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Figure skating '09: Kim and Lysacek can't keep the sport from being down and out in L.A. [UPDATED]


Italy's Carolina Kostner during her disastrous worlds free skate. Credit: Gabriel Bouys / Getty Images

Better late than never, my final thoughts on the figure skating season that ended five days ago with the 2009 World Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles:

1. It pained me to watch Italian skater Carolina Kostner in the free skate – especially since she was skating (for the second year) to a moving piece of music I previously had not heard used in the sport:  Dvorak’s "Dumsky" Trio.

Kostner’s implosion was the worst I have seen by a top-level woman since Nancy Kerrigan’s at the 1993 worlds. Kerrigan, then reigning Olympic bronze medalist, world silver medalist and U.S. champ, was first in the short program and ninth in the free skate, when she landed just two triple jumps.

Kostner’s 15th-place free skate last week in Los Angeles was even worse: two clean triples, four other triples reduced to doubles and singles and, overall, what Italian papers called "a disaster."

Kostner, 2008 world silver medalist and two-time European champion, said she was not hurt and told the Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport, "I don’t know what happened.... And to think I was feeling fine, with no physical or mental problems." (For the record: An earlier version of this post said Kostner was the 2008 bronze medalist.)

2. Yes, 2009 U.S. champion Alissa Czisny did as poorly (11th) as naysayers expected at worlds. But she still deserved to be there, just as she will deserve to be at the Olympics if she qualifies automatically by winning another U.S. title.

Of course, to repeat in 2010, Czisny will have to turn into an amalgam of Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski, Peggy Fleming, Carol Heiss, Dorothy Hamill, Janet Lynn and Kristi Yamaguchi, as U.S. judges will be seriously disinclined to give Czisny any benefit of the doubt next season.

(Updated at 12:41 p.m. April 3:  A reader pointed out that a change in U.S. Figure Skating selection rules no longer gives the reigning national champion an automatic place on the Olympic team.  But a member of the international committee told me there is no way the 2010 champions would be dumped.)

3. I had several spirited exchanges with International Skating Union President Ottavio Cinquanta during his news conference in Los Angeles. One came after I pointed out he had to give away broadcast rights to U.S. and Canadian TV (to ensure the rink board sponsors got the exposure they wanted in North America), since networks in the two countries no longer want them after two decades, when they paid large rights fees. (The overnight rating for the one live telecast on NBC, the women’s final, was 2.7 but just 0.6 in the 18-to-49 demographic.)

Cinquanta responded by crowing about how much money the ISU is getting from Asian TV. My reply?  What happens when Kim Yuna of South Korea and the current group of terrific Japanese women (and a good group of Japanese men) move on, possibly after the 2010 Olympics?

There apparently are no successors.

Kim is what the Brits call a "one-off," just as China’s Lu Chen was: the lone great (or even good) singles skater in her country. Neither Japan nor Korea had a woman in the top 15 at the 2009 World Junior Championships, and the best man’s finish was a 12th for Japan. The Japanese woman who was fifth at the 2008 world juniors (no other was above 16th) disappeared after getting only fifth at her country’s junior nationals this year, and the best Japanese man in 2008 was 17th. Same story in 2007.

4. Cinquanta expressed delight at a question about limiting the ridiculously large men’s (50) and women’s (53) fields at worlds, where barely two dozen of each could skate without double runners. He intends to propose limiting the fields to the ISU’s governing council this year. Don’t count on that happening or him pushing too hard, because Cinquanta gets a lot of his support from skating’s minnow nations, and there are a lot more of them than the four (Russia, Japan, Canada, USA) who dominate the results.

5. Cinquanta also puffed up his chest as he noted, "All the skaters now come from the ISU area." The subtext there was his joy over the lack of competition from professional events and tours, which had been the main source of income for many skaters during and after their "Olympic eligible" careers. "We are not perfect, but we are still here, and, in the meantime, somebody else disappeared," he said.

He should be mourning the absence of that competition, because it reflects the poor health of the sport.

