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Playing It Safe for Olympic Gold

Feb 19, 2010 – 3:51 AM
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Kevin Blackistone

Kevin Blackistone %BloggerTitle%

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Shortly after Evan Lysacek regaled the media about how he'd just upset Russian figure skater Evgeni Plushenko on Thursday night to win the men's free skate, Plushenko sauntered into the bowels of the Pacific Coliseum and all but denounced his American vanquisher as an unworthy Olympic champion.

"We need to change the scoring system," Plushenko snorted, "if the Olympic champion can't jump [a] quad."

A quad is launching oneself off the ice and spinning four times before landing, and not falling while doing so. That is a 1,440-degree spin.

Plushenko, who was attempting to be the first man to win consecutive Olympic figure skating gold medals in 60 years, did it and lost. Lysacek didn't attempt one and won.

The people who know and follow the convoluted sport of figure skating explained afterward that Plushenko wound up with silver and Lysacek with gold because Plushenko did most of his jumps -- quads or not -- in the first half of his routine and Lysacek did the bulk of his in the second half of his performance. For a long time, figure skaters were rewarded more for jumps they pulled off early rather than late. The script was flipped coming into Vancouver.

But what else this surprising outcome underscored was the continuing struggle within figure skating to be viewed as an athletic event or an artistic one.

If it is the latter -- as Lysacek's victory suggested -- figure skating shouldn't be in the Olympics.

It is bad enough that an Olympic event like figure skating must be decided by subjective criteria like choreography and interpretation. It is even worse that it doesn't reward athleticism as much as technique.

To jump or not to jump, that is the question for men's figure skating.

What has unfolded at the Vancouver Winter Games in figure skating would be the equivalent of not crediting Shaun White for his double McTwist (which he certainly will sell to McDonald's) in the half pipe and rewarding less ambitious snowboarders for getting the basics perfect.

Lysacek, who became the first U.S. man to take a free skating gold since Brian Boitano in 1988, was absolutely sensational in being perfect. He just didn't do anything extraordinary -- unless you count ripping off eight triple jumps -- in reaching a crescendo skating to Korasakov's Scheherazade, which you might recognize as the suite Arabian Nights.

"I've worked so hard on all aspects of my skating," Lysacek said, "and if it was just about one jump, they'd give us 10 seconds to go out and do our best jump."

Plushenko, however, skating last, started with a quad and leaped right into a triple. He then reeled off six triples but was not steady on two landings. He was credited less for the extraordinary than he was discredited for ordinary. "I was sure that I had won my second Olympic Games," Plushenko said afterward. "But this is the new system. The quad is not valued."

Plushenko complained that his sport was regressing when it should be marching forward like other sports, where times get faster or athletes like White add another dimension to their routines.

"He's a great skater," Plushenko said of Lysacek. "He's a very good skater, artistically."

Athleticism versus art in men's skating is part of the sport's problematic identity. All one had to do was catch a glimpse of flamboyant U.S. skater Johnny Weir before his session. He was simply standing at the mouth of the tunnel on to the ice preparing to warm-up with the final sextet of men's free skaters, and he sparkled throughout the arena like a crystal ball spinning in a disco hall. His gossamer thin white skin-tight top with a neck and back line that plunged down his torso was highlighted by enough twinkling sequins to trick the Hubble telescope into believing it found a new galaxy. (It was enough to make me wonder if I shouldn't have The Washington Post Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion writer Robin Givhan at my side to figure out who was the best skater.)

Or it could have blinded nonbelievers, and probably did, to all the athleticism in his lithe five-foot-eight-inch frame.

I don't know if the artist is more important than the athlete in men's figure skating, but I do believe the overreaching for it in the form of costuming obfuscates the talent. That's a shame, because what some of these guys did with their bodies – launching off the ice and spinning four times in the air before landing like nothing happened – was remarkable, Lysacek included even if the most he did was spin three times in the air.

I doubt figure skaters can do that before dunking a basketball, but I don't think any guy who can dunk a basketball can pull off a 1,440-degree twist, either. Figure skaters are athletes and their sport should do more to promote that fact. They would gain a lot more respect.

Lysacek tried to warm the cold war developing between him and Plushenko in particular and U.S. skating and Russian skating in general. With Plushenko sitting to his right at the interview table and looking straight ahead, Lysacek said Plushenko was an inspiration to him. Plushenko proceeded to criticize the scoring again before departing with his entourage. He said he looked forward to the next Winter Games in 2014 on Russian soil.

There is no guarantee then, however, that skating will have worked out this philosophical struggle that ails it. Lysacek's coach Frank Carroll said afterward that he thought Plushenko's performance had more peaks, and valleys, than his pupil's.

He said Lysacek's effort was like a straight line. It was remarkably consistent if not eye popping. The judges said it was golden. It certainly wasn't a leap of faith.
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