Monday, February 13, 2006


The Agony of Victory

Zhang: pick yourself up, dust yourself off, win the silver!
In the Olympic pairs free skate tonight, favorites and short program leaders Totmianina and Marinin were clearly the best despite a rather cautious skate--that is, they were nearly perfect, but they weren't on fire, and Sandra Bezic, who is turning out to be the best figure skating announcer ever next to Dick Button (more on them in a later post), was quick to point it out without detracting from their otherwise brilliant routine. But no spark.

Incendiary status went to the Chinese (does anyone else find it interesting that their figure skating power is rising along with the country's economy?), who burned up the ice to capture the silver and the bronze. Shen and Zhao, the vets and former gold medal favorites, skated through Zhao's recent Achilles tendon injury to a well-earned third place, while Zhang and Zhang (not related) provided what is sure to go down as one of the most eloquent expressions of "the Olympic spirit" at these games. After taking a nasty spill on the first-ever competition attempt at a throw quad salchow, which looked like it probably did some real damage to the female Zhang's knees and groin, the team had to stop skating; their music was cut, and it looked as if she might be too injured to continue, but after a couple of minutes, they took to the ice again, picked up where they'd left off, and skated a courageous and well-executed program to hold onto their second place short program finish. Talk about a warrior princess!

The competition included another not-as-bad, but still harrowing, spill: Rena Inouye's smash up on her and Baldwin's throw triple axel, which they had completed with style to burn (a historic first) in the short program. They ended up seventh, which is as high as any American has placed in an international field in four years. Great for them, but somehow the Americans have never mustered the polish and grace of the Russians, and now the Chinese. In fact, one of the most passionate and graceful programs was skated by the Chinese team Pang and Tong, whose performance was also completely medal worthy, and might have earned them the bronze if not for the huge sentimental thrust behind the bravery and persistence of Zhao and Zhang.

We should be hearing about Zhang's injury in the days to come, and to heighten the sense of real physical drama and danger in the sport, the only narrative portion of the broadcast tonight focused on gold medal winners Totmianina's and Marinin's near-deadly fall of two years ago, which kept Marinin in doubt about his ability to continue skating for many months. We shall overcome. That's what the Olympics is all about.

It was a day of brutal crashes on the slopes as well as the ice, apparently, and one can only hope for a day of smoother landings tomorrow as the men's figure skating competition heats up, especially with all those quads they'll be attempting. It's the battle of the super sylphs as Weir (no quads) meets Plushenko (quad king) in what's sure to be a dramatic showdown, though I think Lambiel's gonna take it. Can't wait to see him spin! I'd love to hear any other predictions out there, for either men's or ladies--for example, does anyone agree with me that Meissner looks ready to medal?

I'd also like to hear from any readers out there about what they think of the new scoring system. I like it, but I like change of any sort. The only thing I hate about it is that it pushes skaters to do spins with changes of edges right in the middle just for more points, which slows down the spin and makes it less aesthetically pleasing. "Anything for point these days" is the common cry against the new system. Sandra and Dick had an interesting discussion about it during the competition, with Dick taking that very stance, noting how it can take away from the time a team can put into perfecting their artistry; but Bezic bounced right back in her usual firm and expert manner--the woman has high standards, and that's good!--saying that a truly great team can master the point system and still skate like perfectly polished, inspired artists--and that's the game now, anyway, so why not grab it by the short hairs? I agree, and I certainly appreciate the fact that spins, footwork, edges and other moves are given far more point value now, along with the way that every single element is given its own complex scoring rubric--it may be more complicated, but I think it also makes the judges really consider what they're seeing. And I'm getting the hang of knowing what a "good score" looks like; I mean, c'mon, we humans are nothing if not adaptable--today's plethora of heroic comebacks demonstrated that truism with gritty zeal (or zealous grit, if you prefer).

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