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An artless system devours figure skating's Stephane Lambiel

October 16, 2008 |  5:21 pm

Stephane Lambiel

In the last month, two of the last remaining artists in competitive men's figure skating have suddenly quit.

First came Canada's Jeffrey Buttle, 26, the reigning world champion, who apparently felt he could no longer match that achievement in a sport with a scoring system that makes it possible for a skater like him to win only if the more purely athletic skaters screw up.

Thursday, Switzerland's Stephane Lambiel, 23, winner of two world titles and the reigning Olympic silver medalist, said he no longer could overcome a nagging leg injury to skate at his highest level.

Unlike Buttle, Lambiel was able to do the quadruple jumps that are big point-getters in the scoring system implemented after the pairs skating imbroglio after the 2002 Olympics.  But he had become painfully inconsistent on the other litmus test jump, the triple axel.

And he said in his retirement news conference that the demands of the new scoring system had led to injuries, which have become common as skaters are forced into doing all sorts of ligament-defying contortions to score more points.

Adding all the rococo ornaments to skating does not give it style, the sort of grace and purity of line Buttle and Lambiel embodied at their best.  It does what the poet Alexander Pope pilloried 300 years ago in these lines from "An Essay on Criticism:''

 
Such labour'd nothings, in so strange a style,
Amaze th'unlearned, and make the learned smile

It takes a skilled eye, with some background in music and dance and theater, to judge artistry in skating, to see the athlete who can play a character or create a tableau or leave abstract expressions based on the music.

Accounting skills are all that is needed to judge a sport that has become paint-by-numbers.

Or watching paint dry.

-- Philip Hersh

Photo: Swiss figure skater Stephane Lambiel during a news conference in Berne, Switzerland on Oct. 16, 2008. Credit: Peter Schneider / Associated Press Photo / Keystone

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