Saturday, February 27, 2010
As the 2010 Winter Olympics come to an end—most likely never to be mentioned again once the medal winners have finished making their appearances on Good Morning America—it seems like a good time to reflect on all the historic Olympic moments we have witnessed as a nation and as a world. Unfortunately, nothing comes to mind, so instead I'll follow the media's lead and complain about the recent brouhaha that occurred over the Men's Figure Skating Finals.
For those blissfully unaware of what happened: Evan Lysacek, a Canadian, was awarded the Gold Medal by a panel of judges for skating around and jumping on a patch of ice. Evgeni Plushenko (Russian, pronunciation unknown) came away with the Silver and immediately issued a series of snippy remarks to the media in which he insisted he won, implied Lysacek wasn't a man, and railed against figure skating's new scoring system, which he said was “because the United States and Canada don't have anyone who can do a quadruple jump."
Well, fair enough. Making self-serving, vaguely nationalist complaints is an Olympic tradition, like the lighting of the torch or protesting on behalf of the host country's oppressed indigenous peoples. But if Plushenko wanted to garner sympathy, he missed a step by complaining about the scoring system in figure skating because whether it's the old system or the new system or a yet-to-be-created system, the way figure skating competitions are decided is utterly incomprehensible.
The image at the top of this post is a scorecard for Plushenko. It serves to remind us why we don't care about figure skating 45 months out of every 48. Figure skating has a lot to offer us—fancy costumes, beautiful people performing athletic feats, drama, even tears from some of the women. But unless the skaters fall, we have no idea how well or badly they're doing until the announcers inform us. Figure skating isn't football or golf or basketball where the rules may sometimes be complicated but the object is simple: get the ball across the line or into the cup or whatever. It's not boxing, where judges sometimes decide the result but the winner is more or less clear to a casual observer (whoever looks the worst at the end usually lost). It's not even competitive eating, which is objectionable for so many aesthetic and health reasons but at least has rules that can be understood by every sentient being.
No, figure skating is like passing a bill through the United States Senate—a task so clouded with rules and complicated ordinances that only a few insiders really understand how to perform it. Curling is usually the sport that gets made fun of for being difficult for the casual observer to understand, but at least curling has points. At least you know which side is winning when you watch a curling match—or you would know if you weren't so busy making fun of it to look the rules up. Curling would never produce that monstrosity of numbers and acronyms that appears above, and curling doesn't rely on judges to decide its matches.
The reason figure skating's scoring is so complex is that it doesn't seem like an activity that should be competitive. When you play pick-up basketball or go out bowling or curling, you compete against the other team or players naturally, as a matter of course. But when ordinary people go ice skating, they just skate around independent of one another. Making it an official “sport” with winners and losers seems besides the point, like making “funny walking” into a Summer Olympic event.
People like figure skating of course, but I doubt they like it as a competitive sport—most Olympic figure skating fans wouldn't argue over the nuts and bolts of the short and long programs the way baseball geeks obsess over On-Base Percentage and Runs Batted In. They like it for the spectacle, the glamour, and the grace of the skaters, and casual figure skating fans would be just as happy to watch the same high-level skaters perform triple lutzes noncompetitively.
Which is too bad for figure skaters who want to be regarded as fierce competitors on the level of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, and it's too bad for Evgeni Plushenko in particular, who wants people to care about the difference between a triple and quadruple jump. One of his complaints about the new scoring system was, “Now it's not men's figure skating; now, it's dancing,” which is a weird thing for him to say—for Olympic audiences who can't decipher that scorecard, figure skating might as well be dancing.