The Lonely Sport

World champion (1994-96) and Olympic silver medalist (1994 and 98) Elvis Stojko has taken exception to the awarding of the Olympic gold medal in men’s figure skating to Evan Lysacek (“The Night they Killed Figure Skating,”). His main complaint is that Lysacek didn’t include a quadruple jump in his program while sliver medalist Evgeni Plushenko did. Stojko accuses the International Skating Union (ISU), the author of the new judging system, of killing the sport by encouraging conservative competitive performances. Even a sloppy triple, according to the new system, will get at least some points, while a failed quad will get none.

What makes Stojko’s criticism bizarre is that it is in direct opposition to the relatively recent criticism of myriad skating fans that the ISU, which is governed by a speed skater, was killing the sport by awarding too many points for athleticism and not enough for artistry. Despite this disagreement, however, about what is killing the sport, everyone seems to agree that it is dying. There is no question that there is little artistry in contemporary skating. Neither Lysacek nor Plushenko is an artist (unless flapping one’s arms about like a dodo in what looks like a desperate attempt to become airborne counts as artistry). There is a reason for this, however, that has not yet been discussed.

Dick Button remarked during Robin Cousins’ skate in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, that figure skating was one of the loneliest sports. He was referring specifically to the experience of performing alone, out in the middle of an empty ice surface when a skater’s whole future, or what at least feels like his whole future is dependent on that particular performance. No one is out there with the skater to provide company, distraction –no parent, no coach, no sweetheart can be there to comfort, to calm frayed, or fraying nerves, to thaw the fear that makes the frigid air of the rink seem warm by comparison.

But skating is really no different in that sense than any other individual (i.e., non-team) sport. There is something else, I think, that underlay Button’s remark. Figure skating is a lonely sport in a much deeper sense. Skaters don’t just compete along, they train alone. The culture of competitive figure skating is one of isolation. A skater comes to the rink, puts on his skates and goes out and practice until it is time for his lesson. There is very little socializing among skaters. Each seems to be in his, or her, own little world. I used to think that this was because figure skating attracted a certain introverted personality type. It isn’t so much though that it attracts this sort of person as that this is the only sort of person who is likely to be able to endure the culture of skating.

It’s often remarked by outsiders who get to know something of the world of competitive figure skating that skaters tend to lack normal social skills. It is usually thought that this is because most skaters spend all their time, from early childhood on, at the rink. But this explanation is insufficient. Rinks, after all, are full of people. In addition to the many skaters and their coaches, there are always a few parents hanging around, there’s the office staff, the maintenance people, the people who work in the pro shop, the snack bar, etc. Rinks are little microcosmic societies in themselves with myriad opportunities for social interaction with people in a variety of occupations and from a variety of backgrounds and yet there is relatively little interaction. Skaters keep pretty much to themselves and parents tend to as well. There is some socializing among coaches, but not so much as one would expect of people in the same profession. Coaches keep pretty much to themselves as well. I’ve never seen a jolly rink, a rink with a festive atmosphere, at least not outside of the times when the hockey players take it over. For all the talk about violence in hockey there’s a lot more camaraderie and warmth in hockey than there is in figure skating.

Here’s the thing. The Professional Skaters’ Association has a rule against “soliciting.” You may wonder what that means. Well what it means is that coaches effectively own their skaters. A coach comes under suspicion if he or she is even routinely friendly to skaters who are the property of other coaches. To remark favorably on the progress of such a skater even once is considered risky, to do it more than once is a clear violation of the PSA code of ethics. Coaches are instructed, according to a panel discussion on ethics at the 2008 PSA annual conference, to great politely the skaters of other coaches, and their parents if they happen to be present, upon entering the rink and basically to ignore them from that point on. So there you are a coach at a particular rink. You see the same skaters day in and day out, often for years, but you are supposed to pretend not really to notice them.

God forbid you should actually be warm and friendly to the people with whom your life brings you into daily contact. They might actually start to like you and even consider switching from their present coach to you! At which point you could expect a formal grievance to be brought against you by the coach whose athlete you unwittingly “poached.” You could be charged with deliberately cultivating warm and cordial relations with this skater precisely in order that they would begin to consider that they would enjoy your tutelage more than that of their present coach. Better just to ignore everyone at the rink who you are not already coaching than to risk the unpleasantness of having to defend yourself against a formal grievance.

So coaches don’t talk to any skaters but their own. Skaters see this and interpret it to mean that other skaters, and their parents, are to be shunned. Coaches never say such a thing, of course, but actions speak louder than words. Kids are smart. They see what goes on. They emulate the behavior of the person in whose charge they have placed themselves. They would shun other coaches’ skaters even if they were told not to, which, of course, they are not. Coaches leave well enough alone. Coaches are actually instructed to discourage parents from singing their praises to the parents of other coaches’ skaters. It doesn’t matter if a particular parent is delighted with your services and actively wants to communicate to other parents who may not be so happy with their own children’s coaches, just how much you have done for their child. It doesn’t matter if a child is struggling unhappily with a coach to whom he or she is unsuited by temperament or if the coach in question simply isn’t competent to help this particular child in the manner he or she needs to be helped. You are to leave that unhappy child and his or her unhappy parents to their fate.

So coaches don’t talk to other coach’s skaters. The same thing is true of the skaters themselves, so rinks are strangely quite, desolate places independently of how many people are there. The lack of warmth is not just physical, it’s emotional and it carries over even to exchanges with rink staff.
I’m just speculating here, but I have a suspicion that this was less of a problem in the old days when there were relatively few qualified coaches and it was not unusual for a rink to have only one coach. Janet Lynne writes beautifully of the camaraderie at the rink where she trained (see Echoing Whispers on Ice, 2008). Nowadays though there is a real flood of coaches. Skating enjoyed a long period where it was very popular and when it was possible for former skaters who might in earlier days have gone on to other professions to make a living coaching. And then there was fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent huge influx of former Soviet skaters into the ranks of coaches in the U.S. So now there may be a dozen, or even more, coaches at a particular rink, none of whom will fraternize with any of the skaters of the other dozen or so coaches.

It’s been widely acknowledge that the new judging system has not been good for the sport. It’s not just the new judging system, though, that’s killing the sport. It’s been dying a slow death for decades. Passion needs community to truly flower, and art needs the stimulation of many minds to grow and develop. It’s the recognition of that fact that lies behind the creation of “artists colonies.” Dancers hang out with other dancers, musicians with other musicians, writers with other writers because of a shared passion. Skaters, when they hang out with anyone, tend to hang out with the skaters with whom they share a coach because, well, what choice do they have? They aren’t allowed to gravitate toward people in their sport with whom they have a natural aesthetic affinity. Art knows it needs like minds. It positively craves them. So when an activity makes some other criterion the determining factor in the formation of social relationships, the message that is sent to the participants, the message they all understand, even if they cannot articulate it is–this is not art.

So OK, you say, it’s not art, it’s sport. That’s the side of the purported dichotomy on which the ISU has relentlessly come down. But the dichotomy is false. The line between sport and art is fluid, and nowhere is it more fluid than in figure skating. The officials of the sport have been quietly suffocating it in an attempt to make it into something it is not. It’s like that story about the man who tried to get his dog to live on nothing. It almost worked too, he explained, and would have worked, if the dog hadn’t died. It’s not just the new judging system that sucking the life out of figure skating. It’s the whole anti-social culture of the sport. It’s a life-denying culture. It’s no mystery why figure skating is dying. The mystery is how it survived so long.

M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. She can be reached at:


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: