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Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Old Man and the Ice: Evgeni Plushenko en route to Sochi

Let me start this post by assuring all of you readers that I chose the title of this post in deep respect and in the knowledge that old in figure skating terms does not say very much about a person's actual age. Just look at the fellow in the picture above and then bridge the gap to one of my earlier posts about the 1998 Olympics. That guy here did compete back then and he faced off and beat, amongst others, Candeloro at 1998 European Championships. Talk about longevity incarnate.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Way to Spin, Ladies & Gentleman

Now that's what I call a great sit spin position, there's no fake sitting here.

Granted, I was never a fan of spinning, in fact I mostly didn't pay much attention to it. Until the man in the picture came along and changed it all for me..

Lambiel 2010 Gala

I dont know why it was Lambiel's spins that made me a "spinaholic" when in fact there were quite a few great spinners before him. Maybe it was the fact that the best spinners were unfortunately not the best jumpers and hence have never risen so high in the ranks. But, ever since I became a spin fan, I never stopped searching the best spins ever.. Here is a list of my favourites, in no specific order:

1) Lambiel 2007 Worlds Final Combo Spin

This spin is probably my favourite spin ever. Maybe it is not the best ever in terms of centering or speed but the timing of the final upright spin with the music crescendo is so incredible, I find myself getting goosebumps every time I watch it.

2) Lipnitskaya 2012 TEB Combo and Layback Spins 

The first time I saw these spins, I fell off my chair. Talk about insane flexibility!  Sasha Cohen called and she wants her signature I-spin back!

3) Czisny 2011 TEB Combo and Layback Spins

Czisny's speed and centering is almost as good every time. I especially love how she never loses speed when she is changing positions (not edges).

4) Krieg 1994 Olympics Combination Spin

Krieg was an amazing spinner, has great centering, wonderful speed and interesting positions throughout. Where was she from again? Oh, of course.. Switzerland.. Where else!

5) Ruh 1999 Worlds

I don't think I can pick a single spin among the five wonderful spins in this programme. For me, what makes her spins so delightful is not the incredible centering or the speed but the variations and wonderful nuances she created in these spins highlighting the music she was skating to. This is what spinning to music looks like.

6) Vorobieva 1998 Worlds Combo Spin

Another great example of a somewhat obscure skater with beatiful spins.

7) Zhang and the Pearl

Last but not least, a tribute to Zhang's beautiful Pearl Spin

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Scoring inflation?

Mao Asada, Yuzuru Hanyu and Vera Bazarova/Yuri Larionov received what some have called generous scores en route to winning their respective disciplines at the NHK Trophy this past weekend. In Asada's case, the descriptions "scandalous", "a total joke" and "a travesty of justice" have also been used, with some fans suggesting that she give her medal to Akiko Suzuki and her winnings to charity. And while the marks received by Meryl Davis/Chalie White haven't been the target of too much ire, they are certainly on the high end as well. Meanwhile, other medalists and lower-placed skaters also did, shall we say, surprisingly well considering the quality of their performances. Is it a home field advantage (for Asada and Hanyu)? Reputation scoring? Skaters and their coaches figuring out how to rack up points, even when the skating is not top notch? Are the judges learning to be more generous with their GOEs and PCS? At this point, I expect the upward trend in scoring to continue as we approach the Olympics, with only Yu-Na Kim's 2010 score unlikely to be surpassed. After Sochi... who knows what the ISU might do?

For comparison's sake, let us now consider similarly scored programs from this season and the past:

Men, 160+ points




I chose to focus on scores over 160 as the 170+ score is a relatively newer phenomenon. Daisuke Takahashi was the first skater to receive an LP score over 170 at an ISU event, scoring 175.84 at the 2008 Four Continents Championships. This mark stood as a world record for more than three years, but has since been surpassed several times - most recently by Patrick Chan at the 2012 Rostelecom Cup.

Ladies, 115+ points



Pairs, 132 points or so

Shen/Zhao - embedding was disabled for this one, sorry.



Some of these things are most decidedly not like the others. And yes, I'm aware that the IJS is ever changing - but in certain cases the scoring has been so ludicrous, the next phase would be to go to plaid.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

On transitions and complete programs

How often have we seen someone remark that [insert skater(s) name] was overscored on PCS because their program was empty and had no transitions? Some fans have so internalized this notion that they even complain about “empty” exhibition programs! (as Saffron noted, there are bigger problems with many current and recent gala numbers) If I had a dollar for every time I heard complaints about transitions and empty programs, I could consider a life of luxury and skating competition attendance. But are transitions really as important as many now claim they are?

