On the Olympics, Specifically Figure Skating

This is one of a Series of Short Takes, an occasional series on the salient issues of the day, usually politics or religion, though this one takes on something even more dangerous.  In my family, this is a hot topic.  I’m certainly going to catch it.  But some things have to be asked.

I don’t drink.  But I do occasionally go to lunch with people that do, and one day at a relatively good restaurant one of my dinner companions ordered some wine.  He ordered the house wine, at about $25 a bottle, not the recommended wine, which was something French and about five times as much.  Figuring that I might not have a better chance than this, I asked a question I’ve always wanted to ask: can you tell the difference between the really good wine – or at least the really expensive one – and the house wine?

His answer was interesting.  “I can tell the difference,” he said, “between the very good wine and the wine in a box from the grocery store.  But I can’t tell the difference between the $25 wine and the $200 wine, and I don’t know anyone that can.”

I watched the pairs figure skating yesterday.  We watch almost everything Olympic at my house.  And while the figure skating is nothing like as exciting as the Snocross 4-man free-for-all roller derby on snowboards, it is still very entertaining in its own way.

Shen and Zhao won, and I think they should have, based on the storyline alone, if not their skating, which was good – very good – but not at the level I would have expected to see from the Olympic champions.  I watched Sale and Pelletier, and I remember clearly my hatred of Gordeeva and Grinkov, and both of those couples were better than this one.  I think.

But then, here comes my problem.  Figure skating is beautiful, and athletic, and difficult.  No one with a brain would argue otherwise.  But it is also complex.  It is so complex, in fact, that the average person cannot understand it.  More, it is so complex that the above-average fan of the sport cannot understand it.  It has reached the point where it is like wine competitions, where only a few of the anointed have the ability to distinguish between the awesome and the passable.

The Americans had two teams that I saw, Evora and Ladwig and Denney and Barrett, and they were very good.  They did not fall.  They had good artistic presence.  Their performances were, I thought, excellent.  They finished 123rd or something, so far out of it that they were never in contact with the lead group.

In the lead group, we had a couple of terrible, egregious falls.  Of the final four pairs, two of them fell twice apiece.  The other two did not fall, but bobbled badly – the champions bobbling on a very simple element (simple, that is, in championship skating – I’m not for one second suggesting that a mortal could do it) that nobody ever bobbles on at this level.

So I look at this, and I think there’s something terribly wrong with the scoring.  I LIKED the American (and especially the Canadian) performances, but more than that, I thought they were better.  They weren’t, clearly.  They must not have been as technically difficult.  Or something.  But I can’t tell.  I just can’t.  I’m not an idiot.  I can absolutely tell the difference between a good jump and a bad jump on a steal in baseball, a good seal block and a bad one in football, a good assist try and one pass too many in basketball.  But I can’t tell a triple toe loop from a triple lutz.  I’m not absolutely sure I can tell the difference between a double salcow and a triple loop.  I can’t tell which performances are technically more difficult than which others – at least, at the very highest levels.  Like my friend, I can tell a bad wine from a great wine.  But I can’t tell a good wine from a great wine.

I have long wondered whether ANYONE can.  I expect, like everyone, that the judges can tell, and probably they can.  But there isn’t any way to know, not for sure.  I’d like to see a double-blind judging performance, where we have two panels of judges judge the same skating competition, one of the panels being composed of judges that have no connection whatever to the competitors and do not even know their names.  This would tell us how consistent and objective the judging actually is.  And this is also, unfortunately, impossible.  The list of top judges is so short, and the list of top competitors even shorter, and they all know each other very, very well.  In ANY OTHER SPORT, you might be able to get a group of judges together that could judge well enough to give you this comparison, so that you could tell, for sure, that the judging was based on objective criteria.  But you can’t.  So we’ll never know.

I like to assume, as the majority of skating fans do, that the judging is fair and unbiased.  But the fact is that it isn’t, not entirely, nor could it possibly be.  I’m an umpire and a referee.  I don’t play favorites.  No, that’s not true.  I try not to play favorites.  But my judgment is colored by emotion, because I am a human.  Skating judges are also humans, and in their sport, their judgment is absolute and final.  It not only affects the score, it IS the score.  In basketball, I can potentially influence the game by blowing a call, but only in rare circumstances.  Most of the time, the game isn’t close enough for my refereeing to change the outcome.  In skating, my call IS the outcome.

Perhaps nothing would have changed last night, or any night, because the judges were coloring their impressions of the skating based on previous performances and personal experiences.  Perhaps.  But I wonder.

