Why figure skating is not a sport
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Figure skating is not a sport.
It’s evident in entities as diverse as Vladimir Putin’s words and Johnny Weir’s costumes. It’s in the reworking of mathematics so three (rotations) is somehow greater than four. It’s in the cakes of makeup slapped on the skaters because high cheek bones (not just high jumps) matter.
Ugly people can win a sport. They’re at a disadvantage in figure skating. Just as they are in gymnastics, diving, beauty pageants, “American Idol” or anything else that uses subjective human judges to determine a winner. That includes winter games such as freestyle skiing, half pipe and so on.
Before you slit my throat with a sharpened Risport, please note that figure skaters are incredible athletes. They require speed, strength, agility, dexterity, balance and conditioning, certainly more than I could ever deliver. The pressure of the free skate – one person facing four minutes where a single error is ruinous – is about as intense as anything I’ve seen. I enjoy covering it every Winter Olympics.
Which doesn’t make figure skating a sport. And don’t even start with ice dancing, which dominated NBC’s broadcast last Sunday night. It takes a great athlete to compete in the NBA Slam Dunk competition, too. That isn’t a sport, either.
A sport requires a quantifiable way to determine a winner and a loser. There can be no debate about the scoring system. A puck must go into a net. A skier must get down the hill fastest. A short-track speedskater must finish ahead of the pack.
For safety reasons – you can’t have all the bobsleds go down at once – a clock is used to determine the winner in some sports. The clock is not subjective, though.
Figure skating is about what a human judge interprets as success. They bring their own biases, beliefs and preferences. It’s abstract. As such, it should be properly defined as a competition, not a sport.
It’s how Evan Lysacek defeated Evgeni Plushenko despite Plushenko doing a more athletically difficult program, including a quad jump rather than Lysacek’s triple. The judges just liked Lysacek better anyway. Maybe it was his superior looks, more stylish haircut or his costume. Maybe it was the music he chose.
It doesn’t matter. Once it was in the hands of a human judge, it wasn’t a sport.
“[You] performed the most accomplished program on the Vancouver ice,” Putin, the Russian prime minister, wrote to Plushenko while dismissing the results.
It’s not Lysacek’s fault this is how skating works. He won fair and square and has nothing to apologize about. The problem comes when people, such as Putin, apply the standards of sport to something that isn’t.
Or as Plushenko snapped, “Just doing nice transitions are big artistic is not enough because figure skating is a sport, not a show.”
Plushenko is wrong. It’s not a sport. It’s what frustrates many traditional sports fans when it comes to the Olympics, which merely bills itself as the “Games.”
Most skaters understand the base issue here. It’s why they wear makeup, get their hair done and put on flashy costumes – from revealing ones for women to the wild, look-at-me-efforts from many men.
In the men’s short program last week, Belgium’s Kevin van der Perren wore a skeleton outfit – a black, skin-tight, one-piece costume with rhinestones attached in the form of the bones. It was so outrageous, even the seen-everything crowd at Pacific Coliseum buzzed. That was the point.
“If I could choose [I would skate in] jeans and a T-shirt,” van der Perren said. “But the judges want something else.”
You don’t get style points in hockey or luge or speed skating. You don’t worry about what a judge wants. You don’t use rhinestones.
In figure skating’s most tabloid moment, Tonya Harding’s henchmen used a steel pipe to whack the knee of rival Nancy Kerrigan prior to the 1994 Olympics. The motivation? The stockier, more powerful Harding could never convince the judges she was better than the longer, leaner and more graceful Kerrigan. Since Harding couldn’t grow taller, she stood no chance.
Lindsey Vonn might be pretty, but the clock doesn’t care during a downhill run. No one starts the competition wondering how they can compete with her long, blonde hair.
Even the world’s most homely person could defeat her. They just have to ski faster.
It’s not just figure skating. Early in the Olympics, Canada’s Alexandre Bilodeau won gold in the freestyle skiing moguls competition. That event requires judges to determine the quality of jumps. The Australians were convinced their guy, Dale Begg-Smith, skied better but the judges were caught up in the emotion of the pro-Canadian crowd. Bilodeau couldn’t even argue.
“Sometimes you’re in the good graces of the judges,” he said. “Sometimes you’re not.”
Which means it’s not a sport.
Sports do employ referees to make determinations – enforcing rules, keeping the playing field level. Yet not even disgraced NBA ref Tim Donaghy was empowered to make the final choice on a winner.
The only time judging can be allowed is in combat pursuits such as boxing or mixed martial arts. Competitors have the opportunity to end the match themselves (via knock out). At some point, though, a decision is needed to ensure safety. Not surprisingly, the presence of those judges is why boxing is considered so corrupt.
Other than that, a sport can’t have a judge to determine the winner. Then it’s just a competition. It can be fun to watch, it can involve people of immense athletic ability, skill and mental toughness.
But it isn’t a sport. It just isn’t.