It is often claimed that programs for the 6.0 judging system had little to offer between the elements, with skaters proceeding from jump to half-baked spin to eight-second step sequence. This is, of course, untrue; consider the programs skated by some of Moskvina’s pairs, or the great John Curry, or others who incorporated beautiful moves and steps into their programs. It is true, however, that this was not explicitly rewarded under the 6.0 system, and at times even discounted, as skaters with simpler programs found it easier to skate clean and earn top marks.

 Not an empty program

The ISU Judging System (IJS) introduced five components that comprise the PCS score, rather than a single artistic impression mark. A common mistake is to refer to these components as reflecting “artistry”; even Scott Moir, who really should know better, has done so. But two of the components do nothing of the kind, covering instead technical aspects of the skaters’ skill and program content. These are the skating skills component and today’s villain, the transitions component.

Perhaps because it appears relatively easy to judge and quantify while still retaining a shred of resemblance to the measurement of artistic ability, the transitions mark is of particular interest to many. Programs are judged by fans as lacking if they lack sufficient transitions, or simply transitions of that person’s preference. In that case, the skater is summarily declared overscored and the program dismissed as “empty”, lacking in merit, and (horrors) “a 6.0/pre-IJS program”.

I resent this greatly. 
 Pre-IJS: I do not think it (always) means what you think it means

Leaving aside the question of whether IJS programs are necessarily superior to 6.0 programs, I do not believe transitions are more important than the other four components. Do you know who else does not believe this? The ISU! Transitions, after all, are not factored more highly than the other components.

When we pay more attention to transitions than to the other components, we are attaching greater importance to them than they deserve. Not because skaters shouldn’t be judged on their ability to incorporate difficult, varied and interesting linking movements – but because they should also be judged on their ability to execute their technical elements, display flow and effortless glide (skating skills), utilize the ice surface and show pattern (choreography), express the music’s style, character and rhythm (interpretation) and project to the audience (performance and execution). I chose just one bullet point for each component, but I encourage readers to review the whole thing, the choreography component in particular. If one looks at all of the components and the bullet points for each, I think that there’s an argument to be made that in some respects, IJS programs may actually be inferior to 6.0 programs.

This focus on transitions can be a disservice to skaters whose strengths might lie elsewhere; a program might be weaker in terms of transitions or when it comes utilizing the ice surface (to borrow from the CH mark), but stronger when it comes to interpretation and performance ability. Conversely, a program can be chock-full of transitions that do little to reflect the music, engage the audience, or look remotely appealing to the untrained (or even well-trained) eye. 

 Expressing the music while (occasionally) dancing in place

By emphasizing transitions, we are also doing a disservice to skating in general, because we are perpetuating the fallacy that a single aspect of skating holds the key to a great performance. Just as it was wrong to focus on jumps in the final years of 6.0, so it is wrong to focus on transitions now (as well as their cousins, creative jump entries). We should expect skaters to be strong, or at least to seek to become better, in all aspects of their skating - not just to try to insert transitions into their programs wherever possible. It is a special program that is truly strong across the board, and it’s only appropriate to recognize the importance of each element and component and its contribution to the whole.
While many agree that skating judges should not be afraid of varied component scores that reflect a program’s strengths and weaknesses, it’s no secret that the marks tend to cluster together (more on that in a future post), and that the judges may not be as free to really utilize the full range of the point scale as we would like them to. But as fans, and we have much more freedom. So let's keep in mind that transitions are a part of a great skating performance, and an important one; but they do not necessarily affect other aspects of the program and are not enough, by themselves, to make a program great – or forgettable.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Laying the foundations: My 1st Olympic experience

On a February weekend in 1998, skating history was made. Not only at the White Ring, Nagano, in distant Japan, but also on my couch in front of the telly.

In those days, I did not care very much for the Winter Olmypics. If anything, my family was more into the Summer Olympics. It is for that unfortunate reason that one of my most vivid Olympic memories from 1988 is not one of the epic battles of the Carmens or Brians. No, it is rather the memory of Jürgen Hingsen's three consecutive false starts in the 100 metre segment of the decathlon event and his subsequent disqualification. (Yes, believe it or not, you could get away with 2 false starts back then) Sports memories to cherish, I know.