6. Cinquanta remains intransigent about making major changes in the New Judging System -- increasingly detested and criticized by skaters and coaches. In defending it, he managed to belittle many of the sport’s most popular champions, all of whom predated the system that now has been used in the last five world championships.

"Using the (new) judging system to see the winner of 1988 or '87 or '89, compared with the No. 5 of 2008, there is no race," Cinquanta said. "If this quality is not accepted by the public, what can we do?"

7. The New Judging System’s anonymity and random judge selection were designed to minimize the chances of corrupting a result through backroom deals with the nine judges, all identified, who were on the old panels. But as one veteran European coach who hates the new system told me, cutting right through the bull: "Now you don’t need to buy five people, just two: the technical controller and the technical specialist, who determine the levels of the elements."

8. I have never been at a skating event in a major modern arena where it was as cold as the Staples Center was kept during the competition. Most fans clearly agreed, judging by the layers of clothing and blankets covering them. I routinely wore a turtleneck, a cotton sweater and a Polartec. A woman just to the left of the media seats arrived one day in a turtleneck and Polartec topped by a parka – and that seemed just right.

9. I loved seeing Kim Yuna fulfill the potential I first saw when – in her 2007 world debut – she won theYamashort program with a performance I wrote "may be remembered as the moment the sport’s latest great talent began to command the world stage." In Los Angeles, she was one sloppy jump in the long program – a triple salchow that became a double – from laying down the best short and long program combined that I have seen since Yamaguchi at the 1992 U.S. Championships.

(Yes, Kwaniacs, I still like Yamaguchi’s 1992 performances better than Michelle’s extraordinary skating at the 1998 U.S. Championships – heck, Yamaguchi did a triple lutz-triple toe loop back then.  Of her short program in 1992, I wrote: "Her timing was so exquisite it seemed Yamaguchi had a metronome in her feet." She showed it again by getting to the rink boards in time to hug Evan Lysacek after he won the world title last Thursday.)

10. Yes, there was no video replay to determine (imprecisely, of course, because not enough camera angles are used) whether triple jumps were fully rotated back in the day. But the inability of the top women at worlds to land more than five free skate triples (or try more than six) leaves me even more impressed by how Yamaguchi and Kwan and Sarah Hughes and Russia’s Irina Slutskaya made seven triples seem routine.

-- Philip Hersh

Photo: Kristi Yamaguchi hugs Evan Lysacek after he won the world title.  Credit: Associated Press / David J. Phillip

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Comments (17)

Phil once again not only did Alissa implode, but she also cost us more than likely the three spots. The fans who were screaming, do pay attention to this sport, and lots of us figured that Rachael was capable of placing as well as she did...

Once again most of us would say that Alissa did not deserve to win Nationals, so Alissa did not go. I don't care how "boring" Flatt and Zhang are, Alissa does not deserve to beat them when she lands only 3 triples in the long and they land six. I don't freaking care that she has a lead in the short program, her lead was not that big, they judges could have easily marked Alissa down enough after she imploded in the long program. It's something they should have done, especially since Olympic spots were on the line.

You make a skater like Alissa deliver two good programs under the pressure of Nationals before you send her to Olympic qualifiers and make her national champion...

And Japan does have some talented young ones, who didn't do well at their Junior Nationals and so were not sent. But at least two are very talented. As for Korea, more Koreans are taking up the sport now, but it will be some years before we see the results.


Thanks for the observations and especially for being hard on Cinquanta who appears to be oblivious/resistant to a reality orientation. Unfortunately, his Intransigence seems to be shared by others within the ISU, sort of a folie a deux, trois, quartre........

Your mention of 7 triples and Michelle Kwan brings me back to her 2001 Song of the Black Swan LP, which I routinely watch, when the shoddy skating of today leaves me cold.

Michelle's Black Swan used sections of the Dvorak Trio you said you had never heard used in the sport. Probably wrong about this, but I thought in choosing the Olympic team for the US that, unlike getting on the World team, the winner of Nationals is not guaranteed a spot on the team.

Finally someone pointing out the ineptitude of Ottavio Cinquanta and his butt kissing yes men. People who defend him and the rest of the ISU deserve to pay for cable to see the final flight of skaters in the men competition.

