Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Olympic Figure Skating Redux

Several months before the Torina Winter Games in 2006, I had written a piece on Michelle Kwan and her 3rd attempt at winning an Olympic Gold Medal. Of course, Kwan suffered an injury that season and was unable to qualify or compete in the games. My piece went unpublished and the rest is history (although the 3 women I pegged as Kwan's chief competition at those games ending up being the 3 medalists in the order I mentioned them). But, with the 2010 Vancouver Games about to start, I've revived the piece as an interesting timecapsule of speculation and figure skating analysis. If you are a fan of Kwan and follow figure skating, even if you only watch once every four years for the beauty and drama of Olympic competition, here's one to take to the kiss and cry area of your imaginations.

Kwan's Quandry
Why Michelle Kwan didn't Win in Salt Lake City and Why She won't Win in Torino

When Michelle Kwan skated to Fields of Gold in the 2002 Olympic Exhibitions, it was not as the nostalgic champion savoring her achievement, as she might well have envisioned the moment. It played more like a metaphoric smackdown for the forlorn bronze medalist, whose chance to win an Olympic gold medal seemingly had come and gone forever. By all indications it was time to move on. Her young competitors and, perhaps, the international figure skating judges had left her behind.

Four years earlier, it had been heartening to see Kwan stay in the amateur ranks after her narrow Olympic loss to Tara Lipinski in Nagano, Japan. She was only 17, after all, with her chief rival turning professional and four more years to grow technically and artistically—a chance to define the standard of women’s skating for the next generation. This is what appeared to happen in the intervening years between 1998 and 2002, at least on the surface of things, as the gold medals and kudos kept coming: a run of 5 consecutive national titles and 3 more world championships, including back to back wins in 2000 and 2001. Once again she was the overwhelming favorite going into Salt Lake.

But, in the months leading up to the 2002 Olympics trouble was brewing. Kwan made a move that shocked the figure skating world and concerned many of her fans. She parted with long time coach, Frank Carroll, and made a go of it alone, citing a growing need for independence in her career. After being second-guessed by practically everybody connected with figure skating, Michelle suffered a disastrous fall in the long program and placed a disappointing third. Conventional wisdom had it that without the support of her longtime coach, the Olympic pressure had been too great.

Pressure, yes, but Salt Lake City was going to be different. This time Michelle wasn’t going to hold back. In Nagano, you recall, she had been flawless—a rare feat under pressure and one usually good enough to propel a heavy favorite with a strong reputation to victory—but her performance had been a touch conservative, lacking the inspirational abandon of her winning skate at Nationals just a few weeks earlier. And, as luck would have it, Tara Lipinski not only bested Michelle jump for jump that night, but she had the extra spark that ignited the audience and swayed the judges. The outcome seemed more than a bit unfair to Kwan, when you consider how often reputation had rescued other Olympic favorites, like Viktor Petrenko, whose gold medal skate in Albertville included a stumble on the landing of his second triple axel and an ugly forward landing on a triple Lutz. What was more, Michelle’s music and choreography were head and shoulders above the girlish sweetness of Lipinski’s program. In fact, the seamless flow and spellbinding atmosphere of her Lyra Angelica program was groundbreaking. While I disagreed with the judges, I understood begrudgingly how they could have placed Lipinski first.

Although Michelle had an air of invincibility about her after the 1998 Nationals, the Olympics exposed vulnerabilities in her skating that even her musicality and exuberance could not hide. It became apparent in Nagano that Kwan’s lack of a consistent triple/triple combination left her vulnerable in the technical mark, as Lipinski had proven. And, while Kwan had developed into one of the most technically consistent skaters in the world, frequently completing all seven triples in her long programs, a tendency to approach her jumps conservatively had begun to take the excitement out of her programs. A lesser factor in her 1998 defeat, yet one that bears consideration, may have been that Kwan came away from Nationals with an over-hyped sense of invincibility. The perfect 6’s showered on her were as much a message to the international skating world about Kwan’s status as it was a reflection of her merit. In a sport where the politics of perception are blinding and reputation is nine tenths of the law, the US judges wanted to leave no doubt about Kwan’s placement heading into the all-important Olympics. In reality, the disparity between Kwan and Lipinski was nowhere near as wide as the results of the competition had indicated. Neither hype, nor nationalist declarations could obscure the fact that Lipinski was more polished and proficient in some areas than Kwan. She possessed a more daring array of jumps, displayed a more delicate landing touch, and, at times, softer and more refined positions, especially in her hands and arms. The international judges had taken notice.

