Everything old is new again…

…at least, that seems to be true in elite womens’ figure skating.

I’m in the same general age group as Dorothy Hamill.  I guess that’s why this jumped out at me: Olympic medalists Yu-na Kim (age 19) and Joannie Rochette (age 24 and competing under extremely tragic and trying circumstances) are being lauded for their “maturity” and “sophistication” while the younger Marai Nagasu, who finished in 4th, is noted for her potential only.  Currently her skating lacks refinement and emotional depth because she is, at age 16, just too young.

I remember a similar comment being made about a very young skater in the 1976 Olympics, where 19-year-old Dorothy Hamill had won the gold.  As I just mentioned, 34 years later, the same is being said about Nagasu.  This is remarkable.

Why?  Because for many of the the years in between, ladies’ skaters over the age of 18 were considered “old.”  Nobody ever said anything about immaturity when Oksana Baiul, Tara Lipinski, and Sarah Hughes won gold medals for their jumps at the Olympics.  In fact, back in those days everyone was quite busy discussing how elderly the true phenom Michelle Kwan was (actually she is, I believe, just a little bit older than Lipinski).

The howling fact was that Lipinski and Hughes weren’t very good skaters.  They weren’t just immature — goodness knows that very young skaters had won Olympic gold before — they were unskilled.  That was so obvious that it was a common topic of discussion in the local skating community; in fact, I remember overhearing a coach telling one of her promising youngsters, just after Hughes had won gold, “She (Hughes) is not a very good skater, is she?  So you see, you have to work on all parts of your skating, not just the jumps.”

That’s how far skating had fallen as of 2002.  This was just after the pair controversy erupted when two teams presented almost evenly-matched programs in the 2002 Olympics, but one was awarded gold and the other silver, much to the loud displeasure of the crowd, and media, the skaters, and it seemed just about everyone else in the world.  The clamor was so loud that the silver medal was discarded and two golds were awarded.  This invalidated the ancient 6.0 scoring system, which had finally suffered a complete meltdown at the hands of an idiot judge, and if she is to be believed, some Russian spies who were threatening to kill her.  It was this bald-faced corruption that finally forced change on the world of figure skating.

As previously mentioned, discontent with the state of skating, (mainly with the fact that in 2 of the 3 disciplines, the jumps were taking over) had been simmering locally for years.  It finally bubbled to the surface and the shortcomings of the mini-kid ladies’ Olympic champions were at last being discussed out loud.  At the time a lot of the blame was being placed on training, with many people believing that figure skating had begun its decline a decade before, when school figures were taken out of the competitive arena.  That has since turned out not to be true, although it is true that because of having to practice figures, skaters of long ago could routinely manage footwork maneuvers that many skaters of today probably don’t know and possibly couldn’t even do very well if at all.  After all, with the pressure of having to master triple and quad jumps, today’s skaters can’t afford to devote time to the minutiae of school figures.  Instead, they skate in broad strokes.

The new scoring system (heavily flawed as it may be) is what forced modern skaters to become a bit more accomplished in their overall skating in spite of the jumping pressures.  It did that by taking a tiny bit of the spotlight off the jumps — not much, enough to affect who gets a gold medal and who has to be happy with a silver.  These days, the silver seems to go to those who jump more than skate.

As I discussed a few days ago, not everyone has kept up with the changes; Evgeni Plushenko apparently failed to notice that things were slipping away from him even as the ancient (20 year old) Shizuka Arakawa won the ladies’ gold medal in the 2006 Olympics and he won the men’s.  Not that Arakawa couldn’t jump, because she definitely could.  But she was not a jumper to the exclusion of everything else.  She had that maturity and sophistication that is suddenly so valued once again these days.

And now comes Kim, who is an equally elderly 19.  But nobody has said anything about her being old.  Nobody has said anything about the 16 year old Nagasu possibly upsetting the coronation with the iron nerves of youth and a triple-triple combination.  Heck, Mao Asada couldn’t even do it with 3 triple axels.

As of right now, prime time for Olympic-eligible figure skaters is back in the old-fashioned age range: late teens to early twenties for women; early to mid-twenties for men.

As I’ve been yammering for days now, this is inconvenient news for a skater like Plushenko, who is a throwback to the bad old days.  But to me it’s refreshing.  Figure skating has now given back something for kids to strive for, instead of lauding the last 5 minutes of their prepubescent lives (in the ladies’ field) allowing them to make amazing if technically flawed jumps, or the sheer strength of youth aiding in producing 4 aerial revolutions (in the men’s field).

Long live figure skating if this continues to be the case.  It could not continue the other way.

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