Is There Still Hope For Figure Skating Fans?
Updated: May 19, 2021
Back in the 1990's, at the height of its popularity, I spent four years writing for The NY Times about the problems in the sport of figure skating which led to my detective fiction murder mystery The Chosen Ones. I'd write about figure skating drama, Olympic rivalries, illicit scoring practices and more. No one wanted to listen. I warned the powers-that-be to clean house or suffer the consequences. No one wanted to listen. I told them they'd get caught and the damage would be irreparable. No one wanted to listen.
Now, no one wants to watch. Why? Well, there are a multitude of reasons.
First and foremost is the flat out cheating. For many years it was well known to be an accepted policy that Olympic figure skating winners were chosen in advance as a result of deals made between the officials of various countries. Vote for my ladies singles and I'll vote for your ice dancers. This is Olympic games corruption at its very best.
The figure skating scandal that rocked the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games resulted in major changes in the sport along with a rare confession from one of the judges involved.
How skaters are chosen to represent their countries in the Olympics and World Championships has always been controversial to say the least, but it seems to have reached the boiling point in the last few years. The best win and get to go, right? Uh, not so much.
Examples of Social Injustice in Sports
Let's not forget homophobia, bulimia and anorexia, champions who have had to bow out of the sport due to stress and as was recently discovered, coaches that are sexual predators. And you thought Nancy and Tonya were the biggest figure skating scandal and controversy of the century.
There were attempts to move the sport into the 21st century, such as allowing vocal music of all different styles, trading swans and Carmens for skaters rocking out to Broadway tunes and heavy metal as well as relaxing the restrictions on costumes. But it appears to be too little too late.
Big Changes to the World of Figure Skating
So when the new figure skating season begins, where will the sport be? A mere shadow of what it once was? There was a time when you literally couldn't turn on the TV without seeing a figure skating competition (both amateur and professional), tours of which there were many and countless specials. Now, only figure skating events approved by the International Skating Union make it to commercial television along with the rare holiday extravaganza. The rest are relegated to obscure cable stations.
A Major Letdown: the New Figure Skating Scoring System
Then there are the rule changes. The new figure skating scoring system is so complex, even skaters and coaches struggle with it.
Absolutely mind-numbing. Which begs the question of why would they do that? Why drive away the diehard fans that are still left with a system that would give Einstein a headache? The answer is the same today as it was then. Power.
Fans had become extremely savvy about the way competitions were judged. It was simple. There was a total of 6 possible points. The one who fell the least amount of times was expected to win. And when that didn't happen, the fans didn't hesitate to vocalize their displeasure.
However, now with what is known as the International Judging System, it's much harder to argue a score because there are so many categories and points. It's a clever ploy that allows judges and officials to beat back the angry hoards by telling us we don't know what we're talking about. It's a system beyond our feeble comprehension. Just sit in your seats and applaud.
Time to Speak Up and Give Voice to the Figure Skating Scandals
But then there was a game-changer no one anticipated. Social Media. Now, when something sinister happens, it's all over the Internet is seconds. And because fans are speaking up, skaters, journalists and on-air announcers are beginning to find their voices as well.
It's about time someone joined my party. I've been waiting more than twenty years for the tide to turn. When I was writing about skating, I was cheered by the skaters and fans, but reviled and ultimately silenced by the federation officials.
When the interest in the sport waned, there was nothing left to write anyone cared about or was willing to publish as a result of pressure and intimidation. Everyone got the message loud and clear. Do as you're told or you're out in the cold (pun intended).
Writing about those Silenced
That's why I wrote my award-winning book The Chosen Ones. The suits controlling the sport may have been able to scare newspaper and magazine publishers into jettisoning me, but they couldn't stop me from writing a novel. The story is a fiction murder mystery, but the world in which the characters live was based on the truth of figure skating behind the scenes.
Since the lines between reality and fiction are blurred in the story, I included factual resources at the end. I discuss the multitude of sports scandals including corrupt judging, homophobia, the Olympic rivalries, sexual assault, substance abuse and more. Here is an excerpt from the book The Chosen Ones, discussing the impact of physical and emotional stress on young athletes:
"In October of 2017, Gracie Gold, the young woman who had twice won the U.S. national title, withdrew mid-season to address her anorexia as well as a struggle with depression and anxiety, causing her to skip competing during an Olympic year. She has even admitted to being suicidal. Imagine the courage it took to face the situation, knowing she may have given up everything she had worked for."
As strange as it will seem, despite everything, I still love the sport. And I hope it finds its way to a better place... for the fans, but more than anything for the skaters, coaches and parents who make sacrifices and deal with disappointment and injustice on a level most of us will never understand.
Fans deserve better. They deserve a sport that plays fair and judges people for what they do on the ice, not a figure skating drama behind closed doors.
Maybe the light that social media casts on all things it touches will give those who care about the sport the ability to right the ship before it is too late.
Until then, I will never stop hoping for something very simple - that the best man or woman wins. End of story.
But let's finish on a positive note with the beauty and power of figure skating. Hopefully, it will serve as a reminder of what it should and still could be.