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.

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.)

Giving it all for nothing

I am, of course, deeply saddened and troubled by a sense of meaninglessness in the death of young man in a luge practice-run crash just before the opening of the Vancouver Olympics.  The loss of a young life is always double the tragedy.  Any loss that meaningless makes it almost unbearable to think about.

And yes, I believe it is all meaningless.  The Olympics are nothing more than a corporate picnic nowadays, at the expense of the taxpayer.

Because of this, the fact that Chicago lost the Olympics in the first round of voting is something I consider a blessing.  We are already struggling to make ends meet in this area; the Olympics would have sent us over the edge into bankruptcy.  Plus, we would have lost the public use of our lakefront — perhaps permanently — and would have had to pay taxes for that dubious privilege.

Which is to say that a lot of people around here didn’t want the games, just like many folks in Vancouver didn’t want this Winter Olympics, but we were being railroaded by an arrogant bunch of politicians and their corporate buddies.  It was tyranny and oligarchy at its best, until the IOC put an abrupt halt to it.  Not that I love the IOC so much, but for this small favor I thank them.

I believe that the Olympics have become an extravagant burden not only on the general public, but also on the sports that are represented there.  Figure skating comes to mind.

Why figure skating?  Because it’s a niche sport.  That’s a shame because those of us who have actually been skaters in the past know that it’s also an extremely difficult and worthwhile sport.  (I was an adult figure skater, but am no longer because of back problems that were not caused by skating, but by my job.)  The Olympics do this sport no favors whatsoever.  They pick on its fluffiest aspects and use those for the public to see.  The end result is that the Olympics make figure skating seem dumber and funnier and even easier than most people probably think it is already.  And that is a disservice.

As an example, Johnny Weird…no wait, is it Weir…comes to mind.  He’s a U.S. men’s skater who is no gold-medal contender, but was sent to the Olympics probably only for the publicity the USFSA knew would follow (yes, they had a choice in this matter even though he did well at USFSA Nationals).  And so it has.  Right now the Lady Gaga of figure skating is receiving death threats because he has real fox fur on his skating costume.  What?  No pearls glued to his face?

And oh, he’s rooming with the pretty ice dancer Tanith Belbin.  Nothing to see here; I’m sure almost everyone knows that there is no chance of a Winter-Olympics romance, although I’m equally sure that eventually Weir will face something like a paternity suit from some gay-blind fan who insists she was once his girlfriend.

Johnny got the part of the suite with the bathtub, mind you.  Oh, the FLUFF!

Before we go further, get off your high horse.  I am not criticizing Weir because he is gay.  If that were true, I’d be mad at half the athletes in the world of sports — and anyway, “gay” does not equal excessive personal ornamentation any more than “straight” excludes it.  No, what I am protesting here is the effect of excessive froufrou — and the type of publicity it generates — on figure skating.

I say put the skaters in team uniforms and the judges in straitjackets.  This attacks a basic problem with figure skating’s image in the last 25 years or so: the costumes have been getting worse and worse as the judging has been clearly shown to be outright corrupt.

Weir’s fox-fur contraption is just the far end of horrible — it makes him look like he’s in a Mardi Gras parade, for crying out loud, and not performing an Olympic sport where one’s athleticism is what is on display first and foremost (supposedly).  Team uniforms would take away the opportunity for a monumental in-your-face mistake like that.  They would make figure skating look like the actual sport it is, as would fair judging (although I don’t have an answer for that one).

Obviously figure skating isn’t the only sport with image problems, although it likely has the worst.  The Olympics have done damage to countless other niche sports as well, most recently showing the sports’ injury problems up close and personal to the whole world without an answer as to why anyone would subject him or herself to such danger for a dinky little medal.  Or in the case of figure skating, why would anyone get a medal for looking so stupid.

No, I don’t get it.  What I do get is that we have nothing here but a monumental waste of money at a time when the world is short of it.  The Olympics accomplish nothing.  And I haven’t heard any excuse for that at all, let alone a good one.


Blagojevich and reality.  Ah, such a reality gap.

Every time he steps in the public eye lately, I see the unreality dripping from his every pore.    Think of it:

Impeachment…..Media Tour

Indictment…..Disney World

Arraignment…..Reality Show?

Yep, you read the last one right.  The ex-Gov is now looking to star on a reality show, with Nancy Kerrigan.  You know, the ice skater who got whacked in the knee back in 1994 by the buddies of that other ice skater — you know, the one who was a trailer park queen and has since taken up a career in wrestling.