Other weaknesses would quietly follow Kwan all the way to the Salt Lake City games, unchecked by coaches, unnoticed by skating commentators. In eight years at the senior level, she had never developed into more than an average spinner. Her positions were solid, but her spins lacked speed and impact. More troubling, she had made little effort between 1998 and 2002 to vary her spin combinations or expand her repertoire. There were never any blurred scratch spins, thrilling headless spins or barreling cannon ball sit spins to surprise and delight us. Her lack of a first rate layback became painfully obvious during the 2002 Nationals leading up to Salt Lake City, where all three of her chief American competitors, Angela Nikodinov, Sarah Hughes and Sasha Cohen, boasted three of the best layback spins this side of Dorothy Hamill. With Kwan you hardly had a chance to notice that her knee was not properly turned out, because she always rushed past the classic position and settled into a much easier layback variation with her back arched nicely but with both feet on the ice.

While it may sound like nitpicking heresy to Kwan fans, there is one other neglected finishing detail that has kept Kwan from putting a little extra distance between herself and the quadrennial waves of young rivals: the way she comports her hands and arms. At any given moment, her hands can be observed shifting in random reflex, exempt from choreographic intent, be it the military flat palms that accompany her entrances to jumps or the loose open fists and splayed fingers we see as she executes a spin or some connective choreography. Her arms are too often bent sharply at the elbow, or cocked asymmetrically, which detracts from her line and creates angular moments. This is more noticeable because she generally wears sleeveless costumes.

This inattentiveness to fine detail begs an important question. Had anyone—coach, choreographer or father Danny—ever recommended finishing school with Rosalyn Sumners or Lu Chen? Perhaps there was more behind her dismissal of coach Carroll and her choreographer, Lori Nichol, than spreading her wings. Short of saying she’d gotten too big for her britches, there were hints in the media that Kwan either didn’t listen to advice or that people were reluctant to give it to her because of her accomplishments. During the 2004 World Championships, ABC’s Terry Gannon suggested that Kwan’s icon status made the giving and taking of instruction a delicate matter. Icon or not, the lack of focus in her hands and arms has prevented her from articulating subtle details in her wonderful musical selections and from fully embodying their atmospheric power. For she often colors outside the lines of her choreography, making little smudge marks with her hands or jarring the mood with her elbows.

Back in 1996 when Kwan won her first World Championship as Salome, I had never seen a fifteen-year-old skate with such a mixture of mature control and expressive fire. Here was somebody with the potential to expand the artistic boundaries of figure skating beyond what was merely ladylike and pretty. This young woman had guts. It was easier then to overlook the weak layback position and the slow spins. After all, she was so young, and surely she would refine all her elements in time. But, what was brilliant for a fifteen-year-old came off as merely ordinary for a four-time world champion at age twenty-one.

Prior to Salt Lake City, Kwan had always been a fearless interpreter. No other skater in my memory had so successfully explored musical possibilities outside the standard skating repertoire. And unlike many of her competitors, she has stayed in the amateur ranks long enough to develop a considerable body of work. From Strauss’s Salome, to Alwin’s Lyra Angelica, and Corigliano’s The Red Violin to Villa-Lobos Song of the Black Swan, Michelle’s oeuvre is unparalleled in a sport where the best skaters usually make off with the gold and run for more lucrative professional opportunities. The past three Olympic women’s champions, Oksana Baiul (‘94), Tara Lipiniski (‘98) and Sarah Hughes (‘02) had fewer seasons of international experience combined than Michelle Kwan currently boasts. They each will be remembered for only one performance, and in Baiul’s case her entire artistic reputation is built upon one short program skated to Swan Lake and one rather lightweight long program skated to a medley of show tunes. But, longevity is a double-edged sword. There is always a risk of repeating yourself and becoming stagnant. There is also the risk of coming under relentless scrutiny and being perceived as an obstacle to new competitors. Some of this may be at work in Kwan’s case. Nevertheless, I would assert that her performance of Salome at the 1996 Worlds, her short program to Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and the long program to Lyra Angelica, both at the 1998 Nationals, represent the pinnacle of her artistic achievement. Since that time her skating has not exceeded the promise of those early performances.

