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Five myths about figure skating

  • Author: Joy Goodwin, Special to The Washington Post
  • Updated: April 22, 2018
  • Published February 9, 2018

Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Kneirim of the U.S. in the team pair skating short program on Thursday . REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Another Olympics is here, and it's time for that American ritual: becoming an armchair expert in sports you haven't watched in four years. Figure skating is one of the most popular and misunderstood events at the Winter Games. Here are five persistent myths.

Myth No. 1: It's not a real sport.

For decades, sports radio announcers, newspaper columnists and bloggers have argued that figure skating isn't a worthy athletic pursuit. "Real sports don't wear sequins," declared the Chicago Tribune during the Nagano Games. "Anything solely dependent on judging is not a sport," then Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon wrote in 1998. "Figure skating is somewhere between performance art and musical theater," said in December.

Actually, the number of Winter Olympic events scored by judges has been growing – from four in 1988 to 19 this year. The problem for figure skating is that costumes and choreography often mask the sport's extraordinary athletic demands. Research shows that the hearts of elite skaters beat at rates comparable to those of elite 800-meter runners. Skaters wear boots attached to what are essentially knives and barrel into their jumps at 15 mph. Digging one toe into the ice, they catapult themselves into the air, completing up to four revolutions (1440 degrees) in less than a second and landing backward on one foot. Skaters also land on the slippery edge of a blade that's an eighth of an inch wide. Coordination has to be perfect, down to the millisecond. And the ice offers an unforgiving surface, with virtually no shock absorption.

The triple and quadruple jumps required to win an Olympic medal are so difficult that many top junior skaters never master them. Yet Olympic skaters pack their free programs with seven to eight huge jumps, plus spins and footwork – not to mention crisscrossing the 200-foot length of the ice at top speed. Unlike other Olympic athletes, skaters are taught from a young age not to gasp for breath at the end of a routine. But look closely, and you'll see their lungs heaving as they take their bows.

Myth No. 2: The judging is arbitrary.

Under figure skating's old 6.0 system, judges were given tremendous latitude in awarding their marks. As Sports Illustrated put it in 1998: "Judging isn't a science. Much of it is interpretive, an exercise in comparing apples to oranges." At the 2002 games in Salt Lake City, a French judge confessed to voting under pressure for the Russian pair, who won the gold medal over their Canadian rivals by a vote of 5 to 4. Eventually the French judge's marks were thrown out, the event was declared a tie, and the Canadians were awarded gold medals of their own.

After that, the International Skating Union moved to a new "Code of Points" system, which produces not 6.0's but scores like 212.23. Roughly half of each skater's points are still awarded for artistic skills (now called "components"). But when it comes to technical merit, the code attempts to treat a skating routine the way Olympic judges treat a dive: by multiplying its difficulty by its degree of execution. The absolute value of a triple Salchow doesn't change from skater to skater, and there are clear guidelines about how to score the execution of that jump.

It's true that the subjective portion of the score can still be the place where national bias comes out. Dartmouth economist Eric Zitzewitz analyzed 15 years' worth of competition data and found that judges consistently overmark skaters from their own countries. But Pyeongchang offers a ray of hope: Because of a recent rule change, this is the first Olympics in 16 years where figure skating judges are not anonymous. Skaters are hoping that holding each country's judge publicly accountable will make judges think twice about over- or undermarking a skater.

Myth No. 3: If you fall during your routine, you're toast.

Before 2002, skating commentators such as Olympic champion Scott Hamilton were famous for gasping over falls; "Saturday Night Live" even did a parody. That's because under the old 6.0 system, it was common for judges to use a fall as the rationale for dropping a skater out of contention. It made sense: Few people can spot an under-rotated jump, but everyone in the arena can see a fall. As the Times of London put it in 2006, "If you fall, you lose: ice in your knickers, failure in your soul."

The Code of Points system changed the scoring dynamics around falling. It grants partial credit for imperfect jumps – sometimes, quite a few points. So if Skater A falls once but lands everything else cleanly, she can conceivably outscore Skater B, who has three bad landings but stays on her feet. Another scenario in which Skater A can win, even with a fall: If she enters the free skate with a large lead over Skater B from the short program.

Myth No. 4:If a guy's a skater, he must be gay.

Sociologist Mary Louise Adams has written about "the routine association of gayness with men's figure skating [that] persists whether male skaters are gay or not." As one former U.S. junior champion, who is straight, told Newsweek in 2014, "I remember being constantly asked, 'Oh, you're a figure skater now? So you're gay?' " That same year, "Saturday Night Live" ran a cold open titled "The U.S. Men's Heterosexual Figure Skating Championships."

While there have been famous male champions who are gay – including Brian Boitano and Johnny Weir – there are many straight males in elite figure skating. In fact, in many nations, this presumption about gay skaters doesn't exist. The 2006 Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko became a heterosexual sex symbol in Russia in the 2000s.

North Americans seem most seem especially preoccupied with the sexuality of male skaters. Prior to the 2010 Vancouver Games, the Canadian skating federation launched a publicity campaign emphasizing "masculinity, strength and power," with the goal of trying to draw "the hockey crowd." Gay advocacy groups, including, protested loudly, concerned that the contributions of gay skaters – whom officials had in some cases pushed to remain closeted for decades – were again being minimized.

The bottom line: Skating, like all sports, includes athletes of different sexual orientations.

Myth No. 5: Harding was a working-class kid. Kerrigan was rich.

As the new movie "I, Tonya" reminds us, in 1994, most Americans knew that Tonya Harding had entered a country club sport from a working-class background. Nancy Kerrigan, on the other hand, was associated with her Vera Wang skating costumes and her Disney endorsements. As John Powers of the Boston Globe said in a 2014 ESPN documentary: "Nancy looked like she was wealthy."

Nope: Kerrigan had a working-class upbringing, too – albeit one very different from Harding's. She grew up in suburban Boston, the third child of a welder and a homemaker. At times, her father held down three jobs to pay for her skating. Kerrigan's mother was legally blind, so her father drove her to the rink every morning at dawn; he also drove the Zamboni to help offset the costs of her training.

Goodwin, the author of "The Second Mark: Courage, Corruption, and the Battle for Olympic Gold," has reported on figure skating for ABC, NBC, ESPN and NPR.

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