To those who have declared figure skating either unhip or on a slow, inexorable death spiral toward irrelevancy, we present our counter-argument in two words: Winter Olympics.
The Games have always been the lifeblood of the sport, the every-four-years chest compressions that do what all the Grand Prixes and world championships and Smucker's Stars on Ices cannot: It draws all the world’s eyes to the grandest stage of them all.
Yes, TV ratings can be frightful between Olympics. At U.S. events, attendance at skating competitions has been ailing.
But how do we know skating is not on respiratory support?
Because at the U.S. Championships in this, an Olympic year, TV ratings were up 40 percent from last year in the 18-49 age group. Because South Korea’s Kim Yuna is the biggest of superstars in Asia. Because every Olympics, the sport creating the most enduring buzz (see: Evgeni Plushenko) is figure skating.
In an attempt to freshen up a sport some feel has gone stale, those in charge of such things added a new event, team skating, that begins a day before the opening ceremony. Skating fans will debate—they love to debate—whether it dilutes or adds to the competition.
At the least, for fans, it’ll be an extra look at who’s skating well. For the competitors, it’s another chance for a medal—and possibly the only chance for teams like the U.S., rare underdogs for a podium spot at these Games.
For figure skating in general, the eyes of younger viewers, the ones the International Olympic Committee covet most, roll at the overdone drama of it all. The sequins. The over-the-top music. The kiss-and-cry. The tights and feathers. The athletes—yes, even the men—in mascara.
But people, even casual fans, watch Olympic figure skating. It’s not slopestyle snowboarding and not (usually) death-defying. They watch because it’s compelling in a way nothing else at the Games is.
Olympic figure skating can be a soap opera set to music: See Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan, Lillehammer, 1994.
It can be a showcase of drop-to-your-knees astonishment: Sarah Hughes, Salt Lake City, 2002.
It can be fist-pumping affirmation for both skater and coach: See Evan Lysacek and Frank Carroll, 2010.
It can be a display of uncommon grit and aching grace: See Joannie Rochette, Vancouver, 2010.
What it is not is dying. Not at the Olympics. So cue the mascara pencil, and let the games begin.
Jeremy Abbott signs after getting his score
Skating ditched its 6.0 scoring system after the 2002 Games, following a whopper of a judging scandal. Three Olympics later, the sport is still recovering. The “new,” zero-based, computer-driven scoring system is complicated.
Simply put, the old system started at perfection, the 6.0, and took away points for mistakes. The new system starts at zero and gives skaters points for things they do and more if they do them well.
When you’re watching TV, here’s what you need to know to decipher all those numbers on screen.
Like the old system, a skater gets two scores: one for technical elements and one for program components (components are divided into five categories). Highest score wins.
In general, point values are assigned certain moves—a double axel, for example, is assigned a base value of 3.3. Judges then rule on how well a skater does it, changing the value in a range from -3 (really poor) to +3 (perfectly executed).
Some like the system because it gives specifics on what went wrong and right, providing detailed feedback on a program. Critics say it has taken the artistry from the sport, turning skaters and program choreographers into accountants whose mission is to accumulate as many points as possible.
Want to impress your friends? Skating has two kinds of jumps—those that begin with a toe pick (look for flying ice chips) and those with an edge takeoff. See if you can identify them on TV before Scott Hamilton does:
Toe pick jumps
Toe loops: Started by the left toe pick with takeoff from the back outside edge of the right foot.
Flips: Started by the right toe pick, then taking off from the back inside edge of the left foot.
Lutzes: Started by the right toe pick. Takeoff comes from the back outside edge of the left foot.
Axels: Skating's only jump launched going forward and considered the most difficult jump because of an extra half-revolution. Takeoff comes from the forward left outside edge; landing comes on the back outside edge of the free foot.
Loops: Started from a right back outside edge, landing on the same edge.
Salchows: Started from a left back inside edge. A swinging opposite leg starts this jump.
(From The Winter Olympics: An Insider’s Guide to the Legends, the Lore and the Games, by Ron Judd)
Dick Button, two-time Olympic champion
People of a certain age remember when “figures” referred to compulsory figures, a scored component of every program. Now obsolete (most say happily—it was dull to watch), figures involved the skill of tracing pre-set figures on the ice.
Now all that’s left of figure skating is skating, with singles and pairs competing in the short program (about 2.5 minutes long) and the long program, or free skate (about four minutes for women, 4.5 for men).
Skating’s history is a rich one and personality-driven. But check out old photos or film, and you’ll see an wild sight: Ice skating taking place outdoors, with competitors having to deal with falling snow, wind and uneven ice. (The last outdoor Olympic skating competition was held at Squaw Valley in 1960.)
