For once things went right (2/24/10 update)

I admit it: I’m a huge sucker for figure skating.   And so I watched the Olympic men’s long program on television last night, even though I swore off the Olympics a long time ago.  Worse, I’ll probably watch ice dancing tonight! (Update: I did; see the following paragraphs.)

Mainly I watched because one of the dinosaurs had emerged: Evgeni Plushenko.  Not only had this fossil emerged, but it was talking trash, something about the quad being “the future of men’s figure skating.”

I no longer mind figure skaters not having to make the agonizing and artificial choice between amateur status (staying “Olympic eligible”) or going pro and being committed to spending the rest of their skating lives draped in feather boas and illusion fabric, sleep-skating to bad covers of the latest sappy pop songs.  The Chinese pair team Shen and Zhao are a fine example of a worthwhile emergence from retirement; they were truly the class of the pairs field in this year’s Olympics.  But too often that is not the case.  Such is as it was with Plushenko.

A bit of history before we continue:

Plushenko is not, I believe, that much older than the newly-crowned Olympic champion Evan Lysacek.  Maybe 3 years, maybe 5.  But in singles (not skating with a partner) figure skating, that is sometimes enough to indicate that an era has gone by.  And indeed it has.

Plushenko’s era was not long ago; it was the era in which judges could easily prop up the scores of skaters they wanted to see win.  It is not so easy anymore, even though it still happens too often.

But prior to 2004, and for a few years after during the adjustment period from the old 6.0 system, a skater could indeed win a competition on the strength of one jump.  In women’s skating, it was the triple-triple combination (witness the success of Tara Lipinski and Sarah Hughes, neither of whom could actually skate very well — but both of whom could land triple-triples in their sleep, and ended up winning Olympic gold medals as a result). Unfortunately for the women, that has not changed; all that has changed is that we will never again see a 14 year old even come close to becoming a World or Olympic champion in the last 5 minutes before puberty hits and puts her career on the skids — and that’s only because of a new age requirement that was born after one too many mini-kid skating stars suffered a career ending hip injury long before her 20th birthday.

In men’s skating, the big thing was the quad.  Some skaters could skate only about as gracefully as gorillas, but it did not matter because they could land quads all over the ice.  The U.S. had only one skater like this (Tim Goebel); Canada had one (Elvis Stojko); Russia had Evgeni Plushenko and a few others, including the long-forgotten Alexei Yagudin, who was the one who truly revolutionized men’s skating because he not only had quads but he could really, really skate between the quads.  His footwork has only been recently equaled by none other than the one Plushenko is today whining about — Evan Lysacek.  Alas, Yagudin’s career quickly collapsed under the weight of nagging injuries and reportedly lax training habits.

There were some from Europe and some from Southeast Asia, but none were as powerful year after year as Goebel, Stojko and Plushenko, and during the reign of the quad a lot of careers ended in jump-induced injury (which is still happening on the women’s side).

For a few years, it was enough.  But then in 2002 there was the big controversy in pair skating, where 2 couples won the gold medal.  The judges had initially given the Russians gold and the Canadians silver.  Everyone should have been happy even though the programs were clearly pretty well tied; it had long been accepted that Russians would win the pairs gold because they always did and everyone knew that.

But not this time.  The audience booed and the Canadians protested. Scandal ensued.  The IOC threatened to remove figure skating from the Winter Olympics (ha ha ha).   A judging controversy erupted.  Spying and death threats were alleged.  Headlines blared all across the globe.  Two gold medals were awarded and the silver went into the wastebasket.

Meantime, in the women’s competition, Irina Slutskaya (another Russian) went all dramatic about a “North American conspiracy” (or maybe that was the pair team that did that; memory fails) after she won only silver behind the very questionable but successful triple-jumper Sarah Hughes, with the famous, but Olympic gold medal-less Michelle Kwan landing flat on her haunches in third.  When that wasn’t enough to change the outcome, Slutskaya flew into a right hissy-fit about Kwan’s choice of music for an exhibition (non-competitive) program: Fields of Gold.  Slutskaya apparently felt threatened by the mention of the word “gold,” never mind that the song is about a dying girl’s last words to her lover.  (Note: the “Fields of Gold” failed controversy may actually have happened at Worlds…again, there’s been so much silly drama that memory fails.)

