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I enjoy the Olympics despite the scores
One observation from last night: it reminded me, once again, that I find the judging and scoring to be my one real beef with the figure skating.

This time, there was a skater (didn't catch where from) whose routine was based on Gene Kelly's classic number from An American in Paris. For my money, it was brilliant: not just good skating, but good nods to the original routine peppered throughout. He actually managed to get a bunch of little nuances of Kelly's movement idiom in there -- not easy when you're moving on teeny little blades at high speed.

Of course, the commentators were full of, "Oh, it's not very hard; it won't score well; blah blah blah". And that proved true -- from a scoring POV, it was mediocre. Which is a damned shame, because from a purely artistic POV (as opposed to an athletic one), I thought it completely stole the show.

This seems to happen about once in each Winter Olympics for me. Sometimes it's a solo, sometimes a pair, but there's always *somebody* who just clearly gets the idea of Skating As Dance, and as Art, far better than the rest of the field. And they *never*, ever, win...

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Right - that's a big problem with admitting artistic events into a sporting event.

Figure skating is not a sport, by my lights. You can tell something is not a sport if it needs a judge. Don't need a judge for the speed skating - first skater over the finish line wins. Shooting? Obvious to everyone who was the best - the guys who hit the most targets.

I like dance more than I like any sport. But I don't confuse myself into thinking it is one, just because it is athletic.

As soon as you can pull of the level of athletic skill necessary to enter an ATHLETIC event like the olympics, pull this shite.

Otherwise, don't confused "first past the post" with sports.

Very politely put, but I beg to disagree. Athletic and Sporting are not synonyms. There are a lot of very athletic endeavors that are not sports. Unless Art and Sport are synonyms, since most of the best professional athletes I know are artists. It takes great skill and coordination to do a 35' high fall (I know, I have done them many times). But that isn't even an art - it is just an athletic job, that is part of the art form of film making (and very occasionally live theatre).

Now these days the olympics are, no doubt, a collection of athletic events. Some of those events are sports, and some are competitive art forms. Is competitive swing dance a sport? It is athletic and competitive. But my feeling, as I said, is that there is a real difference between competitive athletic events like figure skating and swing dance, where professional judges disagree constantly (which is why we have to take a consensus and the consensus frequently disagrees with a large number of the other observers), and sports, where the winner is the one who ran the swiftest, jumped the highest, or lifted with the most strength.

I think you've hit upon an interesting distinction. But isn't it more of a spectrum than a simple either/or?

For instance, I think most people would accept that baseball and football are sports -- yet they have umpires and referees making judgment calls.

On the other hand, Scott McCloud, in _Understanding Comics_, proposes a theory of Art that definitely includes most Sport. IIRC, "Art is any activity not directly related to survival or reproduction." Rather broad, but I often find it useful.

I sidejacked your first two comment on this to a comment below btw.

Though McCloud's definition is lovely, (and I like his work from what I have seen of it - isn't he the guy who did the 'closure' strip you have on your mantle?) it doesn't agree with my definition (if I had one) in that it includes a lot of things that I would bar, like reading livejournal, and especially facebook, playing video games (though creating them does fit in my definition), and blowing out candles on a birthday cake, to name 3 of the millions of things that people do that are not directly related to survival or reproduction. And of course survival is related to reproduction, in a prerequisite sort of way, and reproduction to survival in a species sort of way. And also, for professional artists, art _is_ directly related to survival, and come to that, in a species sort of way art is necessary to survival, and .... on and on. Lovely sentiment, but it doesn't stand up to any real thought for me.

Yes, the "Closure" piece is from that book.

And I admit that his definition is too radical to stand up all the time. But it does present an interesting perspective that, as I said, I often find useful.

It started as an athletic sport. Learn to do an Axel, do it in competition, you win. Do a double-Axel, you win more. There was zero style, especially for the men. Music began as an accompaniment. Actual choreography didn't start until later, and serious choreography in the 80's. The sport has evolved a great deal in the 40 years I've been paying attention.

Think of it like gymnastics. Scoring for technical elements is more important than scoring for artistry - but the balance has changed quite a bit over the years. Ten years ago Plushenko would have won just for that quad, imperfect landing and all. (And he made other mistakes.)

