Figure skating friends: go big or, really, just go home

In the spring of 1974, as the well-told story goes, the music critic Jon Landau saw Bruce Springsteen play for the first time. Thereafter, in Boston’s The Real Paper, Landau wrote these now-famous words: “I saw my rock ’n’ roll past flash before my eyes. And I saw something else: I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.”

To be clear, there is no attempt here to draw any parallel between this space and the success, literary or otherwise, of Jon Landau. All the same: in February of 2002, I saw the future of the Olympic Winter Games and its name was Ross Powers. 

 Ross Powers in the Salt Lake 2002 qualifying rounds // Getty Images

Ross Powers in the Salt Lake 2002 qualifying rounds // Getty Images

The U.S. Figure Skating Championships are ongoing this week in San Jose, California. A certain (diminishing) percentage of people remain interested in figure skating. To be forthright once more, the U.S. team — men’s and women’s, women’s in particular — has not been all that good for years; there are a multitude of reasons for that; in part, it has to do with the Vancouver 2010 victory of Evan Lysacek. Not Lysacek himself. He is and always has been a first-rate champion. It’s that Vancouver gold medal and the style of skating it represents — a combination that, it can be argued, has stalled figure skating’s forward path in the United States.

Mostly, though, there is the development of the Winter Games themselves. Once, figure skating held center stage. Now the Winter Games essentially have become a snowboarding festival. 

This is easy to prove.

It’s not just that at next month’s PyeongChang Winter Games there will be 10 snowboarding events and but five in figure skating, and that the blow-your-socks off event in PC is going to be the newly added snowboarding event called Big Air, which is just what it sounds like — the riders zooming down a big, steep ramp and then doing big tricks. They go big or they go home, you know?

 Nathan Chen at this week's U.S. championships // Getty Images

Nathan Chen at this week's U.S. championships // Getty Images

The International Olympic Committee added this event because it is targeting a specific audience: young people. 

With snowboarding, the IOC has found a sweet spot.

Snowboarding has been the one killer event — Winter or Summer — with which the IOC has had a big, undisputed, unequivocal win. Snowboarding is cool. In the Americas, in Europe, in Asia, young people watch, they want to be just like the men and women they see ripping it on TV during the Olympics, they go out and ride, it’s all way more than good. 

To be fair, the IOC has also been on a binge of adding team events in various sports. As in Sochi four years ago, in PyeongChang there will be a team skating medal event. This is less about figure skating, however, than gender parity and the wowishness factor of men and women competing together.

 Chloe Kim flying to victory last month in Colorado // Getty Images

Chloe Kim flying to victory last month in Colorado // Getty Images

At any rate — easy to prove, part II:

Who is Nathan Chen?

Now: who is Shaun White?

This, in essence, is the story of the Winter Games.

To save you the Google search: Chen is the 18-year-old from Salt Lake City who has emerged as the first American male figure skater to understand what, over the past several Olympic cycles, the snowboarders have understood since Powers begat White who, in turn, begat Switzerland’s Iouri Podladtchikov (bro, it’s iPod!).

Sport — especially snowboarding — is ever about innovation, what (especially in boarding lingo) is called “progression.” 

That is, who can do the next big — hardest — thing?

This is where it is useful to understand how far it has all come in snowboarding, and it has not even been a generation. 

Understand, too, that this space holds the full measure of respect for women’s snowboarders as much as the guys — just considering the halfpipe, the likes of Shannon Dunn (bronze 1998), the amazing Kelly Clark (three Olympic medals) and, now, Chloe Kim, the Southern California teenager and a heavy medal favorite in 2018, expected to be her first Olympics, because she can consistently land 1080s, meaning three full rotations.

Back to easy to prove, part III:

If you want to argue that Shaun White is more famous than Nathan Chen because White has been to three editions of the Olympics and is a double gold winner and 2018 is likely to be Chen’s first Games, sure. Instead, this apples-to-apples comparison: Chloe Kim has nearly twice as many Instagram followers (142k) as Nathan Chen (80.3k).

Again emphasizing a full measure of respect for the women snowboarders — to really try to keep this apples-to-apples as much as possible, this is mostly going to be about the guys:

There was an Olympic halfpipe in 1998 but it was a crummy weather day, the best men’s snowboarder in the world — Norway’s Terje Hakonsen — opted not to compete and, moreover, for most television viewers, Nagano proved a galaxy far, far away.

Salt Lake 2002 opened the gates. 

As they say, it was a bluebird day — unbelievably clear, sunny, radiant. 

Powers opened with what is called a “method air,” a basic trick but one that when done well, like a tomahawk jam in basketball, is a statement, and this one was. Into the pipe he went, then back up, rocketing off the ice maybe 35 feet up, where he grabbed the back of his board and, for the most beautiful part of an instant, hung in the blue Utah sky, silhouetted against the sun, the very picture of the excellence to which a human being can aspire when he or she tests himself or herself against the elements and, for just that briefest moment of time, wins.

Space precludes a description of all the tricks that Powers threw that day. For purposes once more of apples to apples, let’s note just one — what’s called a McTwist, a forward-flipping backside spin with 540 degrees of rotation. In his final run, Powers followed up the method air with two separate McTwists before going on to other tricks.

That day, Powers made himself into a symbol of everything the Olympic Games — at their best — are supposed to be.

It wasn’t just Powers, it should be noted. Danny Kass took silver, performing his specialty, the Kasserole spin, two upside-down spins while grabbing the board. JJ Thomas took bronze. It was the first U.S. Winter Olympics medal sweep since the men’s 1956 … figure skating competition.

Thomas is the guy who kept a 15-year-old Shaun White out of the 2002 Games. (What goes around comes around: Thomas recently has been coaching White.) In Torino in 2006, White won gold. In Vancouver in 2010, White won gold again — with a trick that became known as the double McTwist 1260.

