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 theshort 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