joi, martie 21, 2013

Worlds 2013: let's have a recap, shall we?

The facts: last week, in London (Canada), Patrick Chan won his third World title; a consecutive one, after Moscow-2011 and Nice-2012. As it happened last year, this too was a controversial win. In many's opinion, the real winner of the Worlds in Nice was the Japanese Daisuke Takahashi, while the true champion of this edition is considered the wonder boy from Kazakhstan, Denis Ten. Frustrating as it is to have a World Champion surrounded, every year, by controversies, it's even more frustrating to acknowledge the fact that in five years time only the statistics will remain; and the history of figure skating won't very much care about the scandals or the silver/bronze medalists. 
Something needs to be done with the ISU judging system - there's a chorus of voices saying this. So, here's a recap of the most powerful points of view, coming from the media, the skaters and ex-referees.

March 15-16.
Jackie Wong for describes the current situation, "Chan takes third career gold in controversial win over Ten at Worlds", and, a day after, comes back with the analysis:

"Judges are supposed to assess the current performance in front of them - not past performances, not practices, not the warmup that immediately preceded the skate. That practice, unfortunately, gets overlooked. It happened during the 6.0 era and it continues to happen today. Watching the two performances again, it is clear that Ten skated a program that was unmatched in his emotional involvement, character expression, and dedication to music. (...) Chan started off wonderfully. But with each mistake, his performance diminished - shoulders started slumping, movements were not completely finished, the attention to the audience and to the music went away. It's not to say that he tanked. But he skated a program that, in the realm of Performance/Execution and Interpretation, were much more pedestrian than they were marked". 

Wong is categorical: "Ten won the night, and he did enough to make up his short program deficit. No doubt about it". And I totally agree with his conclusion: in the current scoring system, "Cleanness is not rewarded enough and mistakes aren't penalized enough. There just isn't enough of a range of penalties to properly separate the egregiousness of mistakes".

This is the point from where ISU should build the change of the system;  the key-idea to start from.

March 16-17. USA Today
Christine Brennan is pretty severe (and I agree 100%) when stating, in USA Today, that "figure skating is dying, and judges can't prop it up".
Here's a quote: "Then there were the problems with judging. You've definitely heard this before. And you'll hear about it again, probably at next year's Olympic Games. In the men's long program here, Patrick Chan, the reigning two-time world champion skating in his home country, fell twice and made sloppy errors on two other jumps but nonetheless was propped up by the judges and given the world title. A delightful but basically unknown 19-year-old from Kazakhstan named Denis Ten performed far better and should have won. Pity the poor fan who turned on this event (perhaps in Latvia), watched one guy fall all over the ice and the other perform beautifully, saw the man who made all the mistakes win the gold medal and tried to begin to figure out what happened. And skating wonders why it's losing whole nations of viewers?"
A day before, you might feel an acute feeling of frustration in Brennan's writing: "Nothing much has changed in figure skating. Reputation still reigns supreme. The judges still make decisions based on what they hoped to see, not on what actually happened. If it's not a completely fixed result, it's so flawed as to leave one wondering why they even bothered to watch". The article in "USA Today" is full of harsh conclusions: "If a judging decision like this happens next year at the Sochi Olympic Games, when far more people will be watching, it just might drive away most of the sport's remaining spectators". And here's another one; a bitter one: "He (Patrick) also said he was "very optimistic" about the future, especially the Olympic Games next February. He should be. He clearly has friends in all the right places, starting with the judges' table".

And - I might add - if you're not Patrick Chan, this is hard to deal with when preparing the Olympics.

March 17. Reuters
"Glitzy Gala cannot hide figure skating warts", states Steve Keating for Reuters, starting his article with - well deserved - irony for the new (and old) World Champion (and, as things go, probably the already decided winner of the Olympic title; sorry, Patrick, but this is where you stand under the current attitude towards you - hence, the word "Chanflation"). 
Keating writes: "With a scoring system that is harder to understand than the theory of relativity and offers about as much transparency as a Papal conclave, figure skating still struggles to connect with the average fan, particularly in North America where their numbers are on the decline. That confusing system allowed Canada's Patrick Chan to claim a third consecutive world championship title on Friday despite hitting the ice more times than a toddler learning to skate. The routine was so dreadful that Chan spent the next two days apologizing profusely to fans for his performance but he certainly did not apologize for the win". 

