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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Sore Loserman
Posted by Jill | 7:01 AM
I know I keep hearkening back to Debi Thomas' Olympic figure skating experience in 1988, but what happened there is still so evocative of both the ups and downs of the Olympics, it's appropriate in so many situations. I remember after Thomas "lost" the gold medal, her father was shown in an interview talking about how she won the bronze, and that wasn't too shabby either. And he was right.

In an endeavor like figure skating, where all over the world there are kids in rinks training for this, it's easy to forget just how difficult it is to get NEAR, let alone ON, an Olympic podium. To do it is a tremendous achievement. To do it more than once is gargantuan. To win gold twice is stupendous. That's why so few have ever been able to do it. Just as on any given day, even the most brilliant pitcher can come out with nothing and give up eight runs in the first inning, any skater can under-rotate a jump, stumble on a divot in the ice, or as in the case of Japan's Nobunari Oda, break a shoelace.

How do you judge figure skating, anyway? It's the part of the Olympics that still gets the best ratings, but if it were all about jumps or school figures or whatever, without the glitz and spangles and music and dance aspects, would anyone watch it? Have you ever SEEN the compulsory dances in the ice dance competition? It's pair after pair after pair, doing the exact same moves to the exact same music -- for hours on end. That's what the other events would look like without all the frou-frou that gives sports purists fits. The new scoring system is an attempt to turn judging into something that's measurable, and for the most part it works. Only for the unimaginative does it turn into just a jumping contest, with the same opening combination jump appearing in every program. For the stout of heart, the jumps are scattered throughout the program, even into the "bonus" territory of the last two minutes of the free skate, where bonus points are added because the skater is getting tired by then. But it's about more than jumps. It's about footwork -- edge changes, use of the ice, difficulty. It's about the number of and quality of spin positions and the centeredness of the spins. Spins are supposed to trace circles, not spirals. It is NOT just about jumping, and it is NOT just about the quad.

Someone forgot to tell Evgeni Plushenko about this however. The 2006 champion is busy tarnishing his own stellar career by insisting that no matter what the judges said, HE is the true champion and Evan Lysacek is a poseur:
U.S. figure skater Evan Lysacek just wanted to enjoy the Olympic gold medal he never expected -- but always wanted -- hours after his upset victory over Russian Evgeni Plushenko in the Olympic men's figure skating competition Thursday.

Instead, Lysacek spent Friday enduring attacks on the legitimacy of his title from Russians and others upset both with his tactical approach and the judges' decision to give him a narrow victory over the 2006 gold medal winner.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sent Plushenko, who claimed the silver medal, a telegram telling him his "silver was as good as gold" and he "performed the most accomplished program on the Vancouver ice." Russian commentators decried the result, and two-time Olympic silver medal winner Elvis Stojko said in a column for Yahoo that Lysacek's skate wasn't "Olympic champion material" and "the judges made a mockery" of the event by rewarding Lysacek.

The debate centered solely around the fact Plushenko executed a quadruple jump and Lysacek did not. Bronze medal winner Daisuke Takahashi tried one, but fell attempting it and fell out of contention for the gold.

Lysacek contends that his nearly perfect program featuring eight triple jumps and complex spins, footwork and transitions topped Plushenko's more-wobbly effort with the quad and seven triples.

Plushenko fueled the controversy by wagging his index fingers in the air when he finished Thursday, then complaining about the judges' decision to put him 1.31 points behind Lysacek.

"You can't be considered a true men's champion without a quad," Plushenko told Russian state television, according to Reuters.

"For someone to stand on top of the podium with the gold medal around his neck by just doing triple jumps, to me it's not progress; it's a regress because we've done triples 10 or even 20 years ago," Plushenko said, according to Reuters. "Just doing nice transitions and being artistic is not enough because figure skating is a sport, not a show."

It's hilarious to see a Russian skater talking about figure skating being a sport, after decades of Russian judges, coaches, and skaters saying it's exactly the opposite. And it's appalling that Evan Lysacek, who by any measure was spectacular in winning his gold medal, should have to "defend" his win, as the headlines everywhere are indicating he must because Plushenko is so arrogant that not only is he unwilling to recognize his own achievement of two trips to the Olympic podium (something not even Brian Boitano did), but he flies in the face of decades of Russian figure skating philosophy.

