A Wild Game of King of the Hill

Michael Abernethy

Skating has become a dog and pony show, with each performance crammed full of jumps, spins, and fancy footwork, leaving little time for artistry or elegance.

Long live the queen. The time has come for figure skating's reigning matriarch to pass her crown off to her successor and, surprise, it's not Sasha Cohen. Michelle Kwan, meet Kimmie Meissner, the 16-year-old American who surpassed everyone's expectations to claim gold at the 2006 World Figure Skating Championships, held recently in Calgary. As Meissner repeatedly said, it was "awesome".

This was supposed to be Cohen's gold, as the Olympic silver medalist wouldn't have to face her toughest Torino competition, Shizuka Arakawa and Irina Slutskaya, the Olympic gold and bronze medalists. But in true Sasha style, she blew the lead she had going into the long program (and her claim to the title) with a sloppy and listless final skate, while Meissner delivered an enthusiastic and error-free program to climb from third to first.

But Meissner wasn't the only one to serve notice. Americans Evan Lysacek reclaimed his third place finish from last year, confirming that he is the next American male to watch, not national champ Johnny Weir. Likewise, Americans Rena Inoue and John Baldwin Jr., and Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto all had something to prove, as did Switzerland's Stephane Lambiel, China's Pang Qing and Tong Jian, and Canada's Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon. As is typically the case after a Winter Olympics, the World Figure Skating Championships became a contest of the also-rans, as those who fell short of gold at Torino had another shot without those pesky Olympic champions to get in their way.

All of the Olympic gold medallists chose to sit out the World's, and only Lambiel, the Olympic silver medalist, returned to defend his world title. In fact, all of the Olympic silver medalists showed, but only Lambiel successfully took the next step up the winner's podium. But his victory wasn't a "gimme". Under figure skating's new scoring system, anyone in the top ten has a shot at winning, and skaters have climbed from thirteenth to first with a solid final program. Consequently, the world championship resembled a wild game of King of the Hill, with skaters crawling over one another to get to get to the top.

Fortunately, those who showed up to play offered a real contest, unlike the debacle of a month ago, which more closely resembled a Fall Festival than a Winter Olympics. In Torino, figure skaters spent almost as much time sliding across the ice on their asses as they did executing jumps. The Olympic champions won not because they demonstrated great artistry and athletic prowess, but because they remained standing longer than their competitors. The extra month of training apparently paid off in Calgary, as fewer skaters fell apart and none of the skaters left the competition by ambulance.

This was an especially welcome development in the ice dancing competition. Although perennial runners-up Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski of Bulgaria wound up winning, the majority of attention was focused on Dubreuil and Lauzon, skating in their home country after a disastrous Olympics. In the short program at Torino, Lauzon had lifted his partner with one arm when she lost her grip and went sailing across the ice. Landing on her hip hard, Dubreuil finished the final few seconds of the program but left immediately for x-rays. With no serious damage done, the real-life lovers were determined not to necessarily win in Calgary, but to skate the long program they hadn't gotten to skate at the Olympics; they did, beautifully, and missed gold by only .45 points.

Still, Americans Belbin and Agosto managed to steal some of the focus from Dubreuil and Lauzon, as some commentators claimed that partial judging cost the team a higher placing than the third place they received (the skaters skirted the issue, saying only that they were happy with the bronze). The controversy surrounded the scoring of the team's short program. A referee assigns each move of the skaters a "level of difficulty" score, off of which judges base their scores for quality of execution. The higher the level of difficulty, the higher the score. The referee in Calgary scored the Americans' levels lower than referees at other competitions, including the Olympics, raising eyebrows as to how the same dance moves could have varying levels of difficulty. The stir pointed out the fact that the new scoring system still has some flaws to contend with.

The area of the competition where these flaws were most evident was the pairs competition. The most visible error on the part of the scoring system is the high number of points that it assigns to the most unattractive move in skating, in which a female competitor grabs the blade of one skate and pulls it as close to the back of her head as possible. Not only is it a freakishly contortionist move, it is also dangerous, as one slight slip could cause a skater to give herself a cranial lobotomy. Yet, every female pair skater did the move at least once, due to its high point value.

Another flaw in the point system was evident in the high finish of Inoue and Baldwin, an above-average pair hoping for greatness by adding one big trick to their arsenal. Last year, the duo finished eleventh at World's; by adding a throw triple axel this year -- a move never completed in international competition before the Americans did it at the Olympics -- the couple was able to move up to fourth. Granted, the two have improved overall since last year, but they owe their placement to a solitary trick, not a complete program of exceptional skating. Compare their final skate to the exciting skate of gold medalists Pang and Tong, and it is evident how far Inoue and Baldwin have to go to become true champions.

Inoue and Baldwin's finish is indicative of the most glaring problem with the new scoring system. Because skaters are earning points for each move, they are encouraged to push themselves to do more, bigger tricks. Why earn a few points with a triple-double jump combination that can be cleanly executed when you can earn a lot of points with a quad-triple combination that you may or may not pull off? And so skating becomes a dog and pony show, with each performance crammed full of jumps, spins, and fancy footwork, leaving little time for artistry or elegance. None of the pairs winners delivered clean programs, but all had enough big moves to rack up the points needed to win.

The problems this creates can be highlighted by looking at the skating record of American Matt Savoie. Savoie finished in eleventh place at World's, lacking the technical skills to earn huge points. However, Savoie is one of the most graceful artists skating today; he is perhaps the most elegant male skater since the great Brian Boitano. Undoubtedly, though, Savoie spends much of his training on mastering jumps and spins, instead of developing the artistic side of his programs, which is where his strength lies. Given the chance to expand his artistic repertoire, Savoie could join the ranks of America's finest skaters. (Savoie will be starting law school in the fall, however, so his future skating plans are uncertain.) Of course, skaters still get scored for their artistry under the new system, but the artistry score alone won't get you to the podium.

Which brings us back to Cohen. In the exhibition skate, Cohen performed one of the best skates of the Championships. Her program had grace and poetry; it did not, however, have a single jump. Had Cohen been able to highlight in competition what she does well -- extended lines, smooth skating, and sassy interpretations of the music -- she would have been able to stand atop the podium. But the technical elements are her perpetual downfall, as she invariably has one of her three programs plagued with falls, double-footed landings on jumps, and klutzy stumbles. The same could also be said of World bronze medalists Belbin and Agosto and Evan Lysacek. American skaters seem to be incapable of delivering three clean programs during a competition, meaning they enter the final skate trying to play catch-up or conservatively trying not to blow the good standing they have.

Except Meissner, that is, who showed that she has the goods to deliver consistently. But her win raises as many questions as it resolves. Will the 16-year-old follow in the footsteps of other American teens who hit big early in their careers (Tara Lipinski, Sarah Hughes), and fade into obscurity? With Kwan, Slutskaya, Arakawa out of the picture, Meissner has the potential to stand atop of the podium numerous times; can she handle the pressure of entering next season as the one to beat, the reigning world champion? Only Japan's Mao Asada, at 15 too young to compete on the international stage, seems poised to offer a challenge to Meissner's reign.

Ultimately, the World Figure Skating Championships offered skating fans two things -- a final glimpse of the old school skaters seeking one last shot at glory and a look at those young hopefuls who will be laying claim to gold in Vancouver in 2010. For now, fans can relax while competitors prep for next year. As commentator Terry Gannon aptly put it, "So much of skating is a waiting game."

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