On Edge Reviewed

by Martha Kimball

It is a sterling book title if ever there was one: On Edge: Backroom Dealing, Cocktail Scheming, Triple Axels, and How Top Skaters Get Screwed. If author Jon Jackson and collaborator James Pereira don’t entirely deliver on the hype, that is hardly a news flash. Who could?

I read the book avidly in two sittings. Yet, tasked with picking nits, I concluded that, while offering heretofore undisclosed information and insight, it has a structural deficiency. It tries to be too many things at once.

I can guess what happened. Jackson, a former competitive skater and international judge, had the good fortune to be within earshot when French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne hysterically spilled the beans about her complicity in a quid pro quo deal with certain Russians to "fix" the results of the Olympic Pairs event in Salt Lake City.

Jackson, a clearly intelligent man with inside knowledge and a friend who could serve as co-author, not to mention the best of intentions to do something positive for his chosen sport, seized the moment. The Salt Lake City shenanigans provided him with an excuse and an opportunity to talk about the topics that, it seems to me, most interested him: what it is like to be a figure skating judge; how that avocation can be, and historically often has been, corrupted; how, in an ideal world, a skating judge should function; and, not least, what it is like to be an emerging gay man in society at large and in the skating world in particular.

Finally, he must have felt a powerful compulsion to explain his role in the establishment of the World Skating Federation (WSF), a potential replacement for, and improvement upon, the ISU as a governing body for figure skating; and to rail against the forces that aligned counter to the WSF and exacted revenge upon the coup plotters. The latter furnishes much grist for the mill and offers the most compelling text.

The Salt Lake City scandal was no doubt the hook that sold the project .Not surprisingly, then, following a tried and true formula, Jackson’s book begins with a prologue called "Hotel Hi-jinx [sic]" that focuses on the Olympic Pairs aftermath and the Le Gougne confession: (The odd spelling of high jinks isn’t a good sign.) Chapter One then flashes back to Jackson’s childhood, grinding the gears and jerking into an inelegant transition. From there on, chronological order prevails.

The copy editing is not immaculate. I am irritated by dangling clauses, poor punctuation (especially the very odd use of hyphens), and awkward slang ("got ahold of"; "on account of"). Some skaters’ names are spelled incorrectly, and Sergei Grinkov has become Alexander – but such woes befall even the most careful authors when heavily marked manuscripts fly Fed Ex while deadlines loom.

The first chapters try too hard, with overwrought metaphors to spare. As the narrative progresses, it settles into a more natural tone – at least until Jackson gets heated up over the Lausanne hearing and the WSF era.

In truth, I would have purchased this book simply for the tale of one individual’s navigation of competitive figure skating and the judging world. Jackson became an official through the USFSA’s accelerated judging program for athletes, encountering troubling opposition from entrenched interests, in particular on the Pacific coast.

I would also have purchased this book simply for the honest story of a gay youth in the sport coming to terms with himself and with the role that he should play. This is a theme that has rarely been explored. I noticed recently that Randy Gardner "came out" casually in a magazine article, something that he had declined to do while collaborating with Tai Babilonia and me on their joint memoirs, Forever Two As One. I respected Randy’s decision then to keep his private life private, yet I felt that his portrayal would have been more solid had that dimension of his personality been acknowledged. Jackson deals with the issue naturally, without excessive drama. His experience is instructive.

Certainly the most compelling feature of the book, however, is its detailed exposition and analysis of judging, good and bad, and particularly its exposition of the Salt Lake City denouement, the ISU hearings in Lausanne, where dust was swept under the rug and apparently preordained punishments were meted out.

Anyone who had observed the imperfect skating scene closely for a number of years couldn’t have been genuinely surprised by the events at Salt Lake City. The only things that surprised me at all were the very degree of surprise expressed in the media and the fact that something was actually done to rectify the primary transgression (if not the secondary offense to Ina and Zimmerman).

I admit that I was as taken aback as anyone when Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze, whose skating I admire enormously and with whom I was collaborating at the time on a manuscript, were placed first over Sale and Pelletier. On the other hand, I had witnessed dozens of similarly questionable outcomes, and I could rationalize the Russian team’s ascendancy based upon subtleties that are now recognized and quantified under the CoP. The development that truly shocked me was the subsequent outcry, led by the nationalistic Canadian media, seconded by the American media, and fueled by the fact that judge Le Gougne actually fessed up.

Historically, as Jackson so accurately points out, skaters swallowed injustices with as much grace as they could muster, and life went on. Linda Fratianne surely did so in 1980. Paul Wylie was so thrilled with his silver medal at Albertville that it was easier than it might otherwise have been to forgive the judges for placing Petrenko first, presumably for lifetime achievement. I recall pairs skater Katy Keely, at the 1988 U.S. Nationals, fuming and railing in the press room after losing a spot on the Olympic team to the Seybolds. Her outburst fell under the heading of poor manners. Stolid partner Joe Mero sucked up the injustice, at least in that public situation.

While Jackson reveals what he feels are cases of outright fixing and collusion, he also allows for a vast array of explanations for what may seem like incorrect judging: honest and acceptable differences of opinion and emphasis; outright ignorance; insecurity; the pressure of the moment; and bias, whether related to region, nation, sexual orientation, or class (to wit, an interesting take on Tonya Harding).

And, by the way, Jackson opines that the vast majority of figure skating judges are hard-working and honest. You have to love his portrayal of those laid-back, bridge-playing Midwestern judges.

Coincidentally, on the day before I read Jackson’s book, I served as a "celebrity judge" at the Chautauqua Winter Games, an entertaining local non-qualifying competition. "Celebrity" simply meant that I wouldn’t require a gift basket and expense reimbursement; nor would I be relied upon to provide professional judgment. The organizers assigned me to events that I was most likely to evaluate competently and in which I was least likely to cause harm. That experience offered a reminder of how difficult it really is, under the 6.0 system, to: 1. place in the correct order skaters whom one doesn’t know and has never seen perform; 2. clearly remember the qualities of the first skater while the final skater competes; and 3. "save room" in the marks for all potential scenarios.

You might think that Jackson, then, would be a proponent of the more flexible CoP. Not at all. He assiduously defends the 6.0 system without exploring the advantages of its replacement system. He feels, with some justification, that the CoP has been rammed down throats in unseemly and devious ways. That allegation is apparently enough for him to dismiss the CoP out of hand.

Jackson does make some excellent points in favor of the old 6.0. The most compelling, I believe, is that the the viewing and ticket-buying public is comfortable with the 6.0 "brand," along with its easy comprehensibility and its ideal of perfection, and currently finds itself befuddled and therefore less engaged.

One of Jackson’s premises is that judges ideally should never view practices, nor consider past or customary performance levels, but simply judge what they see on the day. He exposes and criticizes the habit of pre-grouping skaters -- A, B, C, or D -- based on practice sessions and endless collusive "chatter." Where I agree with Jackson wholeheartedly is in his belief that such habits can harden viewpoints and lead to inflexibility or outright blindness. In the real world, however, some accommodations are practical necessities. It isn’t an entirely bad thing to have certain preconceptions. The trouble arises when those preconceptions override the actual competitive performance.

The judging of figure skating is a complex topic, and Jackson makes a worthwhile contribution to the raging discussion. He names names, offering good guys, bad guys, and a few guys in gray hats. He has seen a lot and done a lot in the sport. His opinions are, at the very least, worthy of thoughtful consideration.

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