A quadruple jump, a triple-Axel *are* MUCH harder than the artistry involved. Even ballet has difficult techniques which do not necessarily improve the looks of the performance but are required of the top dancers.

All the skaters (and their coaches) "get" the artistry - it's only hammered into them at every single competition they attend, but there are so many hours in a day, and they have to take the time to learn the jumps and spins. Those world-class skaters are on the ice 6 or so hours a day, six days a week. All the artistry in the world is worthless if the skater cannot complete the technical elements.

Edited at 2010-02-19 04:22 pm (UTC)

Fair point, but seriously: *I* don't care about the technical elements, at least not nearly as much. I understand why it works the way it does -- but that's really not what I watch for.

Figure Skating occupies a very weird space these days. It's become *the* showpiece event for the Winter Olympics -- that's why they show the broadcast till freaking *midnight*, because it's the one thing they can get people to stay up for.

But for me, 90% of the interest is the artistry, and I don't think I'm all *that* weird in that -- the artistic element is a good chunk of why it occupies the exalted position it does. Yeah, the technical bits are cool, but past a certain point they begin to actively detract, from my POV. The first people to throw triples (and then quads) into their routines were impressive, but now that you have to do so Over and Over and Over again -- honestly, the most technically challenging routines are becoming more and more boring to watch, IMO. There is necessarily a sameness, if you really intend to win gold.

This is a messy tension, that really cuts to the heart of the difference between Olympics As Competition and Olympics As Entertainment. Cause let's be real: they *are* entertainment, and the organizing committees care quite passionately about that, since it's where much of the supporting money comes from.

None of which is to say that you're wrong -- indeed, I think you and Rick are both essentially correct. The problem is mostly that those "B-level" routines that *do* get into the artistry underscore the artistic potential, and remind me that it *could* be so much more interesting from my POV. But at that point, it wouldn't really be a sporting event, and probably wouldn't belong in the Olympics at all...

But - isn't that why Ice Dancing is also at the Olympics? For the people who want the pure artistry?

Interesting point. Honestly, I often find the Ice Dancing surprisingly dull, but that's probably because the rules around it are *tighter* than for the Figure Skating forms. The result is that it doesn't leave as much room for exploration of the art. (Also, it by definition is only for couples.) While it's nominally artistic, it's within pretty tight constraints: more like a competition for a specific dance form than for dance in general.

When done well, the Ice Dancing *can* occasionally be truly great. But I have to say, I've probably seen more serious and interesting art from the "b-list" Pairs than from the Ice Dancers, because I've seen more experimentation there...

No. It's there because it is skating, and the other forms were in. Its rules are even more rigid than free-style, and as Justin has observed, less likely to result in real art.

I know I'm not wrong. I was a figure skater for a decade, 4 of my five siblings were serious skaters as well.

The "sport" wants to be dance, but it didn't start that way. It's not very old.

Something I hate about the Olympic and World's skating is how tense the skaters are; it always ruins their routines. The best skating is after the competition is over, at the exhibition.

Yaas -- even as a casual observer, I've always found the exhibition to be the best part, not least because everyone actually looks like they're enjoying themselves...

It's funny. That's one of the ones I saw (I think), and I didn't really like it. Not so much from a skating perspective, but from a dance perspective. Part of that is the problem with combining the athletics with the performance. Usually one suffers. But while he did get a lot of the little nuances, they didn't flow well together for me. It felt....choppy.

Though I totally get you on the Skating as Dance front. It's why I love Johnny Weir.

Part of it is that the judges -have- to be more considering of the technical merits. Figure skating is a sport that has unfortunately been beset with a lot of controversy in the past, and much of it over the judging. Allegations of fraud, rigging, and bribery all over. Having technical merits that they can point to as defense of the judging is one of the steps they have to take to rebuild credibility. If it were an artistic 'black box' of judging only, with scores awarded simply to the "better" skater (with all the ambiguities inherent in that term), it would be right back to the way it was.

This sort of valuation prioriting happens a lot. Look at the current attempts to quantify 'good' teachers and 'good' schools - increased reliance on standardized testing, and performance metrics, culminating in schools and teachers that instruct students in the best ways to look good on those yardsticks, and not necessarily to make the 'best' students. Pedagogy is an art as well, but quantifying art has problems.