Anyway, after it all was over, the COP (Code of Points) replaced the obviously corrupt and easily manipulated old 6.0 system.  Trouble is, to this day no one can understand the damn thing; it literally drowns you in numbers.  However, probably because it’s so incredibly complicated, it’s somewhat harder to manipulate.

Plushenko got past it once, in the 2006 Olympics, and sailed to the gold medal in spite of skating like an anemic gorilla — which is something he always did.  Outside of his jumps, which were spectacular at the time, this guy actually had very little to offer in terms of skating.  He did and still does have a cool haircut, and he is a kiss-blowing ham, which apparently goes over big in Russia where he has the status of a rock star (and is also a politician).  But aside from the jumps, the rest of his programs tended to look like he was having some sort of fit.

Still do.  But it’s no matter.  He’s a Russian skater, and there’s drama, drama everywhere.  Yesterday I saw on his website a ‘shopped photo of him with a platinum medal around his neck.  No, there is no such thing, just as there is no longer an Olympic gold medal for landing one jump.

And that is the problem: while he was retired from figure skating, he apparently failed to keep up with the fact that the skating world that he had reigned over was passing from sight.  The quad was proven to be a drain in men’s skating; the COP hardly ignored it, but rewarded the overall accomplishment of a skater’s program rather than awarding a medal for one jump.  And in the end, although Plushenko didn’t do badly at this Olympics (they did manage to prop him up to the extent of a silver medal), his quad wasn’t enough to cover the fact that the rest of his skating — even his jumping nowadays — sucks.  In fact, it wasn’t in the component score  — the “artistry” that Plushenko sneers at — where Plushenko lost to Lysacek, but in technical execution (“Grade of Execution” or GOE in scoring lingo).  That is to say that Lysacek out-jumped Plushenko even without a quad.  In other words, Plushenko’s skating sucked just enough that the judges couldn’t even give him the gold by inflating his component (“artistic”) score.

Plushenko still wasn’t getting it as of this morning and is apparently complaining bitterly about Lysacek being an “ice dancer” rather than a men’s skater.  (Speaking of ice dancing, the Russian team is now whining that they deserved the gold because, you know, they have art.  Not sure what that means, but it may be something about insulting Aboriginal natives and tossing the female member of the team around by ropes attached to her costume.)

I accuse Plushenko of being a one-trick pony, and not a very good one at that.  Clearly his crystal ball is reading retro.  So where does that get us?  Nowhere, except to prove that sometimes one comeback is one too many.  He kind of reminds me of Norma Desmond.

Anyway, this competition showed me that there has been some marginal improvement in figure skating since I last looked, and that’s because someone won the men’s competition without a quad over a formerly perennially over-marked fossil with nothing more to offer than the sloppy remnants of a quad and a big mouth.

However, I have no doubt that this improvement has still not carried over to the women’s side, where the triple-triple combo still reigns.  Figure skating still has a long way to go.

And so do the Olympics, but I already covered that in another post.

(2/25/10 update: the women’s competition is now complete, and in a perfect world the results would make it even harder for Plushenko to continue to pursue his goofy assault on reason.  Once again — and this time, I admit, much to my surprise — the total package won out over a jump; in this case Yu-na Kim’s all-around shining excellence was given preference over Mao Asada’s triple-axel assault.  Mind you the triple axel, along with the triple-triple combination, has long been the holy grail in womens’ figure skating just as the quad jump has been in men’s.  But now all of a sudden, it is apparently not quite enough for gold.  I’ll wager that this fact will prove too inconvenient for Plushenko to notice.)

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