For this reason, I am only a reluctant fan of sports where the judging and the scoring are the same thing.  I’d like to really get into skating, but I can’t, because it is just way too arcane for me.  Gymnastics is similar.  I can’t see any possible difference between ice dancing and ballroom dancing, from a sport standpoint.  They’re both very difficult, require great athletic ability, and are so impossible to understand from a scoring standpoint that an average panel of regular people would be totally unable to accurately rank the contestants.  I don’t like games where I can’t tell who is winning – or worse, games where obvious errors like falling down on the ice are of negligible importance or altogether irrelevant, so that I can’t even trust what seems perfectly clear.  At that point, we’re not talking about a game or a sport any more, we’re talking about art, which is almost always so arcane that regular guys like me can’t tell good from bad.  But then, oil painting is not called a sport, and nobody awards medals to Monet instead of Manet based on brush technique.

Defenders of skating will tell you that it doesn’t need my fandom, and that is surely true.  The art form survives quite without my support, as do many other things.  But I believe that there are a large number of people out there that are like me, that would love to be real fans of skating, because it is beautiful and looks like great fun, but who cannot, because our palates are simply too unrefined.  So we do Disney on Ice instead of Katarina Witt.  Or worse, we make Katarina skate in Disney on Ice, so that what she does is approachable enough for the unwashed to get it.


P.S. This caveat is only for those interested in solutions.  Purists will hate what I am about to say.

Music is an art form that I understand well enough to be able to tell the best from the rest.  When we have music competitions in the academic sense, we have judging just like skating or dancing, and I daresay the judging criteria are just as arcane.  In music, though, we have managed to capture a really BIG amount of interest by doing one simple thing – moving the judging out of the hands of the experts and into the hands of the audience.  It’s called American Idol – maybe you’ve heard of it.  Now, say what you will about the show itself (I’m not a watcher), the one thing you can say is that no skating competition, in fact, no artistic competition EVER has enjoyed the kids of ratings that this show has.  The judges do have criteria to judge from, and they do that, but most of the judging is done by the people that watch, the consumers of the product.  The audience.  I cannot believe that this would hurt the popularity of skating; contrariwise, I believe it would usher in an explosion for the sport.

But to adopt anything like this, skating (and gymnastics) would have to do what singing (and now dancing) has done, and that is abandon the pretense that it is a sport.  It isn’t.  It is athletic, and complicated, and difficult, and requires skill and training far beyond anything we can imagine as mere mortals.  I grant this freely.  But so does industrial sculpture.  So does dancing.  In order to demonstrate the magic of the art form, dancers have embraced the public and attempted to give them something that they can understand, and get excited about, and absolutely LOVE, without pretending that there is some sort of objective scale on which more than a handful of people can agree, on which they can be judged.  There is no such thing, or at least, dancers and singers have come to the understanding that that scale cannot be weighed as any more important than what people like.

Perhaps skaters wouldn’t like to have a show twice a year where some of the best of their kind perform for millions and win large prizes, instead of doing it once every four years as a warmup for hockey.  But I wonder about that, too.

2 Responses to “On the Olympics, Specifically Figure Skating”

  • I think you’re exactly right. I’m not an idol watcher but I do like So You Think You Can Dance and I thought it was interesting once last season when Nigel, the Simon of dance, said some thing about how he was so happy to see a dance that was just a dance and not a story. The thing is that I prefer the ones that tell a story, I think most of America prefers a story, that’s why most of the dances tell them.
    I like dance but dance just for dance’s sake is what I like to do, not what I like to watch. If I were a true connoisseur, I wouldn’t need a story, but I’m not so I do. And I’m ok with that.

    As an aside, I’ll point out that the skating community does know that we don’t get it, that’s why tomorrow (or whenever it is) there will be an exhibition, a show where they’ll skate to rock music and do backflips and all that, because they know that we’ll like that a lot better. They’re just not willing to go quite all the way and make that the competition.

  • chrisjones says:

    I thought of that. I thought for a second that perhaps the Olympics was a genius way for really snooty elites to elevate their art form to a point where the rest of us could heap adulation on them without their having to give up any of their special status. Sort of saying, look, we’re so much better than you are that we can even be more popular than real sports during a sporting competition. But the skating people I know are way too nice for that sort of cabalistic machination, so I gave the thought up.

    Apropos of your “dance story” story, there have been several articles recently about the death of jazz as a popular art form, and most of the writers trace that death back to the bands’ abandoning the idea that their music was supposed to be fun for people to listen to. Some people think that BeBop jazz is better than big band jazz, but it isn’t. It’s just different. And to me, it’s worse. That’s true for most people; Glenn Miller STILL outsells Stan Getz (except for one tune – the Girl from Ipanema with Astrud Gilberto).

    Scott Card writes about this (referencing movies) in his most recent Uncle Orson Reviews Everything, which you ought to be reading. It’s way better than my stuff.

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