In the eight years between Powers’ 2002 victory and White’s repeat in 2010, look how far the sport had progressed: from a trick involving one flip and 540 degrees of spin to two flips and 1260, or three and a half rotations.

Now consider figure skating.

The American Sarah Hughes won the women’s event in Salt Lake; a shout-out if you are not an Ice Network subscriber and, without Google, you can name the men’s winner.

Waiting.

OK: Russia’s Alexei Yagudin. 

The thing the Salt Lake figure skating competition is typically remembered for is the judging scandal in the pairs competition.

Not constructive.

This came eight years after Tonya-Nancy, which remains — to this day — the big deal in American figure skating, with the rightful exceptions perhaps of Tara Lipinski (1998), Michelle Kwan (1998, 2002) and Sasha Cohen (2006). 

Kristi Yamaguchi fans, you are going back to 1992.

That Yamaguchi gold? That is before the U.S. basketball Dream Team stormed Barcelona. In 1992, the Expos were still in Montreal. Springsteen — working without the backing of the E Street Band —  put out two albums in 1992, and hardly anyone was writing about either as the future of anything: Human Touch and Lucky Town.

This, back to the gut of it all, is arguably figure skating’s No. 1 problem in the United States: it’s living way too much in the past.

Tonya-Nancy is so over and done. Get over it. You went to see the movie? Why, exactly? 

 On the medals stand in Vancouver // Getty Images 

On the medals stand in Vancouver // Getty Images 

Lysacek, in 2010, defeated Russia’s Evgeni Plushenko — silver medalist in Salt Lake, gold medalist in Torino.

In winning, Lysacek performed an elegant long program. That program did not, however, contain even one quadruple jump — that is, four rotations. It was all triples. Plushenko did throw a quad but was ever so slightly off-axis. Lysacek got the gold, Plushenko silver.

Even the most casual fan — someone who tunes in to the sport every four years — probably knows by now that skating has ditched the 6.0 scoring system in favor of a more complex scoreboard that rewards athleticism.

Of course it does. See snowboarding.

Every sport has to progress. Otherwise, you are stuck watching Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean dance to Ravel’s Bolero from 1984 in Sarajevo. You might sigh at how wonderful it is, and it is. But look at how grainy the original broadcast quality is. And ask: would you accept that kind of now — like even if you were watching, say, the Big Ten Network’s stream on your phone of a Purdue-Nebraska soccer game? Of course not.

Think about the iPhone you carried — more likely, a BlackBerry — in 2010. (The iPhone 4 wasn’t even released until that June.) Would that be good enough now? As if. 

Remarkably, though, since Vancouver, American skaters have been slow on the uptake. You can still read “debates” in which the merits of “artistry” versus “athleticism” are purportedly thrashed about.

“I don’t even enjoy watching skating today because it’s all about quadruple jumps,” Dick Button, the two-time Olympic champion (1948, 1952), said in one such recent column, put together by one of the country’s journalistic skating experts, Elliott Almond of the San Jose Mercury News.

Mr. Button’s opinion is emblematic of the challenge. He is due great respect for what he accomplished on the ice, of course, and to deference for his career as an expert analyst. At the same time, there comes a time to say, the debate is over.

People, the debate is over.

The Olympics are about a lot of things. One essential is athletic excellence. Indeed, the three key Olympic values are excellence, friendship and respect.

When it comes to the Winter Games, which means snow and ice, there’s a corollary that comes with that athletic excellence: it’s pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. (Sometimes, with great regret, past the limits of safety.)

Skating’s scoring system recognizes this. It rewards athletic excellence.

The old 6.0 system has been gone now for about a dozen years. Why oh why are its adherents still clinging to what was, yearning for artistry at the expense of athleticism? The world has moved on.

The Americans? No women’s singles medals since Cohen’s silver in 2006. Without a female star, the sport has suffered considerably in the United States. 

Lysacek, to reiterate, won his gold in 2010. The U.S. was totally shut out in the 2014 singles competition, men’s and women’s. 

In other nations, skaters have figured out what works — Yuna Kim, for instance, the South Korean skater, performed perhaps the most ethereal, mesmerizing, fantastic four minutes of skating to which I have ever borne witness in winning in Vancouver in 2010, and she had to step up her game just to take silver in Sochi in 2014, behind Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova.

The current two-time world champion (2016, 2017) is another Russian: Evgenia (fans know her as Janny) Medvedeva. She is all of 18 years old.

What Medvedeva has figured out is elemental: she jumps, and a lot, in the back half of her program, which earns bonus points.

Why? It pays to emphasize athleticism.

The downside:

Medvedeva is recovering from an injured foot. Her 2018 Olympics may be at issue.

On the men’s side, Japan’s Olympic and world champion Yuzuru Hanyu is also battling an injured right ankle. 

Again, the Winter Games are about pushing boundaries. For his part, Shaun White is getting over a nasty halfpipe training-run face-plant sustained while practicing a trick called a double cork 1440 (note — progression — 1440 means four full rotations and a “cork,” short for corkscrew, means any trick where the rider is oriented sideways). That crash earned him 62 stitches.

Here’s the video of the crash:

Which brings us back to Nathan Chen — the first guy to complete five quads in a single routine.

Hanyu knows that Chen can do five quads. It’s not clear that Hanyu himself needs to do five fours. All the same, Hanyu got hurt in practice attempting a quadruple lutz. 

Figure skating friends, some advice, because snowboarding is super-cool and figure skating has a lot to learn, and the sooner the better, because — as the wrestling people can tell you — nothing on the Olympic program is guaranteed:

Go big, or go home.