Whom to Root For in Ladies' Figure Skating? History Says Look For the Best Story

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Who is on track to win the ladies' Olympic figure skating competition scheduled for Wednesday, February 19 and Thursday, February 20?

It's a tough call. There are, after all, so many elements in a winning program. Judges are looking at jumps, spins, footwork, spirals, connecting moves, musicality and artistic presentation.

You could spend years acquainting yourself with the intricacies of the sport, the new code of points, the subtle differences between an inside and an outside edge, not to mention a Lutz and a Salchow jump, or a doughnut spin versus a Biellmann.

Gracie Gold
Gracie Gold, Image: © Wang Lili/Xinhua/ZUMAPRESS.com

Or you could sit back, relax, and let the narratives told on television make the decisions for you.

They would really, really prefer it if you did.

Once upon a time, the media's interest in figure skating was limited to Sonja Henie movies and projects with titles like Snow White and the Three Stooges, starring 1960 Olympic Champion Carol Heiss. (Yes, this is a real thing. You can watch the trailer, here.)

That same year, CBS first paid $50,000 for the rights to broadcast the Games in the U.S. (for Sochi 2014, NBC paid $775 million). And television made its presence felt almost immediately. When skiing officials weren't sure about a call, they asked to review CBS' tape of the race. This served as the inspiration for what we all now know as the "instant replay."

But, it wasn't until 1968 when the Games were first broadcast in color, that television really showed what it did best in the Olympics: It created stars, beginning with America's own Peggy Fleming.

Peggy Fleming was a beautiful, gracious, photogenic champion who was skilled in both portions of the competition: the figures and the freestyle.

In 1968, when Peggy won Olympic gold, compulsory figures (where skaters drew intricate patterns of eights and more on the ice, then traced them three times all on one foot) were worth 60% of the total score, with the free skating (the jumping and spinning) worth 40%.

As a result, it was possible for a brilliant figure skater to be so far ahead after the first portion of the competition, that all the jumps and spins in the world wouldn't be able to make up the difference between them.

This proved confusing to the television audience.

So, after 1968, the balance was changed to 50-50.

It still wasn't enough.

After Peggy Fleming retired, America's next ordained sweetheart was a skater named Janet Lynn. Janet is still considered by many to be one of the best freestyle skaters of all time.

But, at the 1972 Olympics, due to weak figures, she could only manage the bronze medal behind Austria's Trixi Schuba, whose free skating sometimes went so far as to inspire boos from the audience.

Television couldn't have that. Which was why, the following year, the value of figures was reduced to 40%, leaving 40% for the freestyle, and a new short program of required elements was added, worth 20%.

Though she'd been planning to retire, Janet Lynn stuck around for one more world championship. After all, the rules had practically been changed in her honor. That year, she skated her all-time personal best in win the figures, finishing second... only to fall in the short program and settle for a silver medal.

Fortunately, by 1976, perky, short and sassy Dorothy Hamill stepped up to win the Ladies' Olympic crown and television didn't feel compelled to continue tinkering.

Yulia Lipnitskaya
Yulia Lipnitskaya Image: © Daniel A. Anderson/ZUMAPRESS.com

In 1980, held on home ice in Lake Placid, New York, the big story of the Games was pair skaters Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner inevitably and finally wrestling gold from the Russians, who'd claimed it consecutively since 1964. It had to happen; the narrative of television commentators said so. After all, Tai & Randy had won the World Championships the previous year (the fact that they did it in the absence of 10-time world champion Irina Rodnina -- taking a year off to have a baby -- was a minor detail nobody really needed to dwell on).

When Tai and Randy were forced to withdraw due to injury, the press dubbed them "The Heartbreak Kids," and proceeded to turn them into stars anyway. Something that likely wouldn't have happened had they skated and not come out ahead, as they'd never previously beaten Rodnina and Zaitsev. But sometimes the entertainment and sports media doesn't like facts getting in the way of their pre-planned narrative.

1984 introduced the world to Katarina Witt. Sure, she was from Evil East Germany. But she was sexy enough to be an American. And when she defeated the USA's Rosalynn Sumners, the press decided to make do with what they had, giving Katarina the star treatment (which she, unlike most athletes from the Eastern bloc, reveled in and encouraged to no end) all the way through her second Olympic win in 1988.

By this stage in the game, skating's popularity had grown to such a point that not just the Olympics, but also the World Championships and the U.S. Championships were being regularly televised. But TV didn't just broadcast what happened on the ice. In grand Wide World of Sports Up Close and Personal fashion, they introduced viewers to the skaters' off-ice lives in order to boost their appeal.