" It pained me to watch Italian skater Carolina Kostnerin the free skate – especially since she was skating (for the second year) to a moving piece of music I previously had not heard used in the sport: Dvorak’s "Dumsky" Trio."

I hope you were being sarcastic because Michelle Kwan used that music in the middle of her "Song of the Black Swan" LP that won her 4th out of 5 World titles in 2001.


Thank you for the valuable insight. I don't understand why a governing body like the ISU would blatantly turn a blind eye at the opinions of those whom something like the new judging system affects directly. I agree that change is good and people need to accept it, but I don't think it's wise to ignore any loud and viable protests, especially that coming from those who would know.

I agree with what you say about Alissa. She is like Sasha Cohen x 3. I'd love to see her put together a solid short and long, but it was doubly frustrating this time because it was likely she who cost the U.S. team a valuable spot in next year's games...a spot that could have gone to a Kwan or a Cohen. And if that's how it plays out next year...then I, for one, will not remember the name Alissa Czisny kindly, gorgeous layback notwithstanding.

I do contest, albeit with friendly consternation, your assessment of Yamaguchi's 92 championship over Kwan's 98 win. I watched both performances last night, and I have to say that while Yamaguchi's was technincally astounding and artistically detailed, down to a T, I was still left feeling that everything was just too well planned out. Like we were somehow watching a perfect training session. Everything was in place, and that was great. What was different about Kwan in 1998, though, was that she seemed to forget anyone was watching her. She simply skated as if she were merely expressing her love for the sport, and I think that's what translated into magnificence. It gives me goosebumps everytime I think about it, to this day. No disrespect to Kristi, since I idolized her as a kid, but boy am I glad I was able to grow up with Michelle Kwan. What a time.


Hi, Phil, I agree with 90% of what you wrote in this article.COP has done nothing to change the corrupt nature of the sport. While I know that you don't acknowedge ice dance as a sport, the cheating was most evident in this phase of the competition.

You must have recognized Kostner's music.Michelle Kwan skated to it in 00-01 "Song of the Black Swan" when she won her 4th World title.

Thanks for bringing up Kristi's 92 Worlds lp. Kudos to her for even GOING to Worlds after her Olympic victory..She is the last ladies OGM to do so. I always was and still am a huge fan of Kristi's skating.Her 3 lutz/3toe was a beauty..That said, she did fall on her 3 salchow, a jump that Sandra Bezic called her "nemesis".So..I'd have to go with Kwans' 98 Nats lp which,while there was no 3/3(stress fracture)it did have the complete repertoire of triple jumps.

And, while there were no "instant replays "back in the day, for the most part Kwan and Slutskya had fully rotated jumps.Sarah Hughes? One didn't need replay to see the pre and under rotation of her jumps..

Kudos on a good article.

First, it's "Dumky" trio - not "Dumsky" and if you haven't heard it used in skating before, you must have missed the 2001 season when Michelle Kwan used it in her "Song of the Black Swan" Program.

Yama had a very nice 3lutz/3toe - have you forgotten as well that Kwan had to limit her 3toes in 98 because of her injury?

Only Cinquanta could view the death of pro skating as a good thing - he's certainly doing his best to strangle the life out of eligible skating. I have to ask - where were you guys in 2003 when some people predicted that secret judging would foster corruption, not prevent it.

Michelle's Song of the Black Swan program in 2001 took its name from Heitor Villa Lobos' eponymous piece. It did use some of the Dumsky, but I remembered it more for the Villa Lobos.

It's so depressing that the sport is dying, and the president doesn't seem to care. "What can we do?" Well, Mr. President, I think it's your job to figure something out!

As far as ladies skaters doing so much less jump wise, it's the new system. It would be interesting to see if the skaters you mentioned, Kwan, Slutskia, etc...would be able to do all those jumps now.

