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Philip Hersh: Stupid scoring, sloppy skating, sweet silence

Kimmie Meissner falls in the free skate portion on Sunday during Skate America.

A dozen things about figure skating I know and you should after watching Skate Asia (or so Skate America seemed) on Universal Sports and NBC:

    1. Silence was golden. The straight feed on Universal Sports, with no commentary, must have seemed unusual at first to anyone watching but was very easy to get used to –- especially for a likely audience of people who are very familiar with the sport.
    2. This was the first time in the 29-year history of Skate America that no U.S. woman was on the podium -– or even remotely close to the Top 3, Kim Yu-Na of South Korea, Yukari Nakano of Japan and Miki Ando of Japan.  Considering that the 1-2 finishers at last year's U.S. Championships were in the field, that makes it seem unlikely U.S. women will earn three places for the 2010 Olympics, which happens only if the finishes of the two U.S. entrants at the 2009 world meet add up to 13 or less.
(Skate Asia, part II: A different Japanese man won for the third straight year.)
    3. It is painful to watch Kimmie Meissner’s continued struggles -– one fall in the short program, two in the long.  And while one of her new coaches, Todd Eldredge, told me two weeks ago Meissner (pictured above) would be a "work in progress" at Skate America, there seemed little progress for this 19-year-old who won Skate America last year but was 8th over the weekend.  Meissner is one of the nicest people in the sport, and everyone hopes she can regain the level that made her 2006 world champion.  But no one wants to watch Meissner torture herself for the 15 months between now and the 2010 Olympic trials.
    Mirai Nagasu performs at Skate America on Sunday.4. A sore ankle and a growth spurt made reigning U.S. champion Mirai Nagasu (and Southern California native) a non-contender at Skate America, but the older (she's 15), more mature-looking Nagasu still may be the best U.S. bet to challenge the world’s top skaters over the next two seasons.  Nagasu has that undefineable quality that keeps your eyes riveted to her.
    5. U.S. skating’s other "it" girl over the last two seasons, Caroline Zhang, makes her senior Grand Prix debut next week at Skate Canada, where the field is not as strong as it was at Skate America.  Zhang struggled once the spotlight was on her last year, finishing fourth at the nationals and losing her world junior title to Rachael Flatt.

6. While Kim Yu-Na still has to prove she can get through a senior season without injury, she becomes the 2010 Olympic favorite based on her performances at Skate America.  (Yes, even before watching Mao Asada, the reigning world champion, make her season debut in three weeks.)  Kim has a breathtaking presence on the ice, and her jumps are impressive.  But she will have to deal with incredible pressure from media in South Korea, where she is a huge star.
    7. SSS ... Boom ... Bah (humbug).  That means the Stupid Scoring System needs to be blown up.  The way it is being used now, as evidenced by the Skate America men’s free skate, no one will want to try a quadruple jump without 98% certainty of success. Failure on that jump, as judged with slooooooooooooooooooooooow motion review, meant Johnny Weir and Evan Lysacek were hammered by the judges, scoring 1.0 and 1.4 points.  Why risk a quad toe (9.0 points) when a triple axel is worth 7.5, a triple lutz 6.0 and a relatively easy (for men) triple flip-triple toe combination gets more points (9.5) than the quad?  Another step backward for a sport sliding toward oblivion.
    8. I once liked the notion of quantifying technical parts of the performance that the post-Salt Lake-scandal scoring system made possible.  But it has reached the point of reductio ad absurdum.  And all the gobbledygook skaters try to squeeze into programs to score points is so physically demanding as a whole the sport is a splat-fest.
    9. Budget issues have forced skating officials to cut down on the number of judges.  Doing that means one of the keys to the new system, random choice of nine scores from a panel of 12, has become less of a mathematical defense against deal-making.  Now five scores will be chosen from nine. That also means a skater could win if the bare majority selected randomly happen to favor him or her -– even if the other four judges’ scores are radically different.
    10. The International Olympic Committee forced figure skating leaders to change the scoring system after the Salt Lake Olympics.  The time has come for the IOC to demand more changes if it wants U.S. television to ante up big for Winter Olympic rights after 2010.  Skating still is the big audience draw in the United States, but who wants to watch something where the performances are sloppy and the judging utterly incomprehensible?
    11. NBC commentators Sandra Bezic and Scott Hamilton sniped at the scoring system in Sunday’s telecast.  One can only hope they will turn that criticism into a full frontal assault at the next two U.S. Championships, the 2009 worlds and the 2010 Olympics.  After all, it was their hysterical reaction to the pairs result at the 2002 Olympics that brought the wrath of the IOC down on International Skating Union President Ottavio Cinquanta and inadvertently led to the mess we have today.  Maybe that can happen again.  (Not a mess, a cleanup).
    12. I have covered skating since the 1980 Olympics and came to love the sport and its practitioners.  Never has it been less appealing, even if the people in it are just as compelling.

-- Philip Hersh

Editor's note: Rachael Flatt's name replaces Mirai Nagasu's name in item five.

Top photo: Kimmie Meissner falls in the free skate portion Sunday during Skate America. Credit: Timothy A. Clary / AFP / Getty Images

Inset: Mirai Nagasu performs at Skate America on Sunday. credit: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

 
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