2010 Olympic silver medalist Evgeni Plushenko and gold medalist Evan Lysacek, photo: AFP
How exactly does figure skating define itself? It differs from many other Olympic sports because along with its technical requirements, there is also a scored artistic component. The men’s competition in Vancouver last week concluded with USA’s Evan Lysacek crowned as the champion while the reigning Olympic gold medalist, Russia’s Evgeni Plushenko, took the silver. In his long program, Lysacek cleanly landed triple-triple combinations and filled his program with well-choreographed footwork, spins, and transitions. There was never a dull moment. Plushenko landed a quadruple-triple combination (a harder jump than a triple-triple), but many of his other jumps were quite shaky, and artistically and choreographically his program was lackluster (plus, playing to the audience by blowing kisses, shimmying, and swiveling his hips was just embarrassing). The results, which have angered Plushenko and his coach, fueled a debate over the future of figure skating. Should the sport give more weight to technical feats or to less risky programs that equally emphasize technique and artistry?
Personally, I thought the results were fair and that Lysacek wholly deserved the gold. His short and long programs were well-crafted, technically clean, original, and strategic in that they took advantage of the new scoring system introduced at the 2006 Olympics – something that was not evident in Plushenko’s programs, which seemed to center entirely around his jumps.
Interestingly, Lysacek and Plushenko received the exact same score for program components, which measures artistry. But Lysacek slightly edged Plushenko on the technical component score, suggesting that his jumps, spins, and footwork were better executed than Plushenko’s. Since their artistry scores were identical, the question was whether a cleanly landed quad jump automatically means gold. Plushenko and his coach seemed to think so, stating that anything less than a quad was setting the sport backward. They even went as far as saying that without the quad, figure skating is just dancing. But Lysacek, who has shown incredible composure and diplomacy in the face of post-competition questions over the quad/no quad argument, said in a NY Times article, “If it was about doing one jump, they would give you 10 seconds and no music” to complete the free skate. And his coach, Frank Carroll, said, “It’s not figure jumping; it’s figure skating.”
If figure jumping ever becomes a sport, Plushenko should definitely enter the competition. But in the meantime, it seems like competitive figure skating needs to deal with its identity crisis, and I imagine that the same is true for competitive gymnastics (and dancing, though it isn’t an Olympic event, which is probably a good thing). As long as competitors are graded on artistry – which is entirely subjective and leads to personal bias – can skating and gymnastics be considered Olympic sports? If artistic marks were eliminated, would Olympic figure skating and gymnastics be more fairly graded by focusing solely on technical ability? Or could it be that, without artistry, skating and gymnastics cannot be judged, and therefore shouldn’t be part of the Olympics?