Sport or Art?

It is time to decide

by Sonia Bianchetti Garbato

Back in 1865, in Vienna, during an exhibition tour in Europe, Jackson Haines, a professional dancer and a skater, had the idea to put ballet on ice with music.

The idea was received with great enthusiasm. Skating with music entertained the public and, at the same time, amused the skaters. As a matter of fact, that day, Jackson Haines invented "free skating" and is deservedly considered the father of "Artistic Skating", as our sport is known all over the world, except in English-speaking countries. Till then, figure skating was considered more of a scientific sport than an art in the sense of classical ballet.

It was only five years later, in 1870, that free skating performances were accepted as part of competitive figure skating and gave rise to the perennial dilemma: is figure skating art or sport?

Many years have gone by. During the 1970s, the artistic part -- the choreography, the interpretation of the music -- became the most attractive and appealing part for the public, in a crescendo of beauty and originality that culminated at the 2002 Olympic Games with the unforgettable program of Alexei Yagudin to The Man in the Iron Mask. I do not remember how many triple or quadruple jumps Alexei executed in that program, but I do remember that at the end, I had tears in my eyes. Technique is essential, but it must be at the service of the music. This is what the fans want: to live an emotion.

Television contributed to make our sport more and more popular. As the audiences grew, so did the business. And, as often happens when money is involved, the sport became an easy target for corruption.

After the scandal in pair skating at the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, the ISU President, Ottavio Cinquanta, found a way to solve his political problems that seemed, to him, to be simple and logical. To avoid future risks, he replaced the old 6.0 system with a new, high-tech way of judging, more difficult to manipulate, in his opinion. Cinquanta has, perhaps, solved his own problems with the International Olympic Committee, but he has not solved anything for figure skating.

The present system, which is based on "absolute judging", which moved scoring to awarding points to specific elements, regardless of their quality, theoretically should also have ended any discussion or ambiguity on the nature of figure skating: it is only a sport. Letís forget the artistic part. Full stop! Pity that along with burying the art, the ISU buried the public and the television audience as well.

The old 6.0 system allowed separate evaluation of the athletic and the artistic parts, using two separate marks, Technical Merit and Presentation, with equal value in the total score. With the present system, however, it is clear that it is impossible to re-create the previous situation of sport blended with art. We have proven that we canít combine counting revolutions in the air with evaluating choreography, musicality, and beauty. The number of the revolutions will always predominate, and numbers simply kill passion.

Now, even the ISU president seems to have realized that if we want to revitalize the sport and bring back its popularity, we have to change direction. The present trend to define success by triple or quadruple jumps does not pay. It is therefore necessary to move away from the ambiguity. Do we want figure skating to be sport and art or just sport? Now we have the evidence that with the present judging system, we cannot have both.

Therefore the ISU must make up its mind: if figure skating is art, it is necessary for the judges to be given the means to judge it as such, as a whole, and not sliced into many different meaningless marks. As we have always contended, the performances of a singer, a ballet dancer, a concert player, or a skater cannot be measured with the precision of a mathematical system, but only judged. And judging can only be, and will always be, subjective.

Otherwise, we must get used to and accept programs which look all the same, with the same elements, all too often poorly executed; the same choreography, where the music is just background noise without any sense; and the sight of skaters performing in empty arenas with declining TV audiences. The sport without the art doesnít sell.

As Jack Curtis wrote in one of his excellent articles: "ISU President Cinquanta killed art unintentionally but he is responsible; he must put it back or stand for killing it."

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