Why skating needs some (more) pizazz

I grew up in the era of the Battle of the Brians and  Katerina Witt was queen of the ice.  There was drama, rivalry and sparkles – what was not to love?   I was totally hooked and ended up taking lessons that following summer (and never stopped).  I was twelve when the “whack heard around the world” occurred.  It was reality TV before it even existed.   It was too good to be scripted.  Seriously, an unsophisticated skater gets her ex-husband and bodyguard to try to break her rival’s leg.  It’s pure evil genius.  Naturally, everyone tuned in for the Olympics that year.

and proof that I kinda know what I'm talking about...

me, age 16 (back in the ’90s)

Through the ‘90’s figure skating was immensely popular.  I even would argue that the Kerrigan-Harding saga helped, as did Baiul’s love of alcohol.   Skating was always on TV.  I know, as I had about a million VHS tapes from various televised events.  The general public seemed to grasp the 6.0 judging system, perhaps they even admitted it was a tad biased and arbitrary, but it didn’t matter.  The costumes were (mostly) elegant.  The skating seemed effortless.  And even with an uneducated eye, you could kind of understand the judges’ decision.    Maybe you even argued with the German judge – why the hell did he give her a 5.7?!   It was totally a 5.9, in my book!   Perhaps, you couldn’t pick out a triple lutz from a  triple toe loop, but who cared; it was a joy to watch.  It was also during this time when Michelle Kwan rose to fame.  She was poised, elegant and rock steady.  She was always a gracious competitor and always a class act.  I still believed she deserved to win the gold over Tara Lipinski. That’s just my opinion.  I’ll be team Michelle until I die.  I digress….

Then, in 2002, an unfortunate thing happened – an Olympic judging scandal.  In that moment, the flaws of the judging system and the biased nature of the sport were exposed.   In this particular instance, there was a behind-the-scenes vote exchange.  The French judge was to give the Russian pair team first; in exchange, the Russian judge would give the French dance team first.  As a lifelong skater, I could have told you how biased the sport was, but whatever, unfair judging and skating go together like head trauma and football, and doping and baseball.   Sad, but oh so true.  Anytime you have a sport that is determined by a panel of judges, there will be prejudices and preferences.  It’s the unfortunate reality of the human condition.

A change needed to happen, and it did.  Enter the IJS – or the International Judging System – an attempt to make the scoring system more objective, which in my opinion de-pizazzed the world of skating.   How can you de-pizazz something with so much drama and bedazzlement?  Easy – make the scoring so complex and the skating so mechanical and formulaic that the joy has been totally eradicated; there is no amount of sparkle, nude mesh or lycra that has been able to rescue it.  Now, we are in a world where everything had a point value.  In order to win, you had to rack up a helluvalota points, thus upping the technical ante.    On top of that, the complex nature of the scoring made it hard for the general public to follow.  Why would skater X with a flawless program lose to skater Y who fell?  It all comes down to Code of Points and Grade of Execution.  What the hell is that?!?  Exactly…

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a complete supporter of skaters pushing the technical envelope and they should be awarded points for doing things that are hard and impossible (Pamchenko, anyone);  however, I believe that skating is at its best when it is the perfect melding of art and sport – that the best skaters are technically competent athletes with grace and musicality.  I guess I am traditional about something after all.

Aside from skating, what other sport is athletic, yet graceful and beautifully over-the-top? Isn’t that why people watch?  Surely football fans don’t watch because the players are known for their willowy ability to tackle each other.  Same with hockey – you don’t watch because they elegantly get into fights.  You watch because it’s pure grit and aggression.  It’s totally physical, and that’s what makes it awesome.  On the other hand, people watch skating because it is delicate yet deceptively tough– all wrapped up in a one lissome, athletic, bejeweled ball of perfection.  It shouldn’t all be technical ability, and it also shouldn’t be all art and grace.  It’s supposed to look easy, the technical elements should be wow-worthy,  and it should be aesthetically pleasing.  You don’t need a trained eye for that – you know what you like, and you know what looks hard (the judges, however, they DO need a trained eye).  So, how do you judge that in the most unbiased way – awarding both the artistry and pure physicality of it all, AND do so in a way that the general public can understand?!  That’s tricky.

With the Olympics around the corner, and the fact that there is a bit of a controversy over the selection of the US team, I’m hoping that skating will return once again to the popularity it once had, as I selfishly want to have a reason to watch skating all the time.  Technically, I watch skating all the time anyway, but it’s all on the Internet, and it makes me feel like more of a skating loser than I already am.