By Febrary 2001 things had reached a critical stage for Kwan. Young Sarah Hughes was breathing down her neck, and her old rival, Irina Slutskaya, was skating circles around her in the Grand Prix series. In the Grand Prix Super Final, Michelle had premiered her most daring musical interpretation yet to Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin. The performance was rough and the choreography needed refinement, but the program was Michelle’s most promising in three years, perhaps ever.
Yet, at least two major obstacles would keep MM (as Kwan chatroom fans refer to the notorious program) permanently on the shelf. First, it was roundly criticized. Immediately after the premier of this daring work in progress, ABC’s Peter Carruthers had condemned her choice of music as inaccessible. Maybe so for the Carmen generation, but in the age of the ISU Grand Prix Series, where the skater’s programs become old hat to the judges and the skating public by the time Worlds roll around in March, something like the Bartok would have likely borne up much better to repeated listening than yet another predictable run through Malaguena. All the more reason Kwan should have gone for broke and unveiled The Miraculous Mandarin as her Olympic program.

There was a second problem. To solve the choreographic and artistic challenges of articulating Bartok--translating it convincingly to masses of pop ballad junkies--would have required Kwan to overcome her own shortcomings as a skater: the spins would have to be faster and more energetic than any she had completed before, the positions would have to be exotic and unprecedented, the footwork must be fast and savage, yet clean as a whistle, the choreography must have the look of controlled chaos, and the jumps would have to be far flung leaps over a dark abyss. The Bartok was the challenge she needed to rise to her potential and far above her competition. It could have worked to her advantage. Being able to focus her energy completely on her program would have taken some of the pressure and focus off of her and placed it back where it belonged: on her art. But, under heavy criticism and its wake of self doubt, Kwan shelved it.

It was disappointing to say the least, when the 2002 nationals rolled around and Michelle had chosen the safe and conventional beauty of Scheherazade over the Bartok. Until Scheherazade, she had never succumbed to skating by numbers (old, worn out numbers, used by numbers of other skaters before her.) Whether scathing criticism or technical difficulties gave the Kwan team cold feet about The Miraculous Mandarin, it signaled a retreat from the culmination of an artistic vision that her Salome had promised. After all, how do you go from skating Salome at 15 to skating Scheherazade for an Olympic program at the age of 21? Artistically it made no sense, and tactically it was a mistake. For the very critics who called for something more accessible than MM, would be decidedly unimpressed by Scheherazade. By comparison, 16 year-old Sarah Hughes’ winning Daphnis and Chloe was easily the fresher and more sophisticated program. As further evidence of retreat, Kwan chose to perform her classic Rachmaninov from 1998 as her 2002 Olympic short program. Even when her skating had plateaued technically, playing it safe with her musical choices had never been Kwan’s style. With that distinction gone, there was little to separate her artistically from the Stepford Carmens and Cigne clones who surrounded her on every side. The result for Kwan was a very ordinary performance.
Despite finishing a step down on the podium in Salt Lake, Kwan surprised everybody once more by maintaining her amateur status. Only this time around, she was greeted by a good deal more skepticism.

In 2003, she temporarily silenced her critics by regaining her world title to the strains of Concerto d’Aranjuez, but in 2004, she followed this up with a 3rd place finish at Worlds, her lowest placement there in 10 years. Her use of Tosca, so soon after Slutskaya’s much applauded Tosca program, raises a red flag that she’ll be playing it safe when she makes her third Olympic run in 2006. If she does, it might as well be a white flag of surrender. In Torino, her main competition will likely be 2004 World Champion, Suzuki Arakawa of Japan, the overrated, but irrepressible, Irena Slutskya, and Sasha Cohen her American rival, or, just as likely, some unheralded newcomer (most likely from the U.S or Japan, with slightly longer odds going to somebody from Russia or China). Remember that both Oksana Baiul and Tara Lipinski made their big splasheson the international skating scene just a year before the Olympics. At any rate, the trend in the women’s competition is toward young precocious talent, preferably 16 or younger. By 2006, Kwan will be 25 and active on the senior level for almost as long as some of her competitors have been alive.

