Sunday, March 29, 2009

World Figure Skating--an icon slams the scoring system

It's Sunday, the day after the fantastically talented Korean Yu-na Kim won her first world championship in record breaking fashion (207.71 points!--first woman to break 200!) and this will be the first of several posts I send discussing the current state of figure skating. As I see it, anyway.
So you were supposed to be caught short by those numbers in the opening paragraph. 207.71! First woman to break 200! What the hell's that? Who can relate to that nonsense? So next year Kim actually gets credit for her final spin, which she didn't on Saturday night, and breaks the 210 point barrier? So what? This numerical scoring system that ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta railroaded through after the judging scandal of the Salt Lake City Olympics will never pack the visceral punch of 6.0, 6.0!! That, people got. All people. Casual fans, aficionados, skaters, coaches and judges. Greatness, perfection, meant 6.0. Anything short of greatness was 5.9, 5.8, 5.7, whatever. Simple, understandable, and ultimately effective--as long as the judges didn't cheat. Skating is a subjectively judged sport. Yet this new system, in place since 2005, treats skating as if it is objectively quantifiable, like the temperature. It's not. There are guidelines to follow, of course, but the beauty and skill of figure skating is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. Cinquanta is a speedskater. Speedskaters measure winners and loser by 100ths of a second on a stopwatch. Figure skating is not, and never will be, precisely quantifiable. Yet this new system is based on the belief that it can be.
Okay, so here's the part where I introduce the icon. Inducted into the world figure skating hall of fame this weekend was two-time Czech world champion Alena Vrzanova, known to her friends as Aja (pronounced: Ay-yah). She won worlds in 1949 and 1950, and is best known for two things: 1) She's credited for being the first woman to land a double lutz in competition; 2) She was the first world champion from an Eastern bloc country to defect to the West.
Tall and brunette, she is still fit, sharp, and funny. I was lucky enough to sit with her at one of the women's practices, and asked her why there were no great women Czech skaters today. "No heroes," Aja said. "That's why there will be many great Korean and Japanese skaters coming along. They have heroes like Yu-na Kim and Mao Asada to look up to. Young girls in Czech Republic have no one to look up to."
I asked her how she got started skating. "My mother was a skier, and when I was a small girl, I was a skier. That's what I wanted to be. But then the Germans invaded and took over the mountains, so we couldn't ski anymore. My mother said, let's try skating. I hated it the first year. Hated it. But then I started to win some competitions when I was seven or eight, and then I liked it."
Vrzanova now lives in New York City and Miami, after spending years touring in the Ice Capades. I asked her how she liked the new scoring system. "Hate it! We all hate it!" She was referring to the fellow hall of famers she was seated near, a cast that included Dick Button. Her reasons were similar to those I mentioned above, plus the fact that many of the beautiful spins skaters used to do--a simple scratch spin for example--are seldom done anymore, because they don't have a high enough level of difficulty. And some of the difficult Level 4 spins, like the one where a woman holds her leg in front of her and above her head, are just plain gross. Unladylike in the extreme. Aja spoke longingly of the commonality of the 6.0 system. "When competitions used to come to my country, I would sit with the president of the Czech Republic, and he would say to me, 'Aja, let's keep score. Me against you.' And he'd take out his notepad, and write down 5.6, 5.7 after a skater, and I'd write down 5.7, 5.8, and we'd argue about who was right. Then the judges would put up their marks, and if they were different, we'd boo. And that's what everyone was doing in their heads. It was great fun. Now? Who knows? We were watching Patrick Chan's short program last night. Just beautiful. And the scores came out, and they were lower than the Frenchman's. But no one knew why. We just sat there and wondered--ex-skaters at the highest level, and we had no idea what the numbers meant. Only that Chan had been perfect, but he was in third. And if we had no idea why, imagine the ordinary spectator's confusion."
I asked her if she ever watched "Dancing With the Stars."
"All the time," Aja said. "I love it. That show totally gets it. The scores are 10, or 9, or 8. The fans understand it. They can agree or not agree. And the moves they do in those dances are very good and very difficult. It's just the scores that are simple."
So the sport of figure skating wrings its collective hands and wonders why sponsors have fled and rating numbers are down? While reality TV shows like Dancing with the Stars are ratings hits week after week, season after season? Dumb it down, people. Go back to the visceral, unique, and ultimately better 6.0 scoring system. It's part of skating's DNA.

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