Fast forward ten years, I'm aimlessly zapping around and, for want of better alternatives, stay with whatever sports are on. While I slowly accomodate into the day (I slept in that Saturday), figure skating is on and a slightly disappointed guy, Todd Eldredge, is sitting there and awaiting his marks. Afficionados of the sport probably know who took the ice next and made me watch the Men's free programme until the very end.

My 1st skating hero: Philippe Candeloro. I was in awe. So many nice details, flourishes, well matched music, dynamic and exiting and building choreography with a Cloak and Dagger theme to boot. And that skater was a performer who enjoyed what he did. It was done so well and it resonated with me. To put it shortly, I was enthralled by that performance. I loved that guy, and I thought him to be a man of great sophistication and taste. Honestly, I did.

Next up was Elvis Stojko. I remember our commentator being a little biased and calling him a "jumping machine" only. As we all know, he was injured at the time, so it was a somewhat restrained performance, in addition to the famous Stojko intensity Elvis projected. The Medal ceremony was exceptional as well, with Elvis limping onto the ice in his sports shoes.

These two skaters alone had made a great impression upon me. One a man of great sophistication and artistic taste, the other an athletic miracle who skates through the pain without any mistake. A sport with such characters and where you can find all that in only two performances just had to be great. What did I do the following day? Needless to say, I watched the exhibition. And the free skate re-run, of course.

That was the defining event in my genesis as a skating fan. Those two days were enough to lay the foundation of enthusiasm that has kept me interested in the sport ever since. It was purely a matter of chance and I lucked out.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Once Upon a Time in Show Skating

The demise of figure skating viewership been an ongoing complaint, many blaming the introduction of IJS and declining creativity. However, another aspect of the decline that has been mostly ignored is show skating's quality. I am not just talking about professional tours but also the exhibition shows for competitions. Spending my adolescence and young adulthood watching the golden age of skating, I find it difficult to stomach most of the exhibitions programmes today.

I know all about the financial difficulties most skaters face today, the high requirements of COP and the limited remaining time and resources to dedicate to decent exhibition programmes but for me, all of these reasons still don't excuse the lackluster programmes put out on the ice. Since 2006, I have been trying to follow exhibitions but end up finding myself distracted or bored to sleep.

The thing is, I do believe creating innovative or groundbreaking show numbers like this one below for instance is time and money consuming:

However, I believe creating something entertaining and fun without stretching your resources shouldn't be that difficult. Perfect examples:

Unfortunately, I see very little of these performances as of late. Granted, Verner has an innate showmanship but one needn't rip off his/her pants or show off his arm muscles for the desired effect, nor does one need to twirl around his partner on top of his head like Bonheur (although they are always welcome. :)) ) Nevertheless, picking an interesting showpiece music and integrating a few different and interesting moves to that music should usually suffice. I find it ironic that most top skaters seem to lack this ability or desire, while some of the lower ranked skaters in competition can come up with the most entertaining show numbers. And it really wasn't the case before, which is more depressing.

I think ladies are the worst in this respect. Most are too afraid to leave their safe zone of skating with generic moves to romantic slow pop music and thus temporarily curing my life-long battle with insomnia. For me, the most surprising of those skaters was Yuna Kim, precisely because she is anything but generic or boring in competition, she is the fire and grace on ice at the same time. I am curious if this is a cultural thing, although given Mao Asada's show numbers, I highly doubt it:

So I wonder, will the skating gods ever grace us again with such lovely and sometimes highly LOLsy show numbers:

Introducing: Grays Sports Almanac 2000-2050

"Grays Sports Almanac 2000-2050" will be our recurring column for previewing and, more importantly, accurately predicting upcoming events from the world of figure skating. With a little help from this book, which btw. came into our possession under quite mysterious circumstances, we'll be able to foretell any result in any segment with 100% accuracy. Unfortunately, divulging this information here may cause a divergence from the original timeline, which may prevent our predictions from coming true in the first place. However, as we don't give a rusty hoot about the time-space continuum, we'll gladly indulge in entertaining you with what at least very well might have been. And before anyone asks, the almanac is neither for sale nor for loan. We gave it away once, roughly three years ago, and still regret it.