Overall this was a well run competition. Not particularly exciting at times. But well run.
Although unintentional, the novice events and the first half of the junior events were held in the best of the three arenas used for the Championships. The E-Center was a great facility and the novices got their best arrangements at Nationals in years. The press center at the E-Center was well run, if a little slow in getting information at times, and that allowed the novices to get a lot more media attention that they have in the past. Covering the novices and juniors can be a lot of fun because they tend to be fresher and more honest than the top senior skaters - when they are not too shy to talk. Some of them are a real hoot, especially when their coaches are not around.
The volunteers at the competition all did a great job. They were helpful and friendly throughout the week. The arena staff at the Delta Center were cooperative and professional with no hint of the power trip that we have found among the staff in some venues used in past Nationals. Our standard for measuring this attitude is now, Salt Lake - the best, San Jose - the worst.
The organizers did the best they could with the facilities they had available to them and tried to be innovative in dealing with problems. They showed they could think on their feet by trying to compensate for the sight line and acoustical problems in the arena (which unfortunately really don't have a good solution), making changes to the transportation plan when the skaters and officials needed it, and responding to two power outages during the competition.
Although the overall quality of the skating was disappointing, there were a few shining moments. In the ladies event there was Michelle Kwan and then everybody else. Naomi Nari Nam gives every indication of becoming a great skater but still needs a few more years of experience before she is in Kwan's league. Sarah Hughes show promise too but needs even more work, especially in the second mark. Michael Weiss did a fine job but without the quad at Worlds... trouble, trouble, trouble. Trifun Zivanovic may finally have blossomed, but he will have to prove in the next year he is not one-year-wonder like Dan Hollander was. In pairs, though not yet ready for the senior level, the most exciting team was Sima & Amir Ganaba, the Junior Pair Champions. In the exhibition they also held their own against the bigger teams in terms of entertainment; and who would have thought that little guy would have such a strong one arm Detroiter. In dance it was Jamie Silverstein & Justin Pekerek. If they knew the senior compulsory dances they could have been put on the World Team this year and probably would have done well at Worlds.
The most fearless skater award must go to Tiffany Stiegler. Never have I seen such a small girl thrown so high and so far with no fear in two triple throws.
By far the leader of "the bad" was the sight lines in the Delta Center. The arena was built for basketball with the seating designed on a steep incline sloping down to the basketball court which is much smaller than an Olympic size ice surface. In order to fit in the 100 X 200 foot ice surface all the removable seating was taken out. The ice surface then extended nearly to the first row of non-removable seats that start about 20 feet above the ice surface. As a result the skaters were basically performing in a pit looking at 20 foot high walls draped with black cloth, and the spectators could not see into at least one, and in some locations two, corners of the rink. Nor could spectators in the seats along the length of the ice see the first five to ten feet of ice on their side of the rink. Many of the TV cameras also had to be placed high forcing a large number of shots looking down on the skaters, the view that most of the spectators had. (No secret now which skaters are going bald!)
In addition, the acoustics in the Delta Center are also bad, requiring the hanging of sound baffling curtains in the upper tier of seats that could then not be sold. All told, after removing seats to make room for the ice, blocking out the upper tier of seats and blocking out other obstructed view seats only 10,800 seats were available for sale when the norm today for a modern arena in 16,000 or more. Because of these problems two hockey teams have abandoned playing in the Delta Center. The first team left town, and the current IHL team plays in a 2-year-old arena called the E-Center located about 10 miles from downtown Salt Lake City. The E-Center is where the novice events and the first half of the junior events were held. This arena has seating for 10,000 and was built for hockey. It is a wonderful facility for skating. So much so that the Stars on Ice tour now performs in the E-Center and not the Delta Center. (The E in E-Center stands for Event. No one has yet ponied up the naming fee for the arena. Reportedly Coors was interested but locals did not like the idea of having the name of a beer company on the arena.)
There had been some talk of raising the floor in the Delta Center five feet to improve the sight lines, but by the end of the week a spokesman for the organizing committee was reported in the local newspaper saying that the decision had been made not to do that. From the look of things at this competition five feet would not be nearly enough, with more like 15 feet being required, something that does not seem at all practical. Further, even if the floor were raised that amount, spectators above the lower bowl would still be looking down on the heads of the skaters due to the layout of the seating.