Oh, how far ice skating has fallen.  But for Blags, such a venture seems pretty much on the level with the rest of his career.  He has no idea how a politician should even appear to behave.  Then again, how does that differentiate him from many members of the Republican Party and their followers, as witnessed in yesterday’s “tea parties?” 

Yikes — more reality gap.  Blags is a Democrat.

Unfortunately for us reality-gap fans, his new venture into “reality” may be met with actual reality.  You see, the show is being shot in Costa Rica, and Blags’ passport has been taken away.  It’s up to a judge to decide whether Blags can debase himself further, even in the pursuit of a paycheck, and at this point whether that will happen is a very iffy prospect.

Oh, by the way…I forgot.  Blags is writing a book, too.  Good thing, because it’s supposed to be a tell-all, which interests me because the ex-Gov keeps insisting that there is nothing to tell because he is innocent.  I’m looking forward to seeing that one get straightened out.

Trouble is, he didn’t get much of an advance for the book.  Boo Hoo. 

And so it’s come to this.  A reality show.  Our public figures, our politicians, our leaders have become something on a level with the guests on Jerry Springer (who, ironically, used to be a politician).

I can’t even say that reality has been turned upside down anymore, because these days, it seems like there is none.  I don’t cry for the politicians, though.  I cry for the rest of us.  But I can’t tell if the tears are out of genuine sadness, or just happen because I am laughing so hard.

Oh, the reality gap of it all.

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.

Is she or isn’t she? Who really cares?

I love Olympic gymnastics as much as I love Olympic figure skating. I watch both sports intently exactly one week every four years. Otherwise there’s just too much obscure nonsense for me to cope with, especially in figure skating. Pretty rough stuff for me to say, because I used to be an Adult-level figure skater.

One of the many similarities between the two sports is ever-present controversy. In figure skating, you can’t have a competition without it. I’ve even seen bruh-ha-ha’s in local ISIA events, for crying out loud — these are the “open” events where anyone who can stand in skates is welcome and there’s nothing more to win than a cheap trophy made of mystery metal. The 2002 double-gold incident in the Olympic pairs event was nothing new to me. You step on an ordinary skating rink during a freestyle (figure skating practice session) any day of the week and there’s always something like that going on, albeit usually well beneath the surface.

I suspect most sports have their bitchy angles like that because the thing is, sports are silly.


But there are less-silly issues at play here. For instance, a similarity particular to the women’s division of both gymnastics and figure skating is the persistent wishful thinking that a female can only be an athlete before she visibly becomes a woman.

During the 1990’s in figure skating, it was increasingly believed that any girl over the typical age of puberty was probably too old to skate in the Olympics because her breasts and hips would hamper her rotation in those all-important triple jumps. The moment that questionable theory took hold, the mad rush was on to promote younger and younger girls to the Senior and then hopefully the international elite ranks, trying to beat the clock on puberty putting an end to the their triple hopping skills.

Around the same time a competing theory, stating that the real type of athlete needed was an older girl with huge muscular thighs, quietly disappeared. It hasn’t been heard of since, probably because delicate skating dresses can look rather silly draped over bulging muscles. One famous skater (who was also a great jumper) actually did have thunder thighs and took to wearing longer skirts; finally she became so beloved that seemingly just for her, the sport dropped its mandate that female skaters wear skirts.

However, skirts on females remain the norm in singles and pair skating and the sport’s ruling body continues, to this day, to try to extract multiple triple and even quad jumps out of bird-boned teenagers who look lovely in those little dresses. It continues to work only until the girls grow up and/or start suffering horrifying injuries. One has to be 16 these days to be an Olympic skater, but sometimes even being 16 doesn’t help your hips stay together if there isn’t enough tough meat on the joints to protect them.

The fact is that triple and quad jumps are thrilling to watch on television and also are extremely difficult — and are absolutely required at the elite level. But figure skating has never been specifically about jumping, and has suffered in quality during eras when jumping was emphasized above all else. It’s an intricate sport that takes at least a decade to master, and some of the little girls who soared to the top during the prepubescents-rule era probably had only just started to walk ten years before. As a result, what we got in the 1990’s was a succession of tiny jumpers who couldn’t actually skate. Yes they could do triple hops, but they had no idea of any of the more difficult concepts that not only make figure skating a lovely sport, but a relatively safe one as well. For example, it takes most skaters (even elite skaters) years to figure out why their blades have two edges.

