Lipinski Joins the Circus

(and other thoughts on professional skating)


After several false leads and conflicting announcements prior to the World Championships, Tara Lipinski finally announced in mid-April, what we all suspected all along, that she was giving up her eligibility and joining the ranks of ineligible skaters.   In a series of miss-steps beginning shortly after the Winter Olympics, and continuing unabated until the eligibility announcement was made 6 weeks later Team Lipinski suffered one public relations black-eye after another, seeming to go out of their way to put Lipinski on track to be the least liked gold medalist in the history of the Olympics.  But this is not about Lipinski and her image. Rather, it is about the nature of the professional skating world she has has entered.

Buffeted by criticism from throughout the eligible skating world, defense of Lipinski's behavior and decisions has primarily come from a few prominent individuals in the professional skating world, most notably Scott Hamilton and Dick Button.  The ensuing discussion of her eligibility decision prompted a strong defense of professional skating from Hamilton; and Button, during an ABC broadcast of the Worlds exhibition, made a strong  point of the fact that it was her right to do what she wanted with her career, and others should mind their own business.

True, it is Lipinski's life and Lipinski's choice; and, true, most would agree that part of the criticism is no more than a petty backlash resulting from her snatching the gold from a more popular skater.  Nevertheless, there are some valid questions to be asked about the wisdom of a 15 year old becoming a professional, and it would be naive to think the decision would not receive widespread attention.  This is not new ground for professional sports - professional tennis went through this several decades ago when young teen phenoms in that sport first began turning pro - but it is new ground for skating, and people are correct to be concerned about the wisdom of the decision and the message it sends.  Was this career decision really Lipinski's, or was it her parents' or her agent's? Will ineligible skating grind up Lipinski the same way it did 16 year old Oksana Bauil?  Will she continue to develop as a skater or will she become a "has been" at age 15?  Will her success motivate even more little girls to grow up away from their families and without an education to pursue fame and fortune that eludes most?  These are valid questions worth considering, but also questions that only time will answer.

Of the above questions, the least profound, but more entertaining one has been the "has been" question.  The issues here were summed up nicely in a commentary by Christine Brennan in USA Today.  In her commentary Brennan lamented that by turning pro Lipinski had given up her opportunity to become the best skater she was capable of becoming because the pros were "a place to kick back", and described turning pro as "skating's equivalent to joining the circus".   These comments unleashed a strong reply from Scott Hamilton.

In his reply, also published in USA Today, Hamilton defended the work ethic of professional skaters, the quality of professional skating (using as an example the fact that the last triple Axel landed by a lady in competition was landed in a professional competition by Midori Ito), and the contributions of professional skaters to the development of the sport of figure skating.  Finally, he closed with a stinging personal attack on Brennan herself - a remarkable outburst for a commentator who seems generally incapable of criticizing any skater in any competition he has ever reported on.

While we tend to view professional skating more similar to professional wrestling, the circus analogy is not without its merit, and the comments by Hamilton, while colorful, were mostly off their mark.  Certainly it would not be fair to characterize professional skaters as lazy.  While working at maintaining their skills, performing regularly, and travelling extensively, professional skaters are serious about their profession and work hard at it. Nonetheless, in terms of athletic development, professional skating is in a sense a place to kick back.  Skaters reach the peak of their technical skills as eligible skaters.  Once they turn pro these technical skills slowly erode while presentation, artistic, and entertainment skills develop.   Triple Axels came to eligible skating for both the men and the women before they came to professional ineligible skating.  Quad jumps for the men came to eligible skating before they came to ineligible skating.  Hamilton's use of Midori Ito as an example is particularly bad.  Ito learned the triple Axel as an eligible skater, she still had it when she first turned pro, but by the time she reinstated it was practically gone.  At the 1996 World Championships she was a shadow of her former self technically, and after a disappointing result left eligible skating for the second and final time.  Kurt Browning had a quad toe loop when he turned pro.  Where is it today?  Is there even one ineligible skater who has acquired a more difficult jump or combination  that they possessed as an eligible skater?  I cannot think of one.   Before turning ineligible Lipinski was reportedly tinkering with  triple Lutz - triple loop combination.  Will she work on this as an ineligible skater?  Why should she bother when she is already technically superior to all the other ineligible ladies with the tricks she already has and no one is out there to challenge her?

In regard to the overall quality of ineligible skating versus eligible skating, eligible skaters consistently beat the ineligible skaters.  None of the ineligible skaters who reinstated in the early 1990's did as well after having been a pro, as they did when they were first eligible skaters, except for Gordeeva and Grinkov.   In the early USFSA ProAm's the eligible skaters regularly placed ahead of the ineligible skaters.  In short order the ineligible skaters became unwilling to compete in the ProAms because they knew they were not competitive and did not want to lose to the eligible skaters.  As a result the ProAm's were changed to a team format so that eligible and ineligible skaters would not have to compete against each other head-to-head.  Nevertheless, when unofficial orders of finish were calculated from the marks (and circulated on the internet) it was still clear the ineligible skaters were not competitive.  In the most recent ProAm, closed judging was used to make it impossible to determine even an unofficial individual order of finish and thus shield the ineligible skaters from a direct comparison with the eligible skaters.

Finally, what has professional skating really done for the development of the sport of figure skating?  The answer here is not totally negative but still not encouraging for proponents of ineligible skating.  There are, at least, some examples of eligible skaters who in touring with the pro's have clearly benefited artistically from the experience.  The most recent example of this is Lipinski, herself, who after her season on the tour in 1997 came back significantly improved artistically and in maturity on the ice.  But beyond that it is not clear that ineligible skating has much of an impact on the development of skating as a sport.  The growth of ineligible skating was preceded by the growth of eligible skating, thanks largely due to the Olympics; and if anything, after some increase in the number of ineligible skating events in the mid-1990's competitive opportunity in ineligible skating has declined in recent years while it continues to grow in eligible skating.  At best one might argue that there is some sort of symbiotic relationship between eligible and ineligible competition, but even that is not clear, and certainly not in terms of the development of athleticism where eligible skating leads and ineligible skating follows.

Despite claims to the contrary about athleticism, ineligible skating is about entertainment.  During her commentary of the Skate TV competition held in April, Rosalynn Sumners repeatedly stressed that pro skating is about entertainment.   Ineligible competitions and ProAm's are no more than shows packaged in the form of a competition for the purposes of promoting interest and dramatic tension.  So long as eligible and ineligible skaters are unable to compete in open head-to-head competition, using rules established for serious athletic competition and judged by trained judges, ineligible skating will remain what it is today, professional wrestling on ice.

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