Figure skating (at least they don't show those darn "school figure" sessions anymore) is hardly the only Olympic *competition* like this - judging is in the moguls, snowboarding,diving, gymnastics and so on. Technical skill and athleticism are a worthy part of competition, beyond sheer racing or who can land (by what measure?) the most twisty jump. I asgree it is more satisfying (and understandable to the layman) to say "Skier X made it down the fastest - they win", but adding more subjective athletic contests only enriches the event for me. It is not enough to do X, you must do it WELL.

As I have heard said, and agree with, about last night's skating, the Russian landed the bigger jump (shakily) but the American's was cleaner (and supposedly other elements were more difficult as well). I thought Weir did an excellent job, but perhaps in terms of technical elements it wasn't as demanding as others. Similarly, I liked the Chaplin-based performance, partly for showing what Peggy Fleming was saying about earlier and less-seasoned skaters and the need to find your own artistic voice.

At least we don't see quite so much of the blatant bias like the old "and the scores...4.6, 4.3, and a 2.6 from the Russian judge" ;-)

Oh, I am not saying that non-sports have no place in the olympics - I after all prefer arts to sports. I just think that the differentiation is worth making.

But that is exactly my point, and also answers Alexx' point about referees in baseball. Sure, you can be wrong about which person touched the base first, but the criterion is perfectly clear. I would posit that as the difference between a judge and a referee. And I think there is a clear line: if you are making qualitative differentiations between competitors, you are adjudicating an artistic competition, and if you are making quantitative differentiations you are refereeing a sport. There are certainly corner cases. And it is definitely true that there are efforts to make the qualification more of a quantification in many fields, including skating (and, as you say, with very little positive effect...teaching).

I recall that skater (he was from the Czech Republic) and I'm afraid I must disagree with you on the fairness of his scores re: artistic merit. The new scoring system does take artistry into account, at least to some extent. He did not score higher because the brilliance in the Gene Kelly number lay more in the choreography than the execution and you don't get graded on the choreography. It was a great routine but the execution was uneven. The extension through the arms, the completion of movements and smooth flow from one move to the next was just not there. And his spins were quite dreadful (for that level of competition), slow and sloppy. I watched with my sister who has studied figure skating; she agreed with me so this is not a completely uneducated opinion.

We absolutely LOVED the choreography and would really like to see it done by a skater who can fully execute it. The commentator's opinion was that he "ran out of gas" and it did look that way - he just didn't have the stamina for that program. He probably needs to work much harder on his off-ice conditioning. He's talented and jumps well but is missing a lot of the little things that set the really top level skaters apart from the rest.

That artistry does count can be seen by the relatively high scores of Stephan Lambial, the Swiss skater who skated to "La Traviata". Can't jump worth beans but oh, can he skate - line, extension, footwork, musicality...I'm very, very sad that he was not "on his best game" last night. He came within a whisker of taking the bronze medal. Had he been as "on" as he was for the short program - done to "William Tell" - he could have done it. It is unfortunate, I much preferred him to the Japanese skater who did win; he was flashy and technically proficient but without as much heart. :-(

>Can't jump worth beans but oh, can he skate

Exactly the feeling I had during some of the skating shows a few years back that would have Hamilton & Boitano doing their jumps and such...and then Dorothy Hamil would come show them was skating & elegance really was.

Late to the party, but...

I heard a very interesting interview with Dick Button (he of Olympic figure-skating fame mid-century, who, like Shaun White is doing now, invented many of the moves skaters now *must* use), and he says something similar -- that the judging has swung so far over to the technical/compulsive side that folks really _can't_ either add in something new or devote as much effort to the artistry as they might. Frankly, I thought Lysachek's routine was too full of arm-waving and hops to be interesting. But, then, we all have differing tastes.

There are three competitors worth comparing here.

Plushenko was at the athletic end of the spectrum. He front loaded his program with huge amazing jumps, then spent the following two and a half minutes skating around on two feet smirking at the audience.

Weir is at the artistic end - he does have good jumps, but no quad, and not enough of the others for the high score. Great spins and footwork, and fabulous presentation.

Lysachek has almost as good jumps as Plushenko, good spins and footwork, and great presentation. He also skated his best performance ever, no mistakes, when the pressure was on. The skater with the most complete package won - not the ends of the bell curve.

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