Can someone please distinguish for me a triple salchow from a triple axel? And where does a triple toe-loop come into play? The Vancouver Olympics will be centered this week around the ladies figure skating competition (Tuesday and Thursday nights). I’d like to be fully engaged as U.S. champion Rachael Flatt takes aim at 2009 world champion Kim Yu-Na of South Korea in what will surely be the most-watched sporting event not involving helmets this year. After Evan Lysacek last week became the first American man to skate his way to Olympic gold in 22 years, buzz is in the air for this most graceful of international competitions. But the truth is, despite 30 years spent refining my sports-viewing skills, I don’t know what to look for.
I want to be delicate in crafting this column, for I know those who tune in for Olympic figure skating take it as seriously as any American Idol voter or New York Yankee fan. The slightest stumble — to say nothing of an actual meeting of keister and ice — is enough to spike blood pressure. This is a sport in which a pipe-wielding hit-man made news not that long ago. I know the gravity of the subject matter.
But I have a problem with a sport in which I can’t recognize a winner from a “loser.” The subtleties between Lysacek’s performance and that of 2006 Olympic champ Evgeni Plushenko may have jumped out — like a triple salchow! — for the judges entrusted with awarding medals in Vancouver. But from my couch? Two fine athletes, each able to do with their bodies on ice what I couldn’t do in a swimming pool. And synchronized to music. To crown one Olympic champion — again, in my view — is as subjective as awarding an Oscar or Grammy.
It doesn’t have to be this way. When the International Olympic Committee finally calls, here’s my solution for the figure-skating competition.
To begin with, the field will be drawn up in brackets, like a tennis tournament. National champions will be seeded higher, with an open draw to determine placement of other skaters. As we learn every March, nothing builds fan interest like a good bracket. Only regulation: skaters from the same country cannot face each other in the first round. “Face each other?” you ask. Absolutely, and this is the game-changer in my new figure-skating format. Two skaters on the ice at the same time. Four-and-a-half minutes together, with music they are presented at the time of the draw (allowing skaters, at minimum, three days to choreograph their routines; we’re looking for skating champions, not dancing stars).
This would actually bring competition — an opponent — into the fold. Whether it’s another team, a clock, or even par on a golf course, an athlete needs to be confronting an adversary to truly achieve greatness in sports. Imagine the Olympic field being winnowed down to Lysacek vs. Plushenko in the finals, each to take the ice one last time, forced to perform his best routine of the tournament ... without crashing into his rival. (A bracket format would require more routines to be skated by each competitor. If Olympic swimmers can handle three races in a day, skaters can take on some extra ice time.)
And finally, our new scoring system. Skaters would accumulate points for each jump and each technical maneuver, based on the value as determined by international judges. Unlike the current system, though, the points would show up on a scoreboard as the routines are being performed. “Plushenko takes a 15 point lead early, only to have Lysacek close the gap with back-to-back triple axels!” Can you imagine the drama if Ms. Flatt were trailing the favored Kim with 30 seconds to go in their routine, and the entire world knew she had to hit three flawless jumps to take the gold? I, for one, would be falling off that couch, screaming at my television, “C’mon Rachael! Jump, baby, jump!!”
All the artistry would still be there, all the beauty that makes figure skating so attractive to so many. But it would also feel like sports, where battling something a little more fearsome than a panel of judges is generally part of the mix.
“Jump Rachael! Jump!!”