In any event, the sport is dying......with the exception of course being in South Korea. Unfortunately, being popular in South Korea and Japan isn't enough to sustain the sport. Even in the pre-whack heard 'round the world days, I don't think skating was ever this down and out. In the US, it's the combination of the new system, Kwan and Cohen not competing, and a lack of superstars. But, now, when new superstars emerge...which they always do, who's going to be around to see it?

I will always love skating and compete in it myself (adult level), and I know a whole lot of people that will as well. However, it's the general public...the people that watch the olympics and maybe a small part of nationals, that truly keep the interest in the sport moving. They talk to people that aren't in love with skating, and get them a bit more interested. And that cycle continues. Me talking about skating to my skating friends doesn't accomplish that.

Ahhhhh........the sport is bleeding. Please Cinquanta...........don't let it die.

Phil, two corrections: Michelle skated to Dvorak's Dumky Piano Trio as part of her gold medal LP at 2001 World's. YouTube it to remind yourself how great she was (is?). Also, Yu Na didn't double her salchow, she singled it, an error that excludes her program absolutely from being one for the ages.

Great comments but disagree about Kristi's 1992 and Michelle's 1998. Michelle was in another league with those performances and it has yet to be equalled. She was into the zone during those skates, an indefinable other strata that the audience knows when they see it.

Phil- Is there any way you can due a skating report without mentioning Michelle Kwan? She hasn't skated in years and could not compete against Mao and YuNa today. She can't jump! Of course they could let her in U.S. Nationals because nobody there seems qualified either, except Evan. Please during the Olymics 2010 try to control your urge to drag a 6.0 skater from the past into your comments. I don't know if you're read internationally but the rest of the world, skatewise is fine. They've moved on, unlike the U.S.

Great article. More attention needs to be focused on this ridiculously corrupt judging system. I completely agree that it is the technical controller and technical specialist that call the shots now (as in determining outcomes). And, anonymous judging....don't get me started!
As for the Kwan vs. Yamaguchi comment, although I love Kristi, I have to agree with others that say Kwan was just brilliant that night. I just rewatched both programs and while Kristi is a brilliant technical skater, Kwan feels the music like no other. And never was it more apparent than in her LP in 1998. Also, just a little quibble, Kristi did a 3LZ 3T Sequence, not a combination. There is a half turn between the jumps. And, as other readers mentioned, Michelle was coming off that injury to her foot and did not attempt a triple/triple. But, wow, what a beautiful performance. It would be nice if the ladies today would execute the full complement of jumps. It's just not the case anymore.

I have to agree with the above posters re: Michelle v. Kristi -- as much as I like Kristi and admire her so much for being such a great ambassador for the sport, and for winnings Nats in both singles and pairs -- Michelle always had that undeniable soaring of the heart that Kristi really only found later in her career, in her professional career.

Also, was surprised that Phil didn't know the same Dumky reference and the Song of the Black Swan. When I first saw one of Carolina's preliminary freeskates of this long program on YouTube, I was surpised yet delighted that her camp had picked this piece of music that had become so famous thanks to Michelle and SOTBS.

Finally, as much as I like Yuna, her work ethic, etc. her spirals and some spins are just not World Class. It is as if we are all just willing to "look the other way" while she wobbles along with bad spiral technique and really pitiful laybacks. Not good! She really needs to keep working on these, and Brian should be there to help her on this. Again, this is where Michelle was the class in her field - with spirals, and even Angela Nikodinov and Nancy Kerrigan had better spirals, imho.

Thanks for reading!

I think it's interesting how you mentioned the legends like Kwan and Yamaguchi were capable of landing 7 triples while the top athletes of today are lucky to land 5 or 6. A lot can be attributed to the current judging system in how they judge jumps. For example, Kwan, known especially to regularly deliver 7 triples, would still get dinged for taking off on the wrong edge on some of her jumps. And I'm sure that even Yamaguchi's triple-triples would be called under-rotated and downgraded under the current system. Point is, judging has evolved to become more specific and critical. While I'm not saying it's perfect, I believe that to compare the achievements of current athletes' achievements to pre-2002 is impossible.

Joannie Rochette skated to Dvorak's Piano Trio No. 4 in E Minor: "Dumky" for her short program during the 2004-05 season.


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