Friday, February 19, 2010

Just Dance

Figure skating may be the marquee event at the Winter Olympics, but I was not expecting much from the men's competition. Watching the Turin 2006 games, I found it lacking the aesthetic beauty of the ladies and pairs. Presumably the emphasis was more on the power and athleticism of the men, which only made it all the more pointless when most of them did not come close to meeting the ridiculous technical demands of their own routines. After the first few guys fell on their asses during last night's way too long programs, it looked like I was in for more of the same from Vancouver 2010, and I ended up falling asleep through the middle rounds. But I woke up just in time to see American Evan Lysacek's performance. I knew how very close to the lead Lysacek was after the short program, so, after seeing him turn in as nearly flawless a routine as I've ever seen, I was finally interested.

Evgeni Plushenko, leading by the slimmest of margins after the short program, would be the final skater of the night. Four years ago, the men's singles event might as well have been "the Evgeni Plushenko show." Alone in his mastery of the quadruple toe loop, he was the only guy delivering on the one promise of the men's competition. The other guys probably should have been competing against the ladies with their yawn-inducing triples. But, at age twenty-seven in Vancouver, Plushenko was now old for his sport and coming out of a three-year retirement. In the short program, he remarkably still had the quad, and that alone carried him above his younger rivals, but his landing had been uncomfortably close compared to four years ago. Moreover, the announcers had made much of the fact that he had little going for him outside of his jumps. Lysacek was younger, fitter, and his free skate routine more strategically choreographed to take advantage of a scoring system that awarded bonus points for jumps in the second half. His immaculate performance had been the only clean one all night. But Lysacek had not attempted the quad. With Plushenko expected to be weaker in other areas, that left the quad as the one open door for the Russian. So, with all eyes on him, the defending champion was finally under real pressure to be as good as he could possibly be. What more could any viewer have asked for?

Of course, Plushenko knows very well that the quad is who he is, and he probably needed no extra incentive to go for it. So he did. Going for broke, he skated according to his own demanding standards for the sport, committing no errors and landing his quads cleanly. Yet somehow he still lost. Too sloppy seems to have been the ruling.

Seeing the scores, I wasn't sure what to think. I was at first reminded of Athens 2004, when Russian gymnast Alexei Nemov's high bar routine received a lower score than American Paul Hamm's far less exciting performance, leading to an eruption of boos that stalled the competition for several minutes. I didn't expect any such outcry from the Canadian crowd here, but, seeing Plushenko's sulky expression during the medal ceremony, I was then reminded of Russian female gymnast Svetlana Khorkina, who in 2004 came in second in the all-around. Khorkina would shortly thereafter claim that the judging had been fixed in advance to award American Carly Patterson the gold. I had no doubt whatsoever that Plushenko would voice similar complaints against the judging. Sure enough, he has, and, though I wish he could have handled matters with Nemov's grace, I have to agree with Plushenko.

Shaun White himself said that his gold medal halfpipe performance from Turin would, at best, have barely qualified him for a spot in the finals at Vancouver. In the world of men's figure skating, however, even fours years after Turin, still nobody else was able to land the quad like Plushenko. If anything, it seemed the quad was this time given less significance, with Lysacek, among other top contenders, not even attempting it. Of course I have no idea how the scoring system works now, but I suspect the judges, having heard my complaints after Turin, have been deliberately trying to steer the sport away from the blooper reel of hopeless men feeling pressured to go for tricks beyond their abilities. The thing is, even though I found the Turin programs mostly a joke, I cannot support this step backward. It would be one thing if there were no men who could pull off the quad. If Plushenko is the only guy doing it cleanly and consistently, that just means that he's in a class of his own. Maybe, pound for pound, Lysacek was the best. But this isn't boxing. If nobody else can hang, that doesn't mean you lower the standard to accommodate everyone else while punishing Plushenko.

I understand that Lysacek won fairly according to the rules as they are, and I don't mean to fault his steady performance. I just don't think those rules are fair. The quad is unquestionably the most challenging maneuver in figure skating, yet it is not even valued at a full point more than the triple axel, which everybody performs! The reward is in no way equal to the risk, and, as it is now, figure skating is no more a sport than Dancing with the Stars.

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