And TV producers started framing their coverage even more around the storyline they wanted to tell.

For instance, there was the tale of Russian-defector ice dancer Gorsha Sur's attempt to represent the U.S. at the Olympics by speeding up his citizenship process -- and his top rival's steps to block it.

That story may well have been the centerpiece of ABC's 1994 Nationals coverage... if it weren't for a couple of skaters named Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. Perhaps you've heard of them?

You have? What a surprise! And what did you hear about them, exactly?

Did you hear about how Tonya was always in Nancy's shadow, how she knew she could never beat Nancy no matter what she did because Tonya didn't fit the Ice Princess image the judges wanted, and how Tonya's jealousy eventually drove her and her husband to arrange for Nancy to be whacked on the knee inside a Detroit arena?

Did you also hear that Tonya Harding actually won the silver to Nancy's bronze at the 1991 World Championships, after having beaten both Nancy and eventual world champion Kristi Yamaguchi at the Nationals that same year? Did you hear that, at the 1991 Skate America competition, Tonya became the first woman to land a triple Axel in the short program? In combination?

While it wasn't the whole story, the Always-a-Loser-to-Nancy/Judges-Hate-Her narrative, of Tonya v. Nancy made a great story heading into the Olympics. But, then, a more appealing story presented itself. Yes, Nancy had the injury and attack to overcome. But, Ukraine's Oksana Baiul was an orphan. An orphan! In the great TV sweepstakes of riveting story-telling, Oksana's story trumped. (Don't worry; they both got cheesy TV movies made about them, eventually.)

Those 1994 Olympics, including the ladies' long program, made ratings history. And opened the door for many more televised skating competitions, both amateur and pro, where television was free to tell whichever stories got them the most eyeballs, including at one point, at the World Professional Championships, flat out calling one dance team, where the man had left his wife to skate with his girlfriend, the "villains," and the competing team of ex-wife and new partner (ex-partner of the girlfriend, you with me?) "the good guys." They were not referring to the quality of their twizzles.

In 2002, television once again got the chance to anoint bad guys and good guys when a Russian pairs team beat the Canadians -- obviously a fix was afoot! TV made such a fuss that a second gold medal was eventually awarded. And the ceremony televised -- of course.

Mao Asada
Mao Asada Image: © Yusuke Nakanishi/AFLO/ZUMAPRESS.com

Heading into the Sochi Games, television did their best to stir up drama. A great opportunity came when Ashley Wagner, who placed fourth at the Nationals, was named to the U.S. Olympic team based on her international ranking, ahead of the third-place finisher.

If Ashley skates well in the Olympic short and long programs this week, expect to hear how good it is that such loopholes exist in the United States Figure Skating Association's rules to reward a skater's overall record and not just one performance, which seems blatantly unfair. If she skates poorly, expect to hear cries of a fix. The ruling decision points to concerns of racism as well, too.

If national champion Gracie Gold skates well, expect to hear how it's all due to her recent tutelage under the legendary Frank Carroll. If Gracie does not skate well, anticipate many reminders of how Carroll's previous female students, including Linda Fratianne and Michelle Kwan, both came up short at Olympics time, and maybe Carroll just doesn't have what it takes.

If the U.S. silver medalist, 15-year-old Polina Edmunds, scores well in the competition, expect to hear about how judges love to reward fresh, young talent -- a la 1998 Olympic champ Tara Lipinski. If Edmunds scores poorly, get ready for a lecture on how judges force new skaters to pay their dues and wait their turn before giving them the scores they truly deserve.

And, finally, if all three American girls are outskated by Russia's Yulia Lipnitskaya (who already scored highest in the team event), brace yourselves for a combination of:

A) Skating has become a pure jumping contest -- where is the artistry?

B) It is offensive that she is skating to the music from Schindler's List (though she is hardly the first), especially in light of Putin's discriminatory policies and the fact that a fellow Russian, Irina Rodnina, was chosen to light the Olympic torch despite tweeting out racist photos of President Obama over a year earlier.

C) Of course Lipnitskaya would win in her home country -- the fix was in from the start!

Also in the competition are South Korea's defending Olympic champion Yu-Na Kim and Japan's Mao Asada, a world champion and the only woman with a triple Axel planned. So, if either of them wins, see item A) above, along with a splash of "Judges Always Make Newcomers Wait Their Turn."

Still not sure whom you should be rooting for in the ladies' event?

Don't worry: The narratives told by the media are there to help.

 

Alina Adams

http://www.AlinaAdams.com

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