other psycho skatefans like I used to. This is a good thing. But this year, I enjoyed watching U.S. Nationals, and although I didn't really understand the new scoring system, I looked forward to seeing it and all the new young skaters in action at the Olympics.
Imagine my disappointment when the first two events, pairs and men's, went to Russians I consider mediocre at best, both earning scores that left them so far ahead of the field that everyone else was merely competing for the silver and bronze.
From what I can tell, the new judging system is ten times worse than the last one. It masks the nationalities and potential biases of the judges on the panel, and makes it possible to justify placing one skater ahead of another based on a complicated system of points.
I will admit right up front that I have always disliked Evgeny Plushenko. It's not just because he's homely, has had a series of terrible haircuts, and usually wears ugly costumes. The same arguments could be made about Elvis in his heyday, sad to say. But Plushenko's supposed "artistry" has always looked like a lot of unnattractive arm-waving to me, and I don't think a furrowed brow and lots of posing right in front of the judges adds up to intensity or passion. I've never understood how he became the next great thing in men's figure skating. I went to the 2001 World Championships, where he won his first world title, and hoped his appeal would be more evident in person. It wasn't. Nevertheless, having not seen him skate for a couple of years, I sat down to watch his winning freeskate from this past Thursday night trying to keep an open mind. He's older and I hoped his skating would have matured. He even seemed to be wearing better costumes than I've seen him wear before.
He proceeded to skate the most poorly choreographed figure skating program I've ever seen. What commentators Dick Button and Sandra Bezic said, that it wasn't really a program and that he jumped, waved his arms around, and then jumped some more, were right on. His spins were sub-par to decent, his footwork was non-existant, and nothing he did seemed to have anything to do with the music. Yeah, he jumped a lot, and maybe he landed more jumps than anyone else, but so what? Almost everyone else actually had choreography. Imagine that.
Then he walked off the ice and earned scores that put him so far ahead that none of his competitors could touch him. I will never understand this. The skater who followed him -- the Swiss guy in the odd zebra/tiger costume with the blue sleeves -- skated a great program with weirdly awesome choreography and also did the same quad-triple-double jump combination Plushenko had done, only better. He didn't land as many jumps as Plushenko did, but the rest of his program should have more than made up for that. The second- and third- ranked American skaters both laid down terrific, clean programs. Every skater in the competition should have had a shot at beating Plushenko, based on choreography alone. But apparently, this year it was all about jumps, and so Plushenko was the shoo-in.
The thing that really gets me about this situation is that, back in the 90s, Elvis was the jump guy. He was the first man to land a quad-double combination and a quad-triple combination. Every time he competed, everyone wondered if he was going to do that quad. But he was criticized for his choreography, his spins, his lack of footwork, and even the way he landed all the amazing jumps he landed (yeah, I'm bitter). He worked on those things, and put together complete programs. You didn't have to love the guy, but at least you could see that, you know, he was doing all the stuff that were supposed to make up a program. The judging in the recent Olympic men's competition would indicate to me that none of this stuff counts anymore as long as you jump a lot and are, for whatever reason, the favorite coming into the competition. Given the fact that Russian men have now won the last 5 Olympic golds, I have to think being the top-ranked Russian guy is not exactly an impediment either.
To me, the question here isn't whether Plushenko has the whole package as a skater. He might, but he didn't put it out there on the ice on Thursday night. It could be argued that he's figured out what scores big under the new system and planned his program accordingly. My question is this: is a scoring system that rewards the performance Plushenko gave on Thursday night good for the sport of figure skating? If we're going to reward the big jumps above everything else, isn't it time to dispense with the rest of it and just hold a jumping competition?
I guess I really thought that the way the sport seemed to be changing 10 years ago was going to make a difference long-term. Now I'm just sad that the changes that have been effected seem to be moving things in a direction that will only serve to hurt figure skating in the eyes of the public, causing even more people out there to watch a competition, scratch their heads and say "how is this a sport?"
I'll watch the rest of the skating this Olympics, but I'll be doing so to enjoy the performances, not to see who ends up on the medal podium.