By Sylvia Gurinsky
Unless some miracles happen at this year's World Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles in March, the big buzz for next year's Winter Olympics could be why there are so few skaters for Americans to buzz about, and so few foreign skaters to truly embrace. (I challenge anyone who isn't a serious fan of the sport to name one of the current successful Japanese female skaters.)
Remember the glory days of the sport during the 1970's, 80's and very early 90's? It was true that the Cold War produced great rivalries between American and Soviet skaters in particular, but there were also great international personalities. The sport was at its creative peak.
With individual exceptions, the sport has been seeing a slow decline in quality over the last 20 years, and a fast one in popularity over the last five. Here are the reasons why:
*Taking out the sport's identity: Let's start with the International Skating Union's decision in 1989 to eliminate the tracing of figures - those things that give the sport its name - in senior competition because they weren't television-worthy. The primary results have been a decline in skaters who have control in their programs and an increase in injuries because of more emphasis on jumps.
*The decision by the International Olympic Committee to eliminate the line between professional and amateur skaters: Forget about the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, which had the novelty of recent Olympic stars (Brian Boitano, Katarina Witt, Torvill and Dean) returning to middling success. Once that ship had sailed, it seemed like skaters started striving more for financial gold than Olympic gold, lowering the quality of skaters seen in national competitions every year and causing popular skaters to forego the difficult stuff and try to parachute in for the big competitions. This has also hurt the quality of professional figure