The scariest part of this was that one could include correct jumping technique on the long list of concepts the triple hoppers were ignorant of. Their triple hopping relied entirely on the fact that they were tiny things being whirled around by big heavy skates. Even worse than that, their bodies were not ready for the g-forces one encouters in landing a multi-rotational jump, let alone landing thousands of them. Yet they were touted as the best athletes in the sport rather than the babies-on-carnival-rides they actually were.

And then they started getting hurt.

While we’re on the subject, women’s tennis also had problems with prepubescent athletes taking over. I remember several who had one shot at their disposal: the “moon ball.” They nearly bored women’s tennis out of existence. Inevitably the hip injury and attitude problems started blossoming, and tennis’s ruling body quickly came to the conclusion that female athletes simply had to be older to compete consistently at the international level. End of Prepubescent Rule in Women’s Tennis. And thank goodness.

Women’s gymnastics has owned the age-and-size issue for much, much longer than any other sport, but only dealt with it in recent decades, and when forced to. In gymnastics, the slow response of the ruling body seems to have been due to the fact that the tiny baby girls could, in fact, surpass the older girls in terms of skill, which wasn’t the case in figure skating or tennis.

In spite of that, nowadays to be in the Olympics you have to be sixteen or older. I remember a few years back hearing some color commentator whine that the sixteen-and-up rule was excluding the “best athletes” from the top level of the sport. All I can say is, if age and size are the sole determinations of athletic ability, then it isn’t much of a sport. Thankfully the ruling body seems to have agreed. It’s about time.

However, from the looks of it, it still isn’t time for some of the Chinese girls. There’s been a lot of controversy about this, with U.S. fans whining and the rest of the world pointing up all the wrongs they feel they’ve been dealt and saying “nyah, nyah, nyah” to the whining U.S. fans. Olympic togetherness, anyone? Hah! It’s been more like a troll parade, and a very silly one at that.

My take on the Chinese gymnasts’ age controversy is that for sure, I would never guess that some of the Chinese girls are sixteen. One in particular looks no older than twelve. There are a number of ways to explain this, starting with the fact that Asian women do seem to have a tendency to be small, and perhaps to develop later than their Western counterparts. Then there’s the fact that these Chinese gymnasts are true hot-house flowers. They were likely taken away from their families at an early age and put in an institution where nothing but their gymnastics potential was considered, and perhaps the type of girl chosen for that situation is typically a spectacularly late bloomer. Perhaps even their diet contributed to their appearance — who knows. So they could be sixteen.

But in the end, who cares.

Yes, you heard me. It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. The relative Amazons of the U.S. team — all of them definitely sixteen or older — almost equaled the Chinese mites in terms of performance. Take away that inexplicable Olympic home-field advantage that seems to affect every Olympics no matter where the games are held, and they may have surpassed them. The fact that some of the Chinese athletes appeared to be underage (and certainly all were tiny), seemed to grant the Chinese team no overwhelming advantage. This to me is enough to blast away any remaining objections to the “you have to be sixteen to be in the Olympics” rule. Give the sport back to young women with real muscles and figures and you don’t get anything less in terms of true athleticism. You do gain in beauty and experience.

In other words, stop judging a women’s sport by male standards, and suddenly breasts and hips are no longer a problem. And little girls stop getting hurt so often.


But ultimately, like in figure skating, none of it matters. As I said, these are two sports that are rooted in controversy and always will be. In 2000 years, no one will remember these controversies and possibly even the sports involved. By that time we’ll have long since moved on to something else probably equally as controversial.

Why will we forget? Because sports are forgettable. They don’t really do anything in the world but suck up resources. They’re not even performed as war games, as they once were, so they don’t serve any purpose whatsoever. Hear that? Sports are silly.

The rules matter, because civilization is built on rules and/or the lack of them. That’s the only reason why, if some of the Chinese girls are truly underage, there may be a problem here. After all, there is a rule in place; some rules are silly but this one is deadly serious. We’re talking about kids maybe not being able to walk anymore by age twenty because they were competing too much and at too high of a level at age twelve.

However, all this controversy and ugliness and sniping over the appearance of rule-breaking do about as much good for the world as your average Nazi. Get over it, folks. Just sit back and enjoy. If there was actually some Chinese fudging of ages, it will come out later and you can enjoy that too. It’s silly entertainment, after all. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be on television along with the politicians.