The sport’s first star was Sonja Henie, the only woman to win Olympic gold three straight times, in 1928, 1932 and 1936. She made her Olympic debut in 1924, as an 11-year-old, and went on to become a Hollywood star.
An early male star was Dick Button, known by most now as the outspoken TV commentator. Back in the day, Button could bring it. He won Olympic gold in 1948 and 1952 and is credited with landing the first double axel in competition. Tenley Albright won gold in 1956 and followed that with a career as a noted surgeon and cancer researcher.
Skating’s history is dotted with drama found nowhere else at an Olympics. Tonya Harding’s alleged “hit” on rival Nancy Kerrigan—Harding was accused of hiring a goon who whacked Kerrigan’s knee with a club prior to the U.S. Nationals—vies for the biggest scandal in sports history and actually sent figure skating ratings through the roof for years.
Next was the 2002 Salt Lake judging scandal, where a French judge was accused of trading votes with her Russian counterpart. The plot was discovered, and two sets of gold medals were awarded to pairs skaters from Russia and Canada.
On the ice, memorable moments included The Battle of the Brians (Orser and Boitano) and the seemingly jinxed fan favorite Michelle Kwan, who won everything in her career except Olympic gold. A medal favorite in 1998, she was upset by Tara Lipinski, 15; in 2002, it was another bolt from the blue, Sarah Hughes; in 2006, it was a balky hip injury.
In pairs, skaters from the former Soviet Union or Russia put together a jaw-dropping streak of 12 straight gold medals. Britain’s Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean were the first to make ice dancing worth watching.
Polina Edmunds was second at U.S. Nationals
Thursday, February 6
8:00 pm-11:00 pm: Team men's short program and team pairs short program
Saturday, February 8
9:30 am-2:30 pm (live) and 8:00 pm- 1:00 am (primetime replay with other sports):
Team ice dance short dance, team ladies' short program and team pairs' free skate
Sunday, February 9
10:00 am-1:00 pm (live) and 7:00 pm-12:35 am (primetime replay): Team men's free skate, team ladies' free skate and team free dance
Tuesday, February 11
10:00 am-1:30 pm (live) and 8:00 pm-11:30 pm (primetime replay): Pairs' short program
Wednesday, February 12
10:00 am-2:00 pm (live) and 8:00 pm-11:30 pm (primetime replay): Pairs' free skate
Thursday, Feb. 13
10:00 am-3:00 pm (live) and 8:00 pm-11:30 pm (primetime replay): Men's short program
Friday, February 14
10:00 am-2:15 pm (live) and 8:00 pm-11:30 pm (primetime replay): Men's free skate
Sunday, February 16
10:00 am-2:00 pm (live) and 7:00 pm-11:00 pm (primetime replay) and 11:35 pm-12:35 am (replay): Ice dance short dance
Monday, February 17
10:00 am-1:30 pm (live) and 8:00 pm-11:30 pm (primetime replay) and 1:00 am-2:00 am (replay): Ice dance free dance
Wednesday, February 19
10:00 am-3:00 pm (live) and 8:00 pm-11:30 pm (primetime replay): Ladies' short program
Thursday, February 20
10:00 am-3:00 pm (live) and 8:00 pm-11:30 pm (primetime replay): Ladies' free skate
Saturday, February 22
12:30 pm-2:30 pm and 8:00 pm-11:30 pm (primetime replay) and 12:00 am-1:00 am: Gala Exhibition
All events will be streamed live on nbcolympics.com.
Complete TV listings can be found here: nbcolympics.com/tv-listings
Mao Asada's triple axel makes her a medal favorite
Kim Yuna, South Korea – The defending Olympic gold medalist will likely win again. Yes, she has skated in just two minor competitions this year, but she appears to be rounding into form, similar to when she won the won the 2013 world title. Besides a triple lutz-triple toe loop combination that brings big points, her speed, fluidity and bigger jumps are unmatched.
Mao Asada, Japan – If Kim stumbles, Olympic silver medalist Asada will be there with her trademark triple axel, the only current skater to even attempt the jump in competition. She has won at Four Continents and the Grand Prix title, but with a major asterisk—Kim was not there.
Patrick Chan, Canada – With his superb artistry and athleticism, it’s a mystery why Chan didn’t put it together for a medal on his sport’s biggest stage. Fifth in his home country’s Olympics in 2010, he now has another chance. This time, he enters Sochi on a tear rarely seen in the sport—three straight world titles since Vancouver and a record-shattering performance at the 2013 Grand Prix in Paris. Finally, this might be his Games.