Michelle stated in a recent interview that it has to be more than a gold medal, or a few minutes on the Olympic stage, that keeps her lacing up her skates day in and day out, year after year. This is probably true on one level. The nervous excitement of amateur competition that “drives her crazy” obviously invigorates her as well. Outside of the state sponsored Soviet and East German systems, there have been few competitors in the world who have so often risen to the occasion, year after year, and under increasingly pressure filled situations. On another level she may have not figured out what she wants to do next with her life and skating is still the thing she loves and knows best. But, she is in serious danger of marking time, and God only knows how well she’ll be received by the Olympic judges the third time around. When the judges took note of her finishing two seconds after her music stopped at Worlds in 2004, it was reminiscent of the illegal lift deduction the judges used to explain the low marks given to the reinstated Torvill and Dean in the ’94 Olympics. The fact that the judges are using technicalities to mark her down is a sure sign they’ll be scrutinizing every edge she cuts into Olympic ice. One slip and don’t be surprised if she finds herself out of the medals altogether. No matter how much Kwan says it’s not about the gold, there’s no way she wants to end her amateur career with anything less. Anyone who has seen that look on her face when the marks come back lower than she thinks she deserved will take her protestations with a generous grain of salt. Besides, had she won the gold medal in either ’98 or ’02, does anybody really believe she’d have stayed amateur this long? I sincerely doubt it.

When Michelle fired her coach and choreographer before the last Olympics, she was looking for some kind of motivational edge, a way to shake things up. Had there been major philosophical differences, it could have been a liberating move, much the way leaving coach Natalia Dubova transformed the skating of ice dancers Klimova and Ponomarenko back in 1991. But if Kwan’s goal was independence, why fire her choreographer and then use one of her old programs? It would seem the thing to do would be to try new choreography. Clearly, she knew something needed changing, but she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, admit that her skating rather than her professional relationships had become stagnant and binding.

In retrospect, it might have been better for her if there had been a consistent rival skater over the years with the jumps, spins and polish to force her out of complacency. With a parade of inconsistent foes the likes of shaky Maria Butyrskaya, effervescent but superficial Irina Slutskaya, and more recently, Sasha Cohen, the stylish diva of self-destruction, Kwan has been able to play a pat hand and walk away with a gold medal when she skates cleanly and passionately. Ironically, the greatest obstacle to Michelle reaching her potential is the continued success she enjoys while essentially remaining at the same level year after year. As long as she can do this and win world championships and national titles, she’ll have no real incentive to push herself. But, by now she should know the Olympics are another story. For whatever reason--either the aforementioned weaknesses in Michelle’s skating, or her maverick nature (perhaps a combination of both)—the international judges do not hold her in that highest esteem that renders her invulnerable in a close competition. That much was clear in 1998 when she did everything short of setting the rink on fire and still finished second. Tara Lipinski was their Olympic ideal then, and make no mistake they’ll be looking for another darling to place on top of the podium.

Does she stand any chance of taking the gold in Torino? To me it won’t matter one way or the other unless she raises the level of her skating. It is always possible that her chief rivals might also fall prey to nerves and falter, or that Michelle may come in feeling she has nothing to lose and skate with flair and abandon. For me it truly is not about the gold medal, especially when the judges cannot always be counted on to give a fair rendering of the competition. Rather, it is about creating something memorable and lasting, and these moments don’t always come attached to gold. My advice to Michelle is to attack her jumps like never before, go to work with a Swiss spinner, hire Rosalyn Sumners to help her with her arms and hands, and finally dust off the Bartok and hire choreographer Shanti Rushpaul to bring it to life. After all, Kwan is the only amateur skater in the world with the imagination and the desire to pull it off.