In order for skating to get its mojo back, it needs something.  Maybe it is in the form of a new star – someone that people love, someone with a great backstory.  This may even happen in the Olympics (hopefully!).  Or, maybe now that the IJS is ten years old people sort of understand it, and thus will be more inclined to watch. Personally, I have noticed that the overall skating quality seems to be higher than in previous years.  That may be due in part to working out the kinks in the new judging system, or it happens to be just an awesome batch of talent, or the fact it’s an Olympic year.  So, who knows what will happen and how.   I just think that skating is a tad bland and it’s missing a key ingredient.  It needs something other than various shades of chiffon to bring back the pizazz.   Regardless, I’ll keep watching.

Chazz Michael Michaels and Jimmy MacElroy are the epitome of pizazz Blades of Glory photo: www.ew.com

Chazz Michael Michaels and Jimmy MacElroy are the epitome of pizazz
Blades of Glory
photo: http://www.ew.com

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It all started with an osprey

I’m a bonafide tree-hugger.  Always have been.  Always will be.

I was first introduced to the world of tree-hugging by my grandfather, Papa, who lived on the water in an octagon-shaped house in Yorktown, Virginia.  He was a brilliant man with a caring heart, and as a life-long teacher, you were bound to learn something in his company.  As a total nerd, I appreciated the extra learning opportunities because I relished in the extra attention my teachers gave me when I knew more than my classmates.

It was Papa that first introduced me to the concept of endangered species – something that has stuck with me my whole life – fortunately or unfortunately (it’s a depressing subject, sometimes).  The fact that there were animals (and plants) out there that were becoming rare, mainly due to human activity was something that my 6-year-old mind just couldn’t comprehend.   Sometimes, my 30-something year–old mind still doesn’t grasp it.

Living on the water, Papa had a huge appreciation for osprey.  Like bald eagles, ospreys were victims of the wide application of DDT – an incredibly effective, potent pesticide that was used in the 1950s-1970s.  Thankfully, for both the environment and human health, the US got their head on straight and banned DDT use in 1972.   Over a decade later, as a lone-man’s effort to keep the population in Southeastern Virginia growing, Papa built an osprey nest platform.   Once the pair of osprey laid claim to their waterfront property, he would then block off his dock so that no one could disturb the osprey.  He wanted to make sure that they laid their eggs, the eggs hatched and that the chicks fledged – all in complete peace and quiet from obnoxious humans.

When I was a young kid, probably no older than six, I went over to Papa’s, with the main goal of playing on the dock – it was my favorite part of his house.  I was disturbed to see that the dock was blocked off, and that my plan of feeding the ducks and playing with snails was completely foiled.  Naturally, I thought that Papa would let me, his only granddaughter, go on the dock to continue with my day’s priorities.  I was utterly mistaken.  Papa then took me upstairs into his octagon house, where he had a high-powered telescope aimed at the nest.  He was keeping a record of when the eggs were laid and when the chicks fledged. Naturally, I was fascinated.  The ducks and the snails could wait – I was nerding out on science and it was awesome!   First, I had never had the opportunity to play with a big, red telescope – the ultimate nerd toy.  Up until that point, I wasn’t allowed anywhere near the telescope, and now I was.  It was a rite of passage – I had grown up and it felt amazing.  On top of that, I never got a chance to see birds in such a relaxed, natural setting – something that had eluded me for years.  I had always thought that I would be like the cartoon princesses who had birds as their friends.  The only problem, I realized, is that when I tried to get close to birds, they flew away from me.  Evidently, they weren’t really interested in being my friend, even if my name was Robin.  So, the opportunity of being able to see what birds were really like and what they did (when they weren’t flying away from me) was a special treat.

From that point on, I was a tree-hugger-in-training.  I took it upon myself to lecture my mother about environmental issues, I won the recycling contest at my Elementary School, I wrote essays about rainforest conservation, I became a vegetarian, and Jane Goodall and John Muir became my heroes.   Later, this interest turned into my career: tree and bunny-hugging specialist/environmental lecturer to the uninformed/champion recycler.

It is moments like these that I focus on when I start to question my chosen career path, or when I question my passion, or when I get frustrated with certain people that appear to be anti-environment (which annoys me immensely).  I realize that my interest in conservation is deeply personal with wonderful memories of Papa and his insightful lessons.  It’s a reminder of a beautiful moment – a grandfather and his granddaughter, spying on some osprey through a telescope, being nerds and getting excited about biology.

Dance-hiking - the only way to truly enjoy nature.

Dance-hiking – the only way to truly enjoy nature.