The Ice Queen Vanisheth

I’m a figure skating freak, have been since I was a kid. So here’s my figure skating commentary. Love it or…too bad.

I watched USFSA Nationals last week for the first time in a few years. It used to be that in figure skating, if the sport was well between Olympics, you could recognize at least half the names on the competitive roster at any event. This was always true at the second-to-last Nationals before the next Olympics, and especially true at the last Nationals before the Olympics, (which will take place next year).

No matter what the year, there always seemed to be one or two perennials — old campaigners who had been around longer than 2 years, and usually kept either winning or running-up to the perennial winner. And then there was the upstart, sometimes as young as 11, threatening to upset everything with a triple-triple combination.

But at this second-to-last Nationals before the Olympics, none of this happened.

I should explain first that like ballet, Figure Skating is Woman. In the U.S., the competitions are really all about the Championship Ladies event. If the U.S. is weak in any other field — Championship Men’s, Pairs, or Ice Dance, it’s no big deal. But if the Ladies are weak, then the whole sport, according to the media, is going down the poop shoot never to return. Right now the Ladies are at an historic low. Possibly there’s been no time since the first few years after the 1961 plane crash that the U.S. has been so entirely devoid of even one female figure skating star.
It’s so bad that, while watching the 2009 Nationals, I felt like I was waking up after a 100 year sleep. There were no names that were terribly familiar except for that perennial also-ran Bebe Liang, who has the distinction of having competed in Senior (a.k.a. Championship) Ladies for approximately 100 years even though she’s only about 20.

I could name two of the three girls who ended up on the Senior Ladies’ podium, but honestly, this was the first time I’d seen either of them skate. Both are perfectly competent. One has artistry and the other has athleticism, but neither has the “x-factor.” They just aren’t stars. There was one other girl who was the Ladies’ champion last year — Mirai Nagasu. She finished off the podium, but actually did provide a flash of the old human-interest element that has, until now, always been strong in figure skating in the U.S. But it was only for a moment, and then she disappeared just like her tears did during her freeskate and we were back to watching Hoosit, Whatsit and WhytheHellIsIt.

It’s hard to put a finger on what happened, because the girls who ended up on the podium are lovely kids and excellent skaters by any measure. But they aren’t great. They don’t have the ability to make you cry like Michelle Kwan, or make you gasp like Sasha Cohen. You don’t want to know what is going on beneath the hairdo like you did with Dorothy Hamill. In fact, Hamill was in the crowd, as was Brian Boitano, and Elaine Zayak was coaching. I kept thinking about how sad it was when the most interesting skaters at the competition were sitting in the stands and in the coaches’ box.

I’ve read a few articles that claimed that the new scoring system is conspiring against the current U.S. ladies, who have always been more artistic than athletic. Hogwash. Actually, for years the U.S. ladies’ artistry has been brutally criticized, especially by European judges. I remember Dorothy Hamill being derided as “too athletic; unfeminine,” and she was far from the only one who received that kind of criticism. It has continued almost to this day; in fact, a few years back I seem to remember having heard speculation that U.S. skaters would suffer under the new scoring system because so much value would be placed on what used to be called “presentation” — which is the exact opposite of the nonsense the experts are spewing out now.

There’s also been some hint that the U.S. women are too old (as in, they’re past puberty) and can’t jump. Again, this is nonsense. It was nonsense even in the days of the 6.0 scoring system. Think about it: the U.S. men, save for one, have not been especially famous for doing quad jumps. Part of the glory of the new scoring system was supposed to be that it would bring to attention skaters who were not necessarily known as jumpers — and this did happen in the men’s division. But prior to that, the rest of the world had been quad jumping all over the place for the better part of a decade. Does this mean the U.S. men are too old? Why do we never hear that argument from the lousy pedophiles who keep making that argument about the women?

Again, this new scoring system was initially put in place partially to deemphasize the jumps. Too many skaters under the old 6.0 system were doing nothing but crossovers between jumps, punctuated by a few anemic spins. Remember all the grumbling about Tim Goebel — the Quad King who couldn’t skate? How about Tara Lipinski and Sarah Hughes, the triple-triple jump specialists who didn’t seem to know one edge of a blade from another? (Oh, by the way, they were also both very, very young when they won the Olympics.)

The new scoring system was also put in place because the quality of the jumping of very young skaters often sucks. (Again, think of Lipinski and Hughes.) Under the 6.0 system, an underrotated jump could and would be ignored if the judges liked the skater enough, as could taking off from the wrong edge. This new system leaves little room for that kind of fudging; if you started your triple Lutz facing forward on your inside edge and ended it facing sideways or backwards, you underrotated a flutz and you will get marked down accordingly. Period. Interesting that these baby jumpers tend to do that quite frequently, and the older girls, who supposedly cannot jump anymore, do not do that frequently.

There have also been some claims that younger skaters spin better than older ones. Since when? That’s so totally bizarre that it’s not even worth discussing at length.

To make a long rant short, I don’t like the new scoring system very much, but we got rid of the old one because it sucked even worse than this one does. There’s no use bringing it back. It won’t help any U.S. skater bring the title of Ice Queen back home with her.

It is possible that once again putting up a barrier between Olympic-eligible and professional skating would help the situation a bit. It would force skaters to make a choice to keep in serious competitive shape, or leave it all behind forever in favor of slow ballads, feather boas and excessive illusion fabric. The trouble is, once they go over to the pro’s they seldom make it back. However, the idea that they can come and go as they please is still there, and I believe it cuts into their dedication a bit. Then again, that only applies to the top names, and we don’t have any right now in the women’s field.

What will really take care of the problem is time. Among young kids, fashions come and go. Figure skating is wildly out of fashion with young girls at the moment. There has to be a breakthrough, genuinely interesting skater who will draw the girls back into the rinks in figure skates, rather than hockey skates, again. She will come along eventually.

She’s not there now, though, so unless there’s a miracle girl who streaks to the top in the next year, we can probably call this Olympics off as far as Championship Ladies is concerned. But the men are interesting; there are three or four who are actually true, international-quality skaters. That’s more than we’ve had in years. And we do have one good ice dance team. Pairs…well, we do have one good ice dance team.

Meantime, let’s forget the bullshit about the new scoring system and all the pedophile longing for the good old days of prepubescent skaters. The days of supposed 6.0 perfection never were (or else we would still have that system), and the only thing those little jumpers ended up with were new plastic hips for their 20th birthdays.

So don’t panic. The girl we need is out there somewhere. Maybe she just learned to walk last week, or maybe she’s slugging it out at the Juvenile, Intermediate, Novice, or Junior level. In time we will know her name, and these barren days will be forgotten. In the meantime, if all these commentators would just stop being stupid long enough to allow us to watch the skating without getting a headache, it would be lovely.

An aside to Scott Hamilton: I skate like a tall person. Get over it.

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