Figure skating, the world's least-graceful sport.

Scenes from the Olympics.
Feb. 20 2006 6:40 PM

They All Fall Down

Figure skating, the world's least-graceful sport.

Olympic figure skater Sasha Cohen
Click image to expand.
Olympic figure skater Sasha Cohen

Olympics watchers, get off the couch and pour yourself a glass of pinot noir. The snowboard-cross portion of your program has come to an end; it's time for ladies' figure skating.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber
Daniel Engber is a regular contributor to Slate.

Prepare for a delicate spectacle of athleticism and artistry, of acrobatic leaps and gentle arabesques. Roses will be cast on the ice and fans will shout, Brava! Twenty-nine young women will glide across your television set like swans on a crystal lake. They'll soar and spin in toe loops and flips and triple-axel jumps. And then—almost without exception—they'll fall on their asses.

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The figure-skating wipe-out has become so commonplace you could easily mistake it for a required element. During last week's men's finals, four of the top six competitors hit the ice during their free program. Both the bronze and silver medalists ate it; Yevgeny Plushenko won gold simply by managing to keep his butt in the air for four-and-a-half minutes.

It's astounding that figure skating maintains its self-image as an art form in the face of so much flopping. According to the rules, an athlete must display flow, finesse, and an "effortless movement in time to the music." She has to skate with style and clarity, "according to the principles of proportion, unity, space, pattern structure, and phrasing." In other words, she can't just jump and spin—she has to dance.

A dancer sweeps you away with her grace and flow and hides her sweat with a flourish. A world-class figure skater, on the other hand, pulls you into her own anxiety. She performs just barely above the limits of her skill, trying jumps you both know she can't always land.

The stress of these make-or-break moments overpowers whatever artistry a performance may have. What should be a choreographed composition becomes a series of near-impossible leaps strung together with idle tootling. Skaters fill up the dead time with gratuitous arm movements as they catch their breath and get in position for the next jump. Meanwhile, the announcers expect the worst. Shouting over the music, they frantically set up each risky move—Here comes the triple toe loop, this is big!—and then sigh with relief when it's over—Ohhh, gorgeous. That was huge. (Lest you think the booth personalities were less excitable in the old days, watch this movie of the first triple Lutz in 1962.)

Even the athletes themselves seem surprised when they complete a jump without falling down. Sarah Hughes couldn't stop thanking the Lord as she finished her perfect, gold-medal-winning program in the 2002 Games. "I never did that before in my life!" she exulted.

If one of the goals of figure skating is to make it look easy, no one succeeds. To win the gold, you have to abandon any pretense of "effortless movement," and use the fanciest moves you can to scare up points. Never mind that it makes you look like a bungling oaf.

You can't blame the skaters for this—they're just trying to win. It's the scoring system that sets us up for the fall. Until a few years ago, judges rated a performance with two fairly subjective numbers. The first mark, for technique, reflected the difficulty of the program and the cleanness of its execution. You could pump up your technical mark by trying harder jumps, but if you fell down, you'd get a major deduction. The second mark, for presentation, was supposed to reflect the artistry of your performance.

The system came tumbling down after 2002's Skategate scandal. The International Skating Union updated its rules, making the technical score far more precise, while still allowing the judges to rate artistic presentation with their usual whimsy.

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