by Jack Curtis


It hit this writer suddenly: Our complaints of figure skating are aimed at the wrong targets.

Consider: Jackson Haines, a dancer, put ballet onto ice with music, thus inventing free skating. He was in business, performing all over Europe. Somebody, probably in Vienna, accepted his performances as proper competitive figure skating and started the perennial argument: Is figure skating art or sport? Some writers and at least one dance reviewer gave up, calling it an art/sport. Scoring used two marks: Technical Merit and Artistic Impression, supposedly equally weighted; most American sportswriters sneered at the judging while somehow not noticing the judging of boxing matches.

Then TV made Olympic competition a big deal; the public watched; money appeared. The vagaries of subjective judging in a political milieu drew criticism when money underlined them. The ISU failed to defend the judging; to protect itself, it followed the direction the performers had been headed anyway and defined success as triples and quads, a readily visible standard easier to defend. The ISU took the final step by moving scoring to points awarded for specific tricks properly done, the current IJS system. Though not discussed, that also settled the old debate: figure skating is now definitely a sport; it is not an art, nor even an art/sport; it has finally buried Jackson Haines and his audience with him. How many tickets would the Kirov ballet or Cirq du Soleil sell with the performances we see from skaters?

The real issue then, is not IJS; that is a symptom. The real issue is not even whether we want triples and quads to define success, though that is getting closer. The real issue is the one we have never been willing to face: Do we want figure skating to be an art or a sport? We have proof in IJS that we cannot have it both ways over the long term in a politically governed organization. President Cinquanta’s solution to his political problem has given us results that have outraged a lot of us but he simply followed the logic of his situation: he thought it too hard to support subjective judging in a political milieu so he went to a more mechanical, more easily defended model, thereby becoming a member of the Olympic Committee. He solved his problem; how may we solve ours?

It seems to this writer that we can’t return to the previous art/sport situation; we will just replay the resulting cycle for the same reasons. We have proven that we can’t combine counting airborne revolutions with evaluating choreography; the revolutions will predominate; numbers kill passion. So, we must decide figure skating is art, judge it accordingly and stand firm on that or we must learn to love IJS and pratfalls in empty arenas with declining participation. The sport without the art doesn’t sell.

Scoring must recognize art and be seen to do that; the ISU must defend subjective judging, not run from it. If Plushenko and Oda both have a good day, the outcome should not be predicted easily. When results come out; who made them and why should be as visible as they were with the old system. ISU President Cinquanta killed art unintentionally but he is responsible; he must put it back or stand for killing it.

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