Monday, March 27, 2006


All over the Worlds

Lambiel "brings it" to defend his title
I’m glad I taped most of the World Championships of Figure Skating because ESPN’s commercial breaks were grueling. Busy bee that I am, I recorded everything up to yesterday’s finals, and watched the whole ten hours of coverage in about three hours before switching over to go live for the ladies around 4:30 Pacific Time.

It's always rewarding to watch an entire event in one day like that, designing a condensed, skating-only version of the coverage for oneself with the aid of the fast-forward controls. Apparently, a lot of Canadians felt the same way: Ticket sales were disappointing; a lack of local PR has been blamed, but figure skating event attendance numbers have been going down across the board. I’d be more likely to blame a general decline in discretionary income rather than a lack of interest, because the sport has never been more hotly contended or exciting to watch.

The level of commentary, without Dick Button around, was slightly pedestrian, but perfectly acceptable, and certainly less nit-picky. I especially loved it when Kurt Browning, upon seeing Stephane Lambiel land his opening quad-triple combo in the men’s free skate, almost grunted, “Bring it!” with an edgy zeal not usually apparent in his generally jocular delivery. I liked Wylie and Browning together in the box, but the sight of them in power suits sitting all macho-style was jarring. Their legs were set so far apart, it looked like their zippers would pop, and those stupid, big, bright ties made them look like Republican lobbyists rather than commentators for a sport universally known for its flamboyance. I wish the TV establishment would at least let them go business casual!

Commentary aside, the men’s competition was certainly the most contentious, with Lambiel’s stellar interpretation scores edging out Joubert’s higher technical total. I’m surprised, actually, that Joubert earned the high scores he did on the second set because he skates so mechanically, and his arms are just too short! I also despise his vinyl-accented “Matrix” outfit even more than I loathe Lambiel’s psychedelic zebra, which has actually started to grow on me. While I may have jumped the gun saying the men had overtaken the women in skating prowess in my last post, I am certain that everyone will agree that the top men now far outshine the top ladies in sequin power. In fact, the top ladies have become extremely tasteful, obviously following the lead of Michelle Kwan’s elegant string of dignified Vera Wang creations.

But despite Joubert’s annoying outfit and fist-pumping jockiness, I enjoyed seeing him finally skate clean for the first time in two seasons. I don’t think all that much of Lucinda Ruh’s spinning genius has rubbed off on him, though his spins are better than they were–and he still manages to look like a total jock even in the most outlandishly balletic positions. It’s an extremely rare quality, actually. When competitor Thomas Verner of Czechoslowakia was skating, Wylie and Browning–for some reason–started talking about the fact that he and Joubert were the two men who routinely got all the attention from the ladies backstage; I thought that was hilarious, because it’s not difficult to see why–they’re the only two recognizably straight contestants in the entire field.

Successful defending World Champion Stephane Lambiel has his own kind of sex appeal, but to me he’s like an asexual sprite on the ice, a total nature spirit, streaking and twirling with the kind of abandon I associate with pagan rituals. Especially at this Worlds, his Pan horns were out, and he had a delicious look of almost ecstatic revelry while he skated, deftly controlling a lush flow of joyous energy through some of the most precise and demanding upper body moves and footwork in the entire meet. His jumps were absolutely gonzo, covering height and distance I usually associate with X-game antics. I particularly loved the look on his face (“Sell it, Louise!”) when he stumbled out of his triple loop, obviously grateful that he was still on his feet at all. I was surprised, too: Aside from getting about six feet into the air after a three-turn take off at top speed, he covered something like fifteen or twenty feet of ice on that ill-fated triple loop. Joubert’s jumps may have been more controlled, but Lambiel skated like a rock star, and it must have made those judges swoon.

Ditto for new World Ice Dance Champions Denkova and Staviyski of Bulgaria, who look like refugees from a 1980s chick-rock band, and skate kind of like Stevie Nicks performs on stage. They may be blond (ahem) and regally chiseled, but you can feel the dark-eyed gypsies in their souls when they skate. Sometimes they undulate together in tender loneliness, like the Aurora Borealis, and sometimes they flicker across the ice like a pair of will-o-the-wisps. My favorite team, sentimental heavies Dubreuil and Lauzon, were more suave, smooth, strong and classic, with shades of the passionate majesty of Torvill and Dean. The judges liked ‘em a lot, too, clearly ranking them higher than anybody else in the free skate; but Denkova and Staviyski had such high technical scores in the original dance–Latin-themed this year–that they managed to carry the event even after finishing third in the free dance. They’re the first Bulgarians ever to win an ISU event, and I’d bet they’re going to be more famous than any Bulgarian rock star ever was, too. (You can’t name any, can you?)

I was completely surprised to find that the dance competition moved me far more than did the pairs event. In fact, the pairs left me so cold, I had to put on an extra pair of socks. Winners Pang and Tong, to be fair, do have a bit of a spark in them, but I don’t feel their technique is quite there yet, as “they” like to say. The exact opposite is true of the American Champions, Inoue and Baldwin, who had by far the highest technical scores in the free skate, yet garnered presentation scores that were almost six full points lower than those of the gold medalists. Some say the Russians were cheated out of the gold, since they skated clean, while both Chinese teams fell, but they earned their bronze by being painfully slow and absolutely expressionless, despite their perfect form. Silver medalists Zhang and Zhang are great athletes, but they still need years of work on their line, footwork and basic level of emotional connection.

To see some truly great pairs skating, one has to migrate to the world of artistic roller skating these days, where lifts, in particular, are far more spectacular, challenging and quickly rotated than in ice skating. Alas, the wonderful world of artistic roller skating cannot be viewed on television by anyone but the Italians (and other satellite-savvy EU inhabitants), who really do treat their world champion roller figure skaters like rock stars. But that’ll soon change if I can have anything to do about it!

What won’t change, it seems, is the reign of the teen terror on the ladies’ front, with Kimmie Meissner really kicking her competition in the teeth with those stunningly high and well-earned technical scores, and veteran Fumie Suguri delivering a beautiful, passionate program while popping a jump or two to give up the gold. Former favorite Sasha Cohen squeaked through with a bronze on presentation and interpretation merit alone. In fact, she earned the highest second set of scores by far, even though she landed very few solid jumps. And that’s how she beat out Elena Sokolova and Sarah Meier, who both delivered nearly clean free skates that would have earned them medals had they shown any sort of depth or connection to their skating whatsoever. Those two women can do clean, high, perfect triple jumps for days, but as long as they’re not presenting a program to the judges that’s a synergistic whole, they might as well be skating in the second group. They’re both tremendous skaters–especially Meier, who has great line, footwork and spins as well as killer jumps–but each looked as if she had holed up in a well-defended redoubt inside her head, from which she operated the machinery by remote control.

And now I put down my own remote control. It will lay mostly dormant for the spring and summer, as I watch very little television aside from figure skating events. I certainly don’t care enough about anything else enough to go to the trouble of taping it when I can’t watch the broadcast. And unless artistic roller skating gets its championships on the airwaves pronto, I won't have anything vital to watch until next season. Meanwhile, stay tuned for my own artistic roller skating adventure (I'm just about to purchase a killer pair of skates), and some roller figure skating stories and reporting as I come across them.

Did you get to see the Gala?
Yes, I did - and I thought Lambiel laid down some of the best spins of the season in his gala program - otherwise, it was a little soporific!!
have you been living under a rock since 1991? :P
there is no such thing as Czechoslovakia, Tomas (it's without H yeah) is from the Czech Republic. :)
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