In Winter Olympics, Figure Skating on Thin Ice

Every four years, the Winter Olympics unite friends and loved ones in front of the television set for sixteen nights running -- or they cause non-sports lovers to shake their heads in disbelief at those infected with the fortnight-and-change-long virus. For broadcasters, especially in America, the Winter Olympics have been a veritable cash cow, their steep licensing rights offset by lucrative advertising deals that capitalize on taking sports stars known only within their fields and blowing their celebrity up to global proportions.But in the days before Friday's opening ceremonies, the mood surrounding the Vancouver Games is hardly ecstatic. NBC had forked over $2.2 billion to the International Olympic Committee for broadcast rights for Vancouver and the Summer Games in London in 2012. But the network has already said that for the first time, it expects to lose money on the Olympics: north of $200 million.

One large reason for the lack of buzz is our collective indifference to the Games' marquee sport, the one that traditionally brings in the biggest ratings: figure skating.

Here's how the storyline used to go. Every four years, U.S. figure skaters would glide onto the ice. Those who won gold -- like Dick Button (1948, '52), Peggy Fleming (1968), Dorothy Hamill (1976), Scott Hamilton (1984), Brian Boitano (1988) and Kristi Yamaguchi (1992) -- they would be declared America's Sweetheart (or Hero, for men), turn pro, and set off for a lucrative, post-Olympic career touring the U.S. in productions featuring the word "Ice" in the name. Other skating-related income -- coaching, broadcasting, judging -- would eventually present themselves.

The boom years were the 1994 Games in Lillehammer. Some storylines were media-manufactured, like the "Battle of the Brians," pitting American Brian Boitano against Canadian Brian Orser. Others were media-fueled: The Tonya Harding–Nancy Kerrigan knee-whacking imbroglio was practically made for the tabloids, and it stoked tremendous interest in the figure-skating competition. (Ukrainian teen Oksana Baiul stole the show -- and, some still argue, the gold medal.)

The ratings that year were sky-high: The women's figure-skating program earned a staggering 48.5 share, according to the United States Figure Skating Association, making it the highest-rated Olympic broadcast of all time, and the seventh highest-rated program in U.S. history.

But the International Skating Union had also relaxed the eligibility rules, letting pro skaters compete in the Olympics. That let Olympics vets skate in the Lillehammer Games. Boitano competed. So did 1992 champ Viktor Petrenko, four-time-world champion Kurt Browning, Russian pairs champions including Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, and dance icons Torvill & Dean, who won the 1984 Gold with their stunning Bolero routine. From then on, skaters stuck around to compete in more than one Olympiad, or even two or three.

Figure skating remained a cash cow for years for the ISU, which brokered lucrative broadcast deals with U.S. networks to broadcast the Grand Prix fall season events, the national championships and worlds. American skaters like Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski, and Sarah Hughes, became bona fide stars (even Kwan, who never captured top Olympic honors). More skaters were including more difficult jumping passes, adding to the excitement. By the late '90s, a medal-contending program had to have seven or eight triple jumps -- and for men, at least one quad. In 2002, Timothy Goebel executed three quadruple jumps, and took home the bronze. (Admittedly, the rest of his program didn't quite measure up to that feat.)

And ratings stayed strong. Broadcasts for Salt Lake City in 2002 averaged 19.9; Ladies Free Skate got a 29.0, and a 42 share. But all booms must come to an end, and the figure skating boom ended that year with a judging scandal. A French judge was found to have thrown the contest from a Canadian pair to the Russians. Outrage ensued, and the "6.0"-based scoring system was changed to the Code of Points, which will be used for the first time at the Olympics in Vancouver.

The new system was supposed to quantify what was happening on the ice. Skaters would be penalized for sloppy footwork, "cheated" spins and jumps lacking the required number of revolutions, and between-the-jumps movement consisting of forward and backwards cross-strokes. But the Code of Points doesn't reward innovation or difficulty to the same degree: Landing a quadruple jump will earn a skater two more points than a triple, but missing the jump completely costs a skater far more in the rankings. That's made technical innovation stagnate, or even slide backward. ''We work on the quad, we practice the quad, but it's never been the main focus of my career,'' U.S. Olympic contender Johnny Weir told the Associated Press. ''It's a beautiful, wonderful thing when you can do it, but I'd rather skate a clean program and show something that's beautiful and excellent.''

Weir has recently capitalized on his desire to display beauty and excellence on the ice (and his flamboyant fashion) on Sundance Channel reality showBe Good Johnny Weir, which augurs well for his post-Olympics career. But those old ice shows are in decline. Champions on Ice, a tour that once visited 85 cities in an Olympic year, folded in 2008, leaving many of its stars decamping to rival show Stars on Ice. If Michelle Kwan left grad school to return to the ice, she'd command lucrative appearance fees and draw large audiences. But for those who never made it to the upper echelons of world-level skating, the already infinitesimal chances of making it to the Olympics have grown even dimmer.

While the world stage is still crowded with skaters from the previous Olympics, they don't just compete just with rising newcomers. They're also vying against the stars of the past, with YouTube footage, seemingly tailor-made for figure-skating routines, a treasure trove of glorious spins and leaps from 20, 30, even 50 years ago. You can watch a current skater dutifully attempt a triple lutz -- or you can marvel at Donald Jackson's pioneering jump that helped him win the 1962 World Championships in Prague. And Torvill and Dean's original set pattern in 1984 might beat out current routines, despite today's additional difficulty and speed.

So what ails figure skating today? A profound lack of joy. Blame the Code of Points, which keeps individual judges' identities secret from the audience. Blame the internet, which reminds longtime fans and newcomers of the sport's glory days -- and how far it could be pushed, technically and artistically. Blame the ISU, which created a slew of new messes in attempting to "fix" older ones. Blame the economy, which has relegated off-year skating to obscure cable channels and, for hardcore fans, to (for a $30 annual subscription). Veteran Olympics journalist Philip Hersh has said: "It has long been no secret that the numbers game is taking the joy out of the sport."

For NBC, the numbers trend downward. Ratings for Turin (2006) were the lowest for a Winter Games, and in Vancouver, it's up to the skaters to bring the joy back, overcoming economic handicaps to perform well and win over a new generation. If they don't, there's no turning back: not for figure skating, and not for Americans' interest in the Winter Olympics.
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