Figure skating needs new personalities, more coverage

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Michelle Kwan, we need you.

America’s athletic idol, having retired from competitive figure skating two years ago, left an immense legacy: two Olympic medals and nine national championships, not to mention her grace, style, and beauty. She also left a huge void to be filled: that of being a spokesperson of a sport America used to adore, one who extended its popularity beyond figure skating’s narrow world, as well as one who could captivate audiences with her on-ice and off-ice warmth. The void was as apparent as ever in this past month’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships, when spectator turnout was at a low.

For figure skating to survive, someone needs to step into Michelle Kwan’s shoes. Those shoes, presumably with blades attached, are big ones to fill.

Back in the day, figure skating could compete with pro football (in our living rooms). The 1980s and 1990s were the golden age of figure skating, at least in the U.S. Our athletes won Olympic medals, pushed the envelope athletically and artistically, and caused enough controversy to remain in the interest of the general public, all while in sequins.

Today, that golden age is over.

The sign of an imminent downfall came this year when ABC, which had been broadcasting figure skating since the early days of television coverage, didn’t renew its $12 million contract with the U.S Figure Skating Association. ABC and other title sponsors had their qualms; for a number of reasons, figure skating’s popularity was dying. Here’s why.

Arguably, it all started with the French judge. Remember her? She was the redhead in the fur coat who took a bribe to vote the Russians over the Canadians in the pairs event in the 2002 Olympics. A significant amount of tears, trials, tribulations, and Russian mafia associations later, her most lasting impact was the abandonment of the judging system we have known and loved for so long. The International Skating Union took about two years to experiment with new systems, ones that are arguably fairer to the skater and less prone to outside influences pressuring judges.

Today, the head-scratching set of numbers that pops up onto the screen is the abstruse system known as the Code of Points. Skaters are awarded points based on the difficulty of the element and the quality of its execution, along with points for artistic presentation. This confusing system has lost the emotional excitement of the 6.0, a dramatic mark of perfection only figure skating could produce. To the average viewer, the Code of Points has no basis, no mark of value.

In addition, the Code of Points inspires skaters to make their programs so jam-packed with eye-catching elements that some feel that the beauty of natural lines and simple elegance is gone. Skating has turned into gymnastics on ice. The younger and more limber you are, the better your chances of succeeding. This year’s winning ladies were aged 14, 15, and 16, respectively. Kimmie Meissner, the 2006 World Champion and a college freshman this year, was a veteran in the field at age 18.

Undeniably, skating has lost its star power. With Michelle Kwan, Sasha Cohen, and others removed from the competitive circuit since the 2006 Olympics, there lacks a charismatic personality in an America whose media coverage of athletes is personality driven. Michelle and Sasha were ice queens; they sparkled in $5000 Vera Wang dresses, chatted up Jay Leno, rode on parade floats, and skated to the best music — Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Romeo and Juliet, Tosca, Swan Lake. Today, the ice queen has been replaced by the jumping bean — young, limber, and able to pull off gravity-defying jumps before even getting his or her driver’s license.

However, figure skating’s future remains promising. Fourteen-year-old Caroline Zhang, who trains in the Kwan family rink in Artesia, Calif., performed a graceful program to “Ave Maria” at the championships — one that would have made the late Luciano Pavarotti proud. Johnny Weir, known for his eccentricity, also amused us with his frilly outfits and uncensored interviews. The younger generation, so criticized by some, brings a new tone to the competitive scene. They may be glued to their cell phones and studying for the revamped SATs, but they are fresh-faced, ambitious, and talented enough to hope to make the 2010 games.

There are flaws in the system. The boards surrounding the rink at Nationals this year might indeed have more white space than ads for weight loss diets (a true loss). Nevertheless, I believe that figure skating can pull itself out of this slump and reemerge into a new golden age of popularity.