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Olympic Figure Skating: The Good, the Bad And the Ugly

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The Good

Figure skating is arguably the marquis event at any Winter Olympics. And it's been quite entertaining this year, including a hissy fit by the Russian men's silver medalist. To a large degree, the sport's popularity is understandable. It focuses deeply on personality, and unlike most other Olympic sports, contestants are not covered up by a helmet, goggle, pads and gloves. (Just sequins and feathers.) We see the skaters for who they are, gliding freely in athleticism and grace, their emotions worn on their puffy sleeves.

To a degree, however, it's also lunatical that it's so popular -- because pretty much no one watching understands the rules and point system. We'll hear one another debate who deserved to win. Yet ask, "Okay, what's a Double Lutz?" and you'll get dead silence. "On a Double Salchow, which side of the blade must a skater take off from -- and land on?" If you can't answer this (and you can't, and neither can I), none of us are qualified to determine who should have won. "He looked better" doesn't cut it. Because there are rules.

And oh, those rules and the magical, mystery points system that determine the results. Don't worry if you don't understand them, neither do the skaters.

(I'm not kidding. If Yvgeni Plushenko had just performed a simple, Double Toe Loop as part of any combination, it would have given him the extra points to win the gold medal.)

But lack of understanding doesn't impinge on pleasure. I've enjoyed the pairs particularly, and the ladies' programs with the elegance of Mao Asada followed immediately by the record-breaking magnificence of Kim Yu-Na. Not to mention the achingly gutsy humanity of Joannie Rochette. The top three men skaters were riveting, with the gold medal to Evan Lysacek, but the full competition less so. For whatever reason, more than ladies I think men's skating has slowly turned more into an audition for the Ice Capades, complete with waving arms, overly-dramatic histrionics and clown suits. Yet for all that, the athleticism, tension, risk, grace, speed and individual personal focus of all three disciplines have been a pleasure to watch.


The Bad

I not only like Scott Hamilton, I admire him. A wonderful skater, he overcame such a life-threatening illness and did so with a spirit and determination that remains inspiring. And that spirit and great humor comes across in his broadcasting. And his TV partner Sandra Bezic seems like a pleasant person. When the two analyze figure skating before an event and after an individual performance, he does so with an enthusiastic insight and she adds a warm respectability.

But, my God, during the actual skating, when they're needed most, it's as if they turn the light switch off and have verbal meltdowns. I know Mr. Hamilton has it in him, because he tends to start strong, but then goes AWOL. What we get from Scott Hamilton the rest of the way is an occasional, "Oh, ho, ho. Oh, man!" "Watch this" "That was huge!!!" "Yes!" "He landed it!!!"

Honestly, we can see that he landed it. What we need is someone who can actually explain to us how he landed it. Why it was huge. What in the world is going on.

But as vacuous as Scott Hamilton becomes once the music starts, Sandra Bezic has turned dead air into an art form. Much of the time, in fact, she's literally silent during an entire performance. We're blessed if she utters, "He has one move to go." When a pairs skater stumbled, all we heard from Ms. Bezic was, "Wow." Then again, at least she said something.

As I said, they both do solid jobs before the skating and after. But during -- when the actual event is actually going actually on -- when we in the audience, who don't have a clue what goes into a Sit-Spin and couldn't tell a Flying Camel if it fell on us from the sky, when we most need an analyst to analyze -- they go out for pizza.

Perhaps they both just want us to watch, without having the ambiance destroyed. But it's not the theater. It's a sporting event. Watch any other Olympic event, and analysts are doing their jobs, critiquing every step and glide. Imagine watching a football game when the color man was silent the whole game. Or simply uttered, "Oh, ho, ho. Wow!," when a receiver made a catch. He'd be out of a job by the third quarter.

Thank goodness that NBC brought Dick Button into the studio for brief, outspoken commentary. Sputtering and eloquent.

Perhaps the network has ordered no distractions over the beautiful music. But I doubt it. Because Hamilton and Bezic do occasionally talk during a performance. The problem is that when they do talk -- they don't say anything. Other than, "Wow."


The Ugly

In referring to figure skating earlier, I left out one related event. Ice dancing. There's a reason for this. Ice dancing is idiotic.

And I'm not even referring to wardrobe malfunctions.

Ice dancing is to Winter Olympics what synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics are to the Summer Games.

I know that this is a losing battle. People who don't watch sports tune in for ice dancing during the Olympics. So, it's here to stay, somewhat like head lice. But it's still idiotic and has no place as an Olympic sport.

It's dancing. It might be difficult dancing because it's done on a really slippery surface, but -- it's still dancing. Anything that has a required cha-cha, a required tango, a required rumba and waltz ... IS DANCING.

The day they make flamenco an Olympic sport, we can consider ice dancing a sport, too. But until then, it's dancing.

(Indicative of its emptiness as a sport is that whenever I managed to watch, analyst Tracy Wilson said nothing -- literally nothing -- during any performance. Absolute, total silence. It was pathetic. But then, what was there to say, other than, "Nice pas de deux." Yet almost worse were her comments afterwards, when she'd critically note, with a straight face, "The music just didn't get the crowd involved." No doubt Bode Miller felt lucky he didn't have to face that challenge as he skied down the slopes.)

Other than Torvill and Dean, who, with perfect scores in 1984, transcended all known human sport, ice dancing is for me unwatchable as an Olympic sport. It's dancing.

"Ice dancing sooo beautiful," people insist. Yes, it is. Often gorgeous. At times exquisite. But so is the voice of Placido Domingo, yet Operatic Arias are not an Olympic sport. Nor is tap dancing. Ice dancing is indeed very beautiful -- but it's dancing.

And yes, it's very physical, extremely difficult and the performers are tremendously skilled. Absolutely. It is all these things. All. The talent of the performers is admirable. But -- it is not a sport. Because they're doing the foxtrot.

It's dancing.

Being a pianist takes meticulous skill. Mountain climbing is achingly physical and hard. The ballet is gorgeously beautiful. And not a one of them are sports. Ice dancing is dancing.

Mind you, if the Bolshoi Ballet ever performed Swan Lake in an actual lake, that is something I would pay to see. But it still wouldn't be an Olympic event.

Even if they froze the lake and gave the dancers skates.

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