Thursday, February 13, 2014


It is a testament to our culture of agreement that the best commentators NBC could find for the 2014 Olympic figure skating competition were Scott Hamilton and Sandra Bezic.  Scott Hamilton has always been awful: shouting in his mousy falsetto, rambling on with his skating insider schtick, grunting his trademark grunt to encourage successful jump landings, like a man trying to squeeze out some form of bronze, or shamelessly cheerleading, especially back in the day when all the skaters were his buddies and fellow competitors, and, worst of all, never knowing when to shut up and let a skating performance speak for itself.  Bezic has often been a thoughtful and nuanced skating commentator, but also one with blind spots and inconsistencies in her commentary.  She was best when paired with the direct and tell-it-like-it-is Robin Cousins, who could have and should have been the heir to Dick Button in the world of figure skating commentary.  Cousins and Bezic's NBC World Championship telecasts of the early 90's were some of the best ever.

Unfortunately the combination of Bezic's too selective judgments and Hamilton's manic gushing created a nauseating cocktail of go with the flow, see-no-evil-hear-no-evil cheerleading.  This was evident in the pairs final rebroadcast Wednesday night.  In my opinion, the competition between the four top pairs was a lot closer than the scoring would lead you to believe, and you wouldn't know it by listening to the commentary either.  It leads me to believe that Bezic and Hamilton were pretty much going along for the ride with the judges and the Sochi audience and not really there to analyze the sport at all.

I loved all the competitors and was delighted by their distinctive styles and ways of moving (I don't envy the judges their task), but there were some telling differences between them, in their technique and their musical interpretations that night.  The subjective element in figure skating--the presence of judges in the first place--has always been part of the allure and frustration of the sport. It is unique in the way it combines high level athleticism and interpretive art. Judging controversies have always been a constant, especially so back in the days of the old scoring systems of base marks, placements and ordinals, things that were as esoteric to the average viewer of the sport as trigonometry to a remedial math student,

One constant in the decades of Russian dominance of pairs skating had been their technical mastery and the speed at which they delivered it.  Speed, like unison in side-by-side moves and  clean landings of jumps, is something that can be objectively measured, and when it comes to speed, you don't even need instant replay to tell when a skater is moving slowly or swiftly down the ice.  Speed of course is a tangible that adds to the intangible feeling of excitement in a performance.  Speed was always one of the criteria for distinguishing between pairs performing virtually identical technique.  After all, if you did a throw triple salchow, or side-by-side triple loops the risk was always greater when performed at higher speeds.  You have to ask three questions when differentiating competitors with virtually equal technique:  Were they close together?  Were they in unison? And were they fast? 

Which brings me to what happened during last night's broadcast.  I love the music from Jesus Christ Superstar and was prepared to be thrilled by Volosozhar and Trankov's performance of it, but what I saw, despite some strong technical moves, was a slow and tentative performance.  Bezic called it "measured", observing that they were saving energy for the big moves at the end.  What this means to me is that they did not have the stamina, or confidence in it, to skate a fast powerful performance from start to finish like their countrymen Stolbova and Klimov did.  The most telling moments came when the music from the JCS Overture picked up in tempo and the skating slowed down in a torpid pairs spin., like a wobbling top about to teeter.  Yet, there was nary a word spoken of how the performance failed to carry the energy or danger of the music.  Even when the big moves were accomplished late in the program, garnering bonus points, they were delivered at the same overly careful pace that for me lacked excitement.  The home audience can't be blamed for failing to notice, especially since there were many beautiful elements involved.  Bezic and Hamilton should have noticed, though, and moreover should have noticed how badly off in unison the pair became at each position change in their side-by-side spin combination and again with a mistimed jump take-off.  Volosozhar looked stiff and strained in her lift positions, while Stolbova was relaxed and fully extended in hers, giving the silver medalists the unmistakable flair their winning countrymen lacked.  Finally, the music editing, including the ending seemed abrupt, giving a rushed and hasty feeling to the finish.  To me they failed to skate up to the power and energy of their music.  Their own stories and appeal as skaters aside and the crowds understandably emotional reaction shouldn't have kept some genuine analysis, a little reality, from creeping through.  I don't care if he lived for three years under a Zamboni machine, the commentators still ought to notice how slow he skated and that he had rounded shoulders and slumpy posture.

That this performance, compared with the power, speed and technical proficiency of Stolbova and Klimov, or the choreographic execution by Pang and Tong that made their performance the most moving, that it was not only ranked first, but also given the highest scores ever for a pairs free skate under the new scoring system, just has to be viewed as an act of will on the part of the judges as a whole.  Despite my bias for serious musical interpretations, I see Stolbova and Klimov as the winners.   In my view, here is the order of placement:  Stolbova and Klimov--Gold;  Pang and Tong--Silver; Volosozhar and Trankov--Bronze.

The New York Times piece below takes a look at how national bias in the old system is thought to be alive and well in the new ISU scoring system.  Under cover of anonymity now, some think the problem is worse than ever, only the ISU can pretend it has gone away.  Certainly, the new system of scoring and the fact that the general public really doesn't understand what these scores mean is part of the reason for the sport's decline in popularity.  Cheerleading commentators like Hamilton and Bezic, who are afraid to offer sharp analysis, ignore the controversy and potential for corruption that is inherent and endemic to the sport, and they do so at the risk of the sports future integrity and at the cost of an element that has always been one of its most riveting features.