In order to make up for the bad sight lines the organizers brought in two 12 X 16 foot Jumbotron screens that were hung at each end of the arena. The video feeds from the arena "house" cameras, the official event videographer, and ABC were then combined by the arena's video production contractor. The Jumbotrons were fabulous; the images were clear and bright and the camera work and production well done. Nevertheless, many spectators expressed the sentiment that they didn't pay to watch TV in an arena when they could have watched it at home. Also, when Michelle Kwan skated the screens were turned off at her request, an option that was open to all the skaters though many seemed not to have know it was available to them. If many of the top skaters at the Olympics follow her lead and have the screens turned off they will not be of much help to the spectators.
Although the bus service was good, the schedule and cost were not. With three arenas going and no one route connecting all the arenas together, one bus every twenty minutes was too few and too infrequently during peak hours. To travel by bus between the E-Center and the Acord Center which are just a few miles and a few minutes apart required a 25 minute ride to the Delta Center, a wait for the next bus, and a 25 minute ride to the E-Center, perhaps an hour in all. Also, trying to get back and forth between the Delta Center and the E-Center for competition events was an ordeal on the two busiest days. An emergency van service was added for skaters and officials which worked out well but for others it was long waits on long lines and some missed events in the process. Bus passes were $10 per day which seems pretty steep for the few trips a day one needed to use them.
While it was nice that the senior figure event was recognized with a small ceremony as the last figure event at U.S. Nationals, some skaters and their parents though they could have been treated a little better. The novice and junior events weren't recognized at all, and the figure medalists did not receive the full medal ceremony accorded the medalist in the other events. At the exhibition the only recognition the few medalists that had remained in Salt Lake received was a quick wave from the kiss and cry area. The Acord Center where the figure events were held was nice by training rink standards, but the senior figure event could have and should have been held in the main area this one last time. Further, the medalist should have gotten a proper medal ceremony, and the passing of the event and the final medalists should have received greater recognition at the exhibition.
Even taking into consideration this is a post Olympic year, attendance at this Nationals was poor compared to the last two times Nationals was held here, and compared to other Nationals held in non-Olympic years in cities of comparable size. Although some advertising was evident there did not seem to be a great deal of public awareness of the event. The local newspapers did not give the event the same attentions newspapers in other cities have at past Nationals and interest from local government also seemed lacking. Far more attention was give to the Olympic bidding scandal and its ethics report that was released mid-week here during the competition.
Except for a few shining exceptions, the overall quality of the skating at Nationals seemed to be crying out: "Be afraid for the future. Be very afraid." Eight couples in senior dance - not a good sign.
Bad, in the sense of unfortunate, was the absence of Nicole Bobek. She had been skating well earlier in the season, but by missing Nationals and Worlds this year for health reasons it will be extremely difficult for her to continue next year. This may well be the end of the eligible line for Bobek. If so it will be a sad end for a great talent that was squandered by bad choices and bad luck over the past few years.
The terrible sight lines at the Delta Center would qualify for "the ugly" were it not for the fact the organizers warned the all-event ticket holders well in advance and offered them a refund, and the fact that Salt Lake residents all seemed to know beforehand that the Delta Center is a horrible venue for ice skating events and hockey. Should no changes be made for the Olympics, however, it will be ugly. Out of town visitors who may end up paying $10-20,000 for an Olympic trip will not be amused by the prospect of missing 20% of the competition and having to watch TV in the arena when they could just as well watch the tube at home for free.
Other than the sight lines we can think of nothing at this competition that comes close to qualifying for the ugly. Taking the trip as a whole, however, we must make note of Delta Airlines which deserves a prominent place at the head of the Ugly list at this or any competition we have covered. Those who rarely travel by plane may still find the experience an adventure, but for frequent business travelers who sometimes have to deal with impersonal, unhelpful, and arrogant airline employees the experience is sometimes an ordeal. That certainly was our experience this time. Of all the major airlines, Delta pins the arrogance meter with their user-unfriendly, uncooperative attitude. But then this is, after all, a business that recently decided to add a $2 fee for the privilege of speaking to a live person when purchasing their product, and then when complaints forced them to abandon that policy decided that any request for a refund of the fee would be treated like a request for a change to a non-refundable ticket and cost $75. Talk about nerve!
But we digress from the skating ...
All in all, the local organizing committee deserves credit for putting on a smooth running competition, making the best of what they had available, and trying some new things in preparations for the 2002 Olympics. If they learn from the experience and think creatively they should put on a fine event in 2002 ... as long as it is held at the E-Center.
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