Stars on Ice

Figure skating in need of boost

Olympic scandal still reverberating through the sport

Source: National Post
Date: March 14, 2003
Author: Cam Cole

Kurt Browning has more first-hand knowledge of both halves of figure skating's appeal -- the athleticism and the art -- than anyone who ever competed in this country.

He can create any kind of mood on the ice, from comic to tragic ... fittingly enough, for he is the one to whom the endlessly versatile Scott Hamilton, who basically invented the Stars On Ice tour, passed the torch when he retired as an every-night skater a couple of seasons ago.

Four times the world champion of his sport, the gregarious Browning has spent 20 years charming judges, and walking the fine line between quotability and putting his foot in it, usually erring on the side of diplomacy.

But at 36, caught (through no fault of his own) in the same V-shaped depression that has dragged down the rest of the figure skating world in this strange, sterile post-Olympic season, he finds himself wondering, like everyone else, how to turn it around. Or if it can be done.

And diplomacy, at the highest levels of skating, clearly doesn't work.

"I've tried to remain optimistic, [but] I don't know what the ISU is going to do," Browning said yesterday, by phone from Pittsburgh, where he'll skate tonight at the Igloo ... though sadly, for fans of the decimated Penguins, not on Mario Lemieux's wing.

It is the 44th show of 61 that Browning and the rest of the Stars On Ice skaters will stage in the U.S., before a revamped cast assembles in Halifax on April 16 for a three-week, 11-city HSBC Canadian leg, ending April 4 in Vancouver. Joining Browning on the Canadian tour will be Olympic pairs co-champions, Canada's Jamie Sal and David Pelletier and Russia's Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, as well as Olympic men's gold medalist Alexei Yagudin of Russia, former world pairs champions Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler, and six-time Canadian women's queen Jennifer Robinson, among others.

In an off-year (putting it mildly) for competitive skating in Canada, the Stars tour may be as much fun as skating fans in the Great White North are permitted this winter. The dearth of fresh homegrown talent has underlined just what a slump the sport in general is enduring, in the wake of the Salt Lake City judging scandal.

"Well, let's face it, winning is pretty exciting," said Browning. "But if you're not winning, you need some intriguing personalities around that really relate to the audience -- and I just don't think we've been replenishing the supply [in Canada] the way we used to. And you can't have just one, like an Elvis, to pin all your hopes on, either, you need a whole group of skaters.

"The [fans] who do come out are having a terrific time. Ticket sales for the HSBC tour have been great. But, I don't think people are believing in skating like they used to.

"The sport was on such an incredible high before, I think we all knew that couldn't last.

"Plus, it's the economy, and it's 'We're going to war' and it's 'The judging's rigged, who wants to watch it?' And it's almost like we're down here in the States asking Jamie and David to save our tour. They're doing every interview, skating, and getting on another plane to some other city to do another interview. They're working their butts off."

Of all the factors imperilling skating's future, though, the Olympic judging scandal -- and the contortions the politically-chaotic ISU has gone through trying to fix the system that let it happen -- has delivered the biggest blow to the sport's solar plexus.

ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta's quite earnest efforts to create a cheat-proof system are facing unexpected opposition from the damnedest places. It turns out that fans and skaters, and even national skating bodies and the media, are less concerned with fairness than with transparency. If there's a raw mark delivered, and someone is getting screwed, they want to know who's screwing them. Under Cinquanta's new deal, judges are never identified.

There are elements of the pending system that are good. A computer's random selection of judges from a larger panel -- using only nine marks from a pool of 15 sitting judges, for example -- would be an effective deterrent to deal-making, especially if the computer were programmed to select a certain number from each geographical area to prevent, say, former Soviet republics from holding most of the votes.

A scoring system not based on 6.0, but rather on assigning values to the individual elements, with marks based on how each is performed, leaves judges a lot less wiggle room in any post-competition analysis of why they marked a given skater unreasonably low, or high. But the new system has the same weakness as the old: it does nothing to discourage judges from using the artistic, or presentation, component of the mark to prop up those they want elevated and to down-rate those they want to sandbag.

"The one thing I do like about it is, it gives the athletes a chance to put a game-plan together, an idea of how you might be able to get from third to first, other than, 'I'm going to skate my program, and hope I skate my best,'" said Browning. "It actually puts shot options into a figure skater's hands, which I thought was very cool. In other words, you can say, 'I'm going to change my triple Axel and do like Elvis did and put it in the last minute, so it's worth more points.'

"Unfortunately, people need to hold somebody accountable for the mark that just went up.

"I thought at first it might work, the idea of a system you weren't supposed to be able to cheat at, but now I don't know what to think. And right now, there's so many Russians winning that North Americans seem to be saying, OK, well, we'll go watch something else. Even Alexei [Yagudin] says, 'What can you do when you're in a different country trying to sell yourself to people who don't speak your language?' And he's been a good role model, a good Olympic champion, unlike the guy from Lillehammer [Russia's Ilia Kulik]. What did he do for our sport? He's been invisible."

It's not as though Browning spends every day brooding about the state of skating. For one thing, he and his wife, National Ballet principal dancer Sonia Rodriguez, are expecting their first baby in July.

"A boy," said Browning. "We were joking, is he going to be a dancer or skater? He'll be a skater."

For another, he's got plenty on his plate, from 72 tour dates to filming another Gotta Skate! television special for NBC in Hamilton, probably in the fall.

But even though he seems a million miles from the Caroline, Alta., son of a cowboy who thrived in the rough-and-tumble of competition, he still hurts for the plight of the ISU "eligible" ranks, and knows that if fans lose the ability to care, the game is over for all of them.

"We need athletes that people are willing to believe in, and a system that allows people to trust that the guy who won was the guy who was supposed to win," said Browning. "Soon as people start trusting that it's a sport again, and not the Jerry Springer show, then we'll be OK."