To the extent that Plushenko may have a beef with the judging, it's in the e-mail in which U.S. judge Joe Inman passed on remarks that Plushenko himself made about his focus on jumping to other international judges:
Plushenko freely admits this flaw in the transitional moves — footwork, choreography and musicality — that link his soaring triple axels and quadruple toe loops. At a news conference last month, referring to himself and Brian Joubert of France, Plushenko said, “We don’t have any transitions, because we focus on our jumps.”

He also suggested that judges could prop up skaters under the new scoring system, just as in the old 6-point system, by inflating their “component” scores, the equivalent of the old artistic marks. This added to the suspicion by some that exaggerated artistic marks were given to Plushenko at the recent Russian and European championships.

Joe Inman, an influential American judge who helped write the rules for component scores, passed along Plushenko’s remarks in an e-mail message to friends, including some fellow judges. The e-mails were detailed in The Globe and Mail of Toronto. In them, Inman wrote that despite Plushenko’s admission of weakness in transitions, “The judges seem to miss what he is saying.”

Inman also wrote, “We as judges should think about what we saw before putting that mark down.”

In a telephone interview Thursday, Inman, who is not a judge at these Games, said he was not trying to influence the outcome of the men’s competition at the Vancouver Olympics.

“It was innocuous,” he said. “I wasn’t telling people how to judge.”

Except that is not how his remarks were interpreted by the Russians and the French, who detected a full-blown North American conspiracy against European skaters.

Perhaps Inman should have known better. If there is a chance to twist words in this sport, they will be contorted like a skater’s body during a Biellmann spin.

Didier Gailhaguet, the president of the French figure skating federation, told the sports newspaper L’Equipe, “This proves the North American lobby is under way.”

Didier Gailhaguet is a perfect exampe of "Pot, meet kettle", since it was he was one of the masterminds of the infamous Pairs Judge-Fixing Foofarah of 2002 and is only recently back from a three-year suspension. So there may be a certain amount of payback attempt there.

But that isn't what Plushenko is arguing here. Instead of calling for an investigation of possible judge-fixing, he focuses exclusively on the quad. But as the New York Times nicely notes here, the quad is NOT necessary to win, and hasn't been necessary to win since it first appeared.

Evan Lysacek won the gold medal with hard work, technical flawlessness, enough flailing around to please the judges, and a shrewdly-constructed program designed to work with the current judging system, not the old one under which European and the skaters of the old Soviet Union did so well -- ironically, one which emphasized artistry over athleticism.

Plushenko has nothing to be ashamed of, or at least he didn't until this week, when he dethroned Nancy Kerrigan at the top of the leader board of Highly Touted Skaters Who Ended up with Silver.

Debi Thomas' father had it right twenty-two years ago. It's too bad Plushenko can't see it that way.


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Blogger PurpleGirl said...
Very good post. If skating were only or mostly about the quad jump, we could just have everyone try it and the first person to nails it gets the gold... no music, no costumes, no artistic measures... just jump up and rotate 4 times. Plushenko is being a whinny assed titty baby. It is not becoming. (Note also that Elvis Stojko has joined the "he was robbed" chorus.)

Blogger D. said...
Memo to Mr. Plushenko: You're beginning to sound like Gollum, or a Republican losing an election.

The judges you wanted were there twenty years ago.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry Jane...I am going to have to disagree with you here. Yes, Plushenko is a sore loser but he deserved the gold rather than Evan. Skating has to reward to the bigger risks.

If you do a quad triple combo and land it then you have to win. It's the only way that the sport can grow. As Elvis said (http://sports.yahoo.com/olympics/vancouver/figure_skating/news?slug=es-thoughts021810&prov=yhoo&type=lgns) why would future skaters take the risk in trying new things.

I agree that Johnny was robbed. He deserved a better fate and should've been ahead of Patrick, who didn't even skate that clean a program. Oh well.

But...Plushenko was robbed.


Anonymous mandt said...
Russia is a failed skate----enough said.

