Can Olympic Ice Skating Sink Any Lower?

by M.G. PIETY

Noam Chomsky said somewhere that organized sports were training in irrational jingoism. I doubt he was thinking of figure skating, but, sadly, figure skating is one of the worst sports in that respect. I’m a member of a Yahoo group of skating fans. The emails have been fast and furious among the members of that group since the Olympics began. A large number of them have been Canadian bashing. Ever since the story broke of possible collusion between the Russians and Americans to ensure a Russian win in the team competition and an American win in ice dancing, members of the group have been spewing vitriol at Canadians and labeling as “fellow travelers” anyone, such as myself, who would dare to point out that the Canadian ice-dancing team of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the reigning Olympic champions, was superior to the American team of Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

Davis and White didn’t need any help to win the gold was the constant refrain of most members of the group. They’ve been winning everything in the last few years. That is sadly true, but it begs the question of whether Davis and White needed help by tacitly assuming that they had not had help with these other wins. British skater Chris Howarth, one of the UK announcers for the live feed, acknowledged several times that Virtue and Moir had “the best edges in the world,” and that they had, “without a doubt the best skating skills in the business,” that they were “the epitome of ice dancing” both on his view and on the view of many others. So how had Davis and White been able to beat them so consistently?

The results of the ice-dancing competition were sewn up at the end of the short dance. Davis and White were conveniently slated to skate last making it that much easier to determine what sort of marks they would need to achieve a decisive lead. Virtue and Moir skated flawlessly. Despite that fact, however, and the fact that Davis and White, according to the announcers, did not skate so well as they had in the team competition, that they did not “engage the audience” as they had done earlier, the judges still gave them nearly a three-point lead over Virtue and Moir.

That’s an old judging trick that dates from the days of school figures: Give the skater, or skaters, you want to win a decisive lead in the first part of the competition and then it won’t matter how they do later–the win will be secured. Jon Jackson, a former skating judge, writes about that in his book On Edge: Backroom Dealing, Cocktail Scheming, Triple Axels, and How Top Skaters Get Screwed. There was no way Virtue and Moir could catch Davis and White after that and everyone knew it. It wasn’t that Virtue and Moir couldn’t skate that much better than Davis and White. It was that the scores the two teams had been receiving in the past few years had been so close that such a gap would be considered unbridgeable.

Virtue and Moir had to have read the writing on the wall long before coming to Sochi. They had not been allowed to beat Davis and White for a while, so what chance was there that they would be allowed to do so at the most politically charged event of their careers? The U.S. wanted that ice-dance gold and they wanted it badly. The U.S. had never before won a gold in Olympic ice dancing. They had hoped to with Belbin and Agosto in 2006, but those hopes had been dashed when the team came in second. The U.S. started early pushing and promoting the artistically challenged but powerhouse team of Davis and White. I don’t believe Davis and White could have garnered all the golds they did leading up to the Olympics if they had not had the political clout of the U.S. behind them.

Virtue and Moir had to know going into the Olympics that they were not going to be allowed to win the gold again. And yet they went anyway when as reigning Olympic champions they could easily have retired on their laurels. They went and as the U.K. announcer, Howarth, observed, “they brought their A game.” Consummate athletes as well as artists, they peaked right when they should have peaked, in the individual rather than the team competition where Davis and White had clearly peaked.

Everyone who knows anything about skating, and who has not fallen victim to irrational jingoism knows that Virtue and Moir should have won. It was a strange disorienting experience to watch the live feed. The announcers had nothing but praise for Virtue and Moir, whereas they are mildly critical of Davis and White. “Without a doubt,” observes Howarth, Virtue and Moir have “the best skating skills in the business, but on the day not quite enough to keep the Americans behind them.” But why not? Neither team made any mistakes, yet the team that is generally acknowledged to have superior skating skills came in second.

I knew after the short dance that Virtue and Moir weren’t going to be allowed to win. It was difficult for me to watch the free dance for that reason. I found myself hoping that Davis and White would make a mistake, a big one. I’ve never felt that way before watching skating (or any other sport for that matter). I’ve always wished for all the athletes to do their best. It wasn’t that I thought a fall, or other serious mistake, would make it possible for Virtue and Moir to win. I knew there was no chance of that. It was that I hoped a mistake by Davis and White would make the irredeemably corrupt nature of the judging that much more obvious.

Of course Davis and White didn’t make a mistake, though, because they skate like machines (which is why, despite the fact that they are very good, they are still infinitely inferior to Virtue and Moir). They skated well, and in an effort to make certain that there would be no controversy around their win, the judges awarded them wildly inflated marks, marks designed to give the impression that Virtue and Moir had never even been close.

But, of course, numbers can lie. And these numbers do.

I have a new admiration for Virtue and Moir, one that extends beyond the admiration I have always had for them as athletes and artists. It showed greatness of spirit to take on what they had to have known was ultimately a lost cause. They skated beautifully. They skated not for a medal, but for the art of it. They have what skating so desperately needs if it is going to survive: a commitment to an ideal that transcends the individual ego, a commitment to beauty. And yet the skating establishment turned its back on them.

I thought that skating had sunk so low that it could not possibly sink any lower.

I was wrong.

M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs and the author of Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. Her latest book is Sequins and Scandals: Reflections on Figure Skating, Culture, and the Philosophy of Sport, She can be reached at: mgpiety@drexel.edu 

 

M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She can be reached at: mgpiety@drexel.edu 

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