Figure skating in need of boost
Olympic scandal still reverberating through the sport
||March 14, 2003|
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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."