Yuzuru Hanyu, Japan – Coached by Brian Orser, Hanyu, 19, might be the most exciting teenager in men’s skating today. He landed eight triples in the free skate to defeat Patrick Chan in December and become the third-youngest male to win a Grand Prix Final title.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White, United States – The pair have America’s first dance gold in their sights.
Evgeni Plushenko owns Olympic gold and two silvers.
Evgeni Plushenko, Russia – Hard to list a three-time Olympic medal-winner an underdog. But Plushenko's injuries and absences since Vancouver make him one. When we last saw Plushenko in major competition, he was throwing a snit over losing Olympic gold to Evan Lysacek, grousing about Lysacek’s missing quad jump. The 2006 Olympic champion and two-time silver medalist is the biggest wild card here, if not in the entire Olympics. After an injury-plagued couple of years, he was too rusty to even win his own national championship coming into the Games. Nonetheless, he is Russia’s only entry in the men’s competition. Thursday’s Team Trophy competition should tell us more.
Jeremy Abbott, United States – Known for his artistry and the potential for spectacular jumps, the four-time national champion has surprisingly little international success, with his highest result a fifth at worlds. More was expected of him than ninth at the 2010 Games.
Akiko Suzuki, Japan – Could pull off a surprise. Mature, graceful and savvy, Suzuki is experiencing a career breakthrough at 28, beating countrywoman Asada at the All-Japanese championships for her first national title in January.
Ashley Wagner, United States – The two-time U.S. champion has lots of international experience but, more importantly, something to prove. If the firestorm over her selection to the Olympic team can’t provide motivation, nothing will. Wagner reinstated music from her old free skate in 2012-13, when things were good, in an attempt to recapture some much-needed mojo.
The U.S. has triumphed before in the Team Trophy
Give Olympic officials credit for trying something new—a pseudo-team environment in a sport that could hardly be more individualistic. But if gymnastics can do it, we’ll play along.
Here’s how it works, starting Thursday: Six skaters from each country perform in men’s, women’s, pairs and dance. Each skates one short and one long program. Two entries per team may be subbed out. For example, in the women’s skate, the U.S. team will likely have Ashley Wagner in the short program and Gracie Gold in the long.
Ten teams will start, but the field will be cut to five following the short program. Scores for every program count and are determined by a skater’s placement—10 points for first, nine points for second, etc.
After all eight segments of competition over three days (Friday is a rest day), the team with the highest point total wins gold.
The teams by ranking: 1. Canada; 2. Russia; 3. U.S.; 4. Japan; 5. Italy; 6 France; 7. China; 8. Germany; 9 Ukraine; 10. Great Britain.
As contrived as this event seems, the team event definitely has some intrigue. No surprise that most of it surrounds Russia’s Evgeni Plushenko, the four-time Olympian and three-time world champion, who has resurfaced after injury problems, including surgery to his back and knee. Also, after his silver-medal finish in Vancouver, the Russian federation yanked his eligibility for withdrawing from the 2010 Worlds, citing injury, and then skating in exhibitions. He was reinstated the next year.
Plushenko, the only men’s skater in modern history to win three Olympic medals (one gold, two silvers), is Russia’s lone men’s singles entry. He declined the invitation to be his nation’s flag-bearer in Friday’s opening ceremony, blaming his competition schedule. Rumors have swirled he will drop out after the team event and not skate in the men’s singles competition, but Plushenko says he will skate both.
Gracie Gold is America's top female medal hope.
Call it grim to borderline OK. Ice dancers Charlie White and Meryl Davis are practically a lock for a medal and would become the first U.S. ice dancers to win Olympic gold. They are two-time world champions, but so are Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue. When it came to the 2010 Games, the smooth Canadians had the upper (perfectly positioned) hand.
Still, the athletic White and Davis have been the better of late, winning the 2013 world title and, recently, the Grand Prix title.
A medal in the just-added team event—American skaters are the world champions—would almost feel like cheating, but we’ll take it.
The reality is the last time an American figure skating squad was shut out of Olympic men’s and women’s singles medals was 1936, when Sonja Henie was skating, and this year’s squad is on the brink of repeating long-ago history.
Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner have the best, if outside, shots at a medal. U.S. silver medalist Polina Edmunds, 15, might well be the future of U.S. skating, just not the present. Jeremy Abbott has yet to match his international performances with his domestic ones, and this will be a good experience for Jason Brown, 19, to tuck away for future use. Pairs skaters Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir might generate some suspense by landing the throw quad salchow they tried at nationals, but don’t expect a medal, stretching the U.S. Olympic pairs' medal drought to 26 years.
