by | Feb 16, 1998 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

NAGANO, Japan — I’ll probably get killed for this, but I’m going to say it anyway.

Figure skating is not a sport.

And in case you missed it …

Figure skating IS NOT A SPORT.

Oh, it’s many things. It’s athletic. It’s dramatic. It’s exciting. And yes, the competitors do break a sweat (unlike, say, in darts). But don’t call it a sport. Call it a performance. A sport pits athlete against athlete, or athlete against clock, or athlete against height, weight or distance.

It does not pit athlete against tailor.

“I once had a skater who had an unusual outfit,” admitted Frank Carroll, who coaches Michelle Kwan, “and a judge said to me, ‘I don’t know if I like his skating. I can’t get past the costume.’ “

You see what I mean? You don’t say that in a sport. “I can’t get past the costume.” Can you imagine a referee saying, “I don’t know if Michael Jordan hit a three-pointer or a two-pointer. I can’t get past his baggy shorts”?

Since when does clothing have anything to do with sports? If it did, the Denver Broncos would never have won the Super Bowl, not with those ugly navy and orange outfits. But did anyone say to John Elway, “Go back, work on your fabric, try again next year”?

It happens all the time in figure skating. The judges don’t like your costume. They don’t like your music. They don’t like your choreography. They mark you down. In skating circles they call this “sending a message.”

Now, much as I would personally like to send a few messages to figure skaters, particularly to Ilia Kulik, the Russian gold medalist who actually skated with gossamer wings on his shoulders (message to Ilia: “These are the Olympics, not heaven”), the fact is, message-sending is for E-mail. And bad reviews for choreography do not happen in sports. They happen when you open a Broadway musical.

“We’re at the mercy of the judges,” admits Todd Eldredge.

And what makes it worse? The whole thing is predetermined. I swear, half the time these judges do their scoring with tracing paper.

It’s not judging, it’s prejudging

Consider what happened the other night in the ice dancing. Yes. Ice dancing.
(Stop smirking. I didn’t invent it.)

But I know a fix when I see one. Take this Russian couple, Evgeny Platov and his partner, Pasha. Pasha uses only one name. It’s not her real name. But she feels it will help with her film career. I didn’t know she had a film career.

Anyhow, Pasha and Evgeny skated their opening routine and made a faux pas. Pasha slipped.

Normally, this is a mark down. But Pasha and Evgeny just happen to be the reigning royalty of their business, and so eight of the nine judges still gave them first-place marks.

“I wanted to twist faster than the other skaters,” Pasha explained. “That’s why I lost my balance.”

Oh. Well. I guess it’s OK then.

Of course, if she were a football player, and she said, “I wanted to get the ball into the end zone quickly, that’s why I fumbled it,” I don’t think they’d give her the ball back.

But there I go, thinking like a sports person again. I should be more accepting, like Pasha and Evgeny’s American competitors, Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow. When Jerod was asked what he did on his off-day, he said,
“We went to snow monkey park. We saw some of the judges.”

There you go. Have a sense of humor. Of course, he could have been as blunt as his Canadian counterpart, Victor Kraatz, when he was asked about the judging.

“It’s all a setup,” he said.

Whoa! And this is a competitor talking! It’s all a setup?

Even boxers won’t come out and say that.

As a judge, I give him high marks for honesty.

Message for Lipinski: Wait your turn

Now, I tell you all this not to disparage figure skating — which, after all, is the reason CBS is bothering to broadcast the Olympics, isn’t it? — but to see it for what it is, because the big showdown between Kwan and Tara Lipinski is coming up, and I think we should just get the popcorn and watch it like a movie. The fact is, even though Lipinski won a world championship, she has no prayer of winning the gold medal here unless Kwan skates half her program on her butt.

Why? Because the skating gods want it that way. They want to “send a message.” They want to make the 15-year-old Lipinski wait her turn, come back in four years, just as, in the men’s competition, they wanted Elvis Stojko to be less athletic and more artistic. Elvis balked. “They want me to get in touch with my feminine side,” he sniffed. “I don’t have a feminine side.”

He doesn’t have a gold medal, either. The judges gave him the silver, same as last Olympics. They used the dreaded “artist” marks to make sure of it.

Look. Here’s the problem. If an unknown 9-year-old from Nairobi comes to the Olympics and wins the 100-meter dash, he gets the gold medal, no questions asked. If that same 9-year-old lands five quintuple jumps in figure skating, they give him fifth place and tell him to come back next Olympics with better sequins.

That’s not judging, that’s directing.

Now, I know some critics will say, “What about gymnastics, or diving? They have judges. Are they not sports?” Good question. But at least in those events, there is no costume factor, and — with the exception of the gymnastics floor program — there is no artistic interpretation involved.

As long as skating has two sets of marks — technical and artistic — it will have judges yanking with one hand and squeezing with the other.

There’s sport and there’s performance. Confusing the two will only leave you frustrated. As to how you tell the difference, I rely on a simple test. Take the activity. Then imagine the athlete doing it in his or her underwear. If it changes the results, then it’s not a sport.

Although it might help Pasha’s film career.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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