March 18.
I quote from myself now; I was staying awake (in Bucharest, Romania) all night, in order to see Men's free program and I fall asleep in frustration; bitter frustration. I named my article: "What about the audience, Mr. Cinquanta?".
Here you are: "Just a few days ago, in London (Canada), Patrick won his third World title after another not-so-convincing performance. Favorite of the home crowd, Patrick only needed to do his exercise in order to win the event; he was first and far ahead the other skaters after the short program. Instead, the Canadian fell on his Triple Axel and Triple Lutz, had a hand down on his Triple Salchow in combination and doubled another Lutz. „I was tired”, said Patrick to his coach, while waiting for the scores. And when these came – and Mr. Chan took the lead over the Spanish Javier Fernandez – it was another victory of the scoring system over the figure skating’ admirers and long-time watchers. As one of my friends has put it (a huge figure skating fan), it is as if this particular judging system is anti-audience. It really doesn’t reflect people’s taste and choices.(...) Introduced in order to eliminate the potential subjectivity of the judges – they have been, during the years, under intense scrutiny, accused in some cases of making deals, in order to favor one or the other – this new scoring system managed to make the audience completely disappear. It is as if figure skating became a closed affair, between the skaters and the judges; nothing less, nothing more. Now it’s not about the final impression of the program, about the best performance of the night in terms of jumps, art, emotion; it’s about adding 3.21 points from there, another 5.59 from there, 4.73 from there, 7.38 from there... Minus 2 points – and here’s your champion, ladies and gentlemen. Is this the right thing to do? We got rid of the old system – because, they say, it was subjective and vulnerable to abuse – and we have a new one, devoid of emotion; devoid of the audience’ voice". 

Sonia Bianchetti: opinion on the Worlds
Sonia Bianchetti was even more severe with the ISU scoring system on her website. After all, she has been a judge, official, rule maker and Olympic referee for 40 years. 
Here are some excerpts from her analysis; I underlined the key-phrases: "In each event there were some outstanding programs but, once again, I found it very disappointing and distressing to see many top and talented skaters all mess up their programs and mar them with too many falls. This was particularly evident in the men's event, where the skaters are more or less obliged to try to execute quads if they want to get a result, even when they know that the chances of standing up are poor. But they do not care because a fallen jump, or a jump landed on two feet, still brings a lot of points. And this is just an aberration of the IJS. What we witnessed in London could be the straw that will break the camel's back. Let's hope that it will push the ISU to take the necessary steps to stop this massacre. The solution is simple: just change the rule and say that a jump marred by a fall or landed on two feet has no value, as is the case for spins, for instance, when the required number of revolutions or positions is missing or the required position is not attained".

There's more to it. Patrick Chan is a victim of the system; but, as Mrs. Bianchetti pointed out, a happy and lucky one: "No doubt his (Patrick) skating is very good and he glides and moves well on the ice. Still, his placement and the marks he was awarded in the PC, in my opinion, are definitely not acceptable. How could he be placed ahead of Javier Fernandez and Yuzuru Hanyu, who executed flawless programs of a very high technical and artistic standard? And this is not the first time that this has happened. It has become "normal". I am speechless. Surely it is not Patrick's fault if the judges continue to overmark him. He is the lucky and happy victim of a judging system that, thanks to secret judging, allows the judges to carry on unpunished".  

I won't be ending this without some very powerful (and immediate) reaction coming from skaters on twitter. Here they are:

Todd Eldredge 
"No disrespect to Patrick but a skater shouldn't be able to fall twice & get such high PCS".

Johnny Weir
Immediately after Patrick' scores: "SERIOUSLY?"

And after:
"This judging is ridiculous and the only reason people buy it is because it's in North America. Imagine the outcry if it were Russia+Plush!?"  
"My world champion is @Tenis_Den. No question. Congratulations. Everyone should be feeling some Kazakh pride! #Молодец"

Evgeni Plushenko
"Patrick Chan did not win, but his figure skating federation! This is my opinion, as a man who knows the figure skating". 
And, immediately after:
"Denis Ten won this World Championshi.