In dance, siblings Alex and Maia Shibutani will be fun to watch in their first Games. They, along with and Madison Chock and Evan Bates, need more seasoning on the big stage.
Kim Yuna is favored for repeat gold.
Two Olympic medalists return in Kim Yuna and Mao Asada, who went 1-2 in Vancouver in 2010.
But some dynamic—and young—faces could wind up on the medal stand, namely from host Russia.
Yulia Lipnitskaya, Russia. Precocious leader of Russia’s youth movement, Lipnitskaya is just 15. Known for her flexibility and emerging elegance, she was the youngest in women’s history to win the European Championships, defeating the elder Adelina Sotnikova and Carolina Kostner and breaking the age record of countrywoman Irina Slutskaya, who did it at 16.
Adelina Sotnikova, Russia. At just 17, she is more powerful and artistic than teammate Lipnitskaya and is part of Russia’s new wave of emerging talent. Competing before a home crowd will help them both.
It will be intriguing to see the young Russians match blades with teenager Gracie Gold, who supplanted Ashley Wagner atop American skating when she won the national title last month. Gold’s triple-triples are impressive for their height, power and stability. Plus—think Sarah Hughes and Tara Lipinski—what has she got to lose?
Veteran Carolina Kostner of Italy is due for a break at the Olympics, shockingly underperforming at the past two Games (16th in Vancouver, 9th in Torino). Kostner has a world title from 2012, but Kim didn’t compete, and Asada wasn’t up to par.
Javier Fernandez (center) is Spain's first skating star.
With the exception of Canada’s Patrick Chan, this could be Japan’s time to shine with three substantial talents, each of whom could land on the podium.
The Russian elephant in the room is Russia’s Evgeni Plushenko. Seemingly held together by baling wire and tape, Plushenko, 31, was a controversial pick for Russia’s lone men’s individual slot, losing to Maksim Kovtun in his nation’s championship. He maybe a shell of his former self, but he can still command attention.
"Plushenko is the talk of the town. It's exciting, it's drama-filled," Chan told the Associated Press. "I take my hat off to him. That's experience. I would be very distracted having to deal with the controversies and having to compete in my own country."
Chan speaks from experience, having finished fifth in his home country Olympics in 2010.
Japan’s Daisuke Takahashi appears to have peaked in 2010, when he won Olympic bronze. He also won the 2012 Grand Prix Final, but this year he was a discretionary pick to make the Olympic team. Teammate Tatsuki Machida is the national silver medalist on a loaded squad.
Then there’s Javier Fernandez, winner of the past two European Championships. Spain’s only acclaimed international skater, he could certainly medal and make his nation’s history books.
Volosozhar and Trankov could bring gold back to Russia.
Russia is looking to rebound from their worst Olympics in decades. Where better to do it at home, in a category it once dominated?
The glory years for Russian pairs shows one of the most remarkable records in Olympic history. From 1960 to 2006, Russian or Soviet pairs skaters stood atop the podium.
It all came crashing to a halt at the 2010 Games in Vancouver, when not a single Russian skater won an Olympic title.
Look for Russian fans to cheer for their nation’s revival in the form of Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, favored for gold here.
It’s no slam dunk, but they are world champions and three-time European champions. Germany’s Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, along with China’s Pang Qing and Tong Jian, the 2010 Olympic silver medalists and two-time world champions, will provide the most competition.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White aim for their first Olympic gold.
In a decidedly off year for U.S. prospects, Meryl Davis and Charlie White are the lone bright spot. They are ready for their golden closeup but will have to beat Detroit training partners Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada, no small task. Virtue and Moir won 2010 Olympic gold in front of a home crowd in Vancouver. As good as Davis and White have been, in the past four years they’ve stepped it up a notch.
In one of the oddly successful setups in sports, the pairs share a training facility and a coach and also share four world titles between them. Chances are, they’ll share another Olympic podium too.
Russian dance couple Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev will likely make their home crowd happy with a medal.
Will Patrick Chan add an Olympic medal to his resume this time?
Team Trophy – 1. Canada; 2. Russia; 3. U.S.
Women’s singles – 1. Kim Yuna, South Korea; 2. Mao Asada, Japan; 3. Julia Lipnitskaia, Russia
Men’s singles – 1. Patrick Chan, Canada; 2. Yuzuru Hanyu, Japan; 3. Javier Fernandez, Spain
Pairs – 1. Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, Russia; 2. Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, Germany; 3. Pang Qing and Tong Jian, China
Ice dance – 1. Meryl David and Charlie White, U.S.; 2. Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, Canada; 3. Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev, Russia