Curling and skating

For me, the Sochi Olympic Games are just about over.  I’ll try to catch the men’s curling finals, but other than that, I’m done.  Yes, I know that there are a few more days to go including hockey, but I probably won’t be watching.  I’ve always loved the skating and this year, decided I needed to figure out curling.  I still don’t understand all the rules of either sport, but I’m getting there.  I just hope that unlike skating, the curling rules don’t keep changing on me.

Curling diagram

Curling diagram

Turns out that curling is very interesting and can be quite dramatic.  It is a game not only of skill, but also of strategy.  As my husband said a reason for kids to learn math and geometry.  It is not fast like hockey, but more like baseball.  Maybe that’s why I like it.

Two stories in the New York Times sum up my feeling about skating this year.  The first was a comment by Gia Kourlas.

…It’s not just the flawed judging system, in which skaters who hope to win a medal must focus more energy on racking up points than on refining their artistic point of view, or even Scott Hamilton’s effusive screech.

Not much has changed since the 2010 Olympics. For many figure skaters, artistry remains that elusive muse. The costumes are appallingly infantile. Why are male skaters so enamored of suspenders? What’s the deal with grown women wearing skating dresses that look as if they were found on the sale rack at the tiara store? It’s as if competitors were still on the junior circuit and hadn’t made a commitment: beauty pageants or skating.

Figure skating is gliding, and a jump is a continuation of that flow, a breathtaking release in which the human body conquers gravity and soars. But in competition, jumps have increasingly become cause for anguish. Must we be made to feel so worried? The men’s final, which took place on Friday, made a case for why figure skating has turned into a coldblooded circus act.

Four years ago, quadruple jumps weren’t the norm. Perhaps by 2018, skaters will have figured out how to land them. This year, it was disheartening to see so many go down, a list that included the Japanese gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu. The men’s free skate was as nuanced as a rodeo on ice, where the quadruple jump was the equivalent of a bucking bronco.

I have to say that I just finished watching the women’s free skate and the top 5 or 6 women did have more skating and artistry than the men did, but one still worried that they would go splat.  For Gracie Gold, it was one of the differences between a medal and 4th place, but looking at the final standing, Adelina Sotnikova used her jumps to beat the artistry of Yu-na Kim and Carolina Kostner.  There will be lots of debate about whether she got a hometown Russian advantage or not.  But still the women were much more fun to watch than the men.

Forget about the perennial question: Is figure skating an art or a sport? The main concern is the disintegration of performance quality. In most programs, you can tell that the word “compete” has replaced “perform,” and the effect is devastating as you endure — if you’re a die-hard — rounds of skaters gritting their teeth as they pop from one element to the next.

You could find solace in two skaters. The American Jason Brown, a happier version of Mitch Kramer in the film “Dazed and Confused,” didn’t attempt a quadruple jump. He’s only 19, but his skating is already rich, enhanced by his flexibility, deep edge-work and fleet spins. He performs as he skates; the two are interchangeable. And the French veteran Brian Joubert, whose scores didn’t reflect his artistry, seemed like the only man out there.

I have to say I was surprised by Joubert’s scores; I enjoyed watching him a lot.  I hope that when Jason Brown gets that quad, I hope he doesn’t give up actually skating and performing.

Torvill and Dean 1984

Torvill and Dean 1984

But my favorite is not pairs, but ice dancing.  I discovered it along with millions of others in 1984 when Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean skated Bolero.  This year the ice dancing was dominated by whether Charlie White and Meryl Davis could pull off a gold or the Canadians would repeat.

Ice dancing ended on Monday, and, as expected, the Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White defeated their Canadian rivals Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir for the gold. Both couples have soul: Ms. Virtue and Mr. Moir meld sophistication with emotional, fervent sensitivity, skating with a sweeping creaminess.

And Ms. Davis and Mr. White are fascinating; like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, they’re opposites. The tension between Ms. Davis’s cool, exotic plasticity and Mr. White’s surfer bum earthiness forges an unexpected harmony in their skating. They truly skate as if they were dancing: Floating airily from one edge to the other, they skim over the ice with a velvety touch.

That is what skating should be about as far as I’m concerned.  Yes, like curing, it is an athletic even, but also like curling, it should seem effortless and serious fun.

What was terrific about getting to watch the skating live were the commentators Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir.  If for no other reason one had to tune in to see was Johnny was wearing.  The New York Times had this review of them.

One of the eureka moments of the 2012 London Games was that live television and online coverage helped push viewership upward in prime time.

So NBCSN was endowed with live hours to show team figure skating, pairs, ice dancing, and the men’s and women’s programs. And it got its own announcers: Tara Lipinski, the 1998 women’s gold medalist, and Johnny Weir, a two-time Olympian, along with Terry Gannon, who called figure skating for ABC.

NBCSN’s announcers call every skater, every pair and every dance team. NBC’s team calls a sampling.

For example, NBCSN showed all 30 competitors in the men’s short program. NBC taped eight or nine of them.

“Prime time is so time-structured,” said David Michaels, the coordinating producer of figure skating for NBC Olympics. “We do so much juggling.” But with such a continuous flow on NBCSN, Weir and Lipinski have more time to tell stories, often about skaters who never show up on NBC.

Asked if he wanted to call every skating routine, Hamilton said, with a laugh, “I’m not sure I’d want to work that hard.”

Weir said that his skater-after-skater-after-skater schedule has been exhausting. “Tara and I take our work seriously,” he said. “She’s my work wife. And she’s a slave driver, so we sit up and study until she’s satisfied. We not only plan how we look, but we’re up until three in the morning looking at all the skaters’ backgrounds and biographies.”

Tara and Johnny

Tara and Johnny

And today they even had Terry Gannon color-coordinated with his pocket square.

Weir is generally calmer yet colorful. And his chemistry with Lipinski suggests an ongoing, enthusiastic conversation among confidants.

“We’re very good friends, and we have the best time educating people about our sport,” Weir said. Asked if he thinks he has surprised viewers who might have expected analysis as flashy as his wardrobes, he said: “I come from a small town in Pennsylvania, so I’ve spent a lot of time educating my family about my sport. It’s something I’ve learned to do without being aggressive or arrogant.”

And I did learn a lot about what to look for and how certain moves are done by listening to them.  As Gia Kourlas said in her commentary

While never short of opinions, they’re generally quiet during performances. While they get to the nitty-gritty of technique — pointing out when skaters are flat on their feet, or why they fall out of synchronization — they also have information about more obscure aspects of skating, like how ice temperature affects a performance (speed skating requires harder ice than figure skating) or how male ice dancers have been known to build up their heels for extra height.

It helps that Mr. Weir is a champion of inspired one-liners. While watching several near collisions during a men’s warm-up, he blurted, “It is Nascar out here in the world of rhinestones.”

We were entertained and educated.

So except for men’s curing tomorrow, my Olympics are done.  But I have to say I learned a lot – and had some fun.

Picture of Curling Ice Sheet: uswca.org

Photograph of Torvill and Dean:  The Daily Mail

Photograph of Lipinski and Weir:  John Berry/Getty Images

2 thoughts on “Curling and skating

  1. Maya – Love Tara and Johnny! Tara has matured into a lovely young woman, poised and articulate and they definitely have great chemistry and great “commentating duo!” Regarding curling – my father learned curling from a Canadian customer of his and actually played for a while. We never understood it, either! So, if you figure it out, let me know. I’m into the figure skating and ice dancing myself…so beautiful but scary to watch, isn’t it?!

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