And Denis Ten answer, always on twitter:
"Spasibo bolshoe, Zhenya! Skoreishego vyzdorovleniya!". Namely: "Thank you very much, Zhenya! Get well soon".
Different comments on Facebook
(I'm not sure if they want their names here, so I'll just use the initials...)

TW: "I hate that the IJS and ISU have screwed up figure skating so badly that it probably cannot be fixed or be appealing to audiences and the world media. I hate that arena's are empty or near empty. I hate that the national governing bodies won't stand up to OC at ISU and his bunch of gangsters who have ruined this sport. I hate that people's livelihoods and parents hard earned money are wasted on a sport that now, can lead to no where. Most of all I hate that ISU is so disconnected to the skaters who have to follow their stupid rules and secret judging panels. Denis Ten is an amazing athlete. I hope something comes from all his hard work and congratulate Frank for being such a great coach". 

NS: "the only problem is that there is not ONE person within the sport of Figure Skating who will stand up in front of the press and the world, and cry out for change to rescue Figure Skating. It's nice to see articles like this from Ms. Brennan, but what is required is a prominent voice within the skating world to take a public stand. Without internal support within the sport against this decline in Figure Skating, it is simply a matter of time until this sport becomes more and more unpopular and irrelevant".

DF: "I've often wondered if the most simple reason why skating has lost so much of its popularity is because of the scoring system. It makes sense to have a quantitative aspect to how skating is judged, but the qualitative aspect has been, and I suspect always will be, biased. That being said, even though the 6.0 system was just as biased as CoP, it made more sense. Also, CoP is far more demanding of the skaters and results in cookie cutter programs that have lost their aesthetic beauty. The most beautiful moment for me from this world championships were the steps leading up to Kim Yu-na's triple flip in her free skate. I know that seems silly, but she has such beautiful carriage and flow over the ice. I miss that about figure skating. I miss Kwan's spiral, Boitano's spread eagle and Sasha Cohen's... well just about everything from her was beautiful. CoP is killing the sport".

MB: "As a mother of a young skater, it is so hard to explain that even though you work hard and put out a clean program your scores may not reflect what was left on the ice. Skating now has become a numbers game. The beauty and grace is disappearing".

And, finally, Monica Friedlander, figure skating writer for years: "The scoring system has destroyed the artistry in skating (and in most languages, figure skating is actually called "artistic skating.") And the same system that has done that, is also allowing for totally political judging, with no one accountable for anything. The judges and the rest of us don't watch the same thing happening on the ice. When that happens, how can the sport survive? It's rotten with corruption from within. We need to reclaim it from the ISU". 

Denis Ten, on the other hand, is happy: he won a silver medal for Kazakhstan, the first World medal in the history of figure skating in his country. And he wrote back to his fans on his facebook account: "THANK YOU SO MUCH for your support. I am so proud to attain a new achievement for the figure skating history of Kazakhstan! It was my dream, my goal and without you - it wouldn't come true. (...) Take care and always believe in yourself! Remember that you can always go beyond expectations. It is possible. I checked. :) Lots of love, Denis".

I first saw Denis in Torino, in 2010. He was incredibly talented and I said to myself back then: "This boy is great". I saw him a month later in Bucharest, skating in the "Kings on Ice" show: he was wearing a ballerina tutu and the audience loved him.
Last year in Nice, I had a happy encounter in the elevator: he and his coach were going to the practice rink, at the fifth floor of a building; so was I and a friend. We were probably, five or six people, sharing the same elevator; and Denis sat in a corner, quite shy, while his coach, Mr. Frank Carroll said laughing: "I'm with a cat from Kazakhstan here...". Everyone laughed, Denis laughed too. And now, at the 2013 Worlds Figure Skating Championships in London, Canada, for me and for many, the "cat from Kazakhstan" was the real winner of the gold medal. 

(A bonus for the Romanian readers: a story about the Worlds coming from the news agency Mediafax).

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