Blogger Jill said...
Anon: Elvis Stojko has his own axes to grind. No doubt he's been having to deal with questions about his sexual orientation no matter how macho he is, because of this idea that figure skating is "a gay sport." Funny...I never got the sense that Kurt Browning ever felt like his manhood was threatened. Methinks Mr. Stojko protesteth too much.

Plushenko's griping is particularly disingenuous, though. Stojko has at least been consistent in that he thinks jumping should be everything. But Plushenko comes out of a system that bitched for decades (and I've been watching skating since 1968) about how there was too much emphasis on tricks and not enough on artistry. And the quad is just that: a trick. The quad that everyone does is a toe-loop, which is one of the easier jumps. The triple axel, with its forward entrance, is by its nature in many ways a much more difficult jump. The lutz is harder. A quad toe loop is simply about getting enough launch to get the extra rotation -- something difficult for a 6'2" tall man to do consistently.

I wonder how Plushenko feels about his countryman and Johnny Weir's co-coach Viktor Petrenko, who won a gold medal in 1992 -- 4 years after Kurt Browning landed his first quad in competition, WITHOUT it.

Skating has never been about "rewarding risks." It's about skating a difficult program cleanly. But difficulty is about more than jumps. If you think jumps are the only thing that's difficult, take a gander at this. It is more difficult to do what Gary Beacom did in this program almost 20 years ago than to do a quad toe loop. Kurt Browning may have landed the first quad in competition, but his strength was always his preposterously difficult footwork, which he can still do in his mid-40's.

You can put a quad in an otherwise pedestrian program and it does nothing to move skating forward. Guys like Beacom, who never medaled at the Olympics at all, and Browning, who won silver and didn't piss and moan about it, have done far more in the last two decades to move skating forward than a quad toe loop at the beginning of a free skate.

Blogger PurpleGirl said...
Wow, Jill, you do know your stuff about skating. Thank you for the time it took to write the post and this response. (That's why I come by here regularly.)

Blogger Jill said...

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Hello Jill,

Thanks for responding. I haven't been watching figure skating as long as you have. However, I was lucky to grow up Canadian in the late 80's/90's. We went from Brian Orser to Kurt Browning to Elvis...and it still hurts we have never won Olympic gold. How Browning could win the World Championships at will and not win at Albertville is still unknown.

I do feel that by dismissing the quad as trick you belie it's difficulty. It is more difficult to do it consistently and when done should be rewarded.

Tonya won the 1990 US women's title thanks to the triple axel...I think but she did it and I think remains one of the few women to have done it in competition. Don't you wish the women who try the more difficult trick should win it?


Blogger Jill said...
Anon/SV: No, actually, I don't. I don't think any one "trick" ought to be "THE" deciding factor. OR, have a jumping contest be part of the competition the way school figures used to be, and have the ability to land a quad give you points. That Tonya Harding landed a triple axel is, and was impressive (Midori Ito did it too, and didn't win gold either), but it's just one jump when skating is about more than just jumps -- as it should be. I think jumping passes late in the program, when the skater is tired, SHOULD count for more than even a quad early in the program.

Skating judging is always going to be subjective; see also: how Johnny Weir was criminally underscored. And you can argue forever about whether landing a particular kind of jump ought to always make the difference.

I found Plushenko's freeskate appalling on a number of counts. First of all, the quad was so emphasized that there was nothing else there. His kiss-off attitude towards the judges didn't help him either. No one is "entitled" to the gold until the skate, but when you see a program with sloppy spins, sloppy jump landings, mediocre footwork, and a general "I don't give a shit, I'm entitled to this medal" attitude, well, I'd rank him lower too.

It's not a quad competition, nor should it be.

Skating has always been a problem in that it can't be judged entirely quantitatively. I think half-pipe also has some of this problem, albeit less so. But to hinge an entire competition on one trick makes skating extremely boring to watch. What we do agree on is our astonishment at how Kurt Browning, who may very well be the best entire figure skating package ever -- musicality, dance ability, jumps, footwork, spins -- could not have an Olympic medal.

Blogger Jill said...
Also: This blogger (and commenters) explains why the quad should not be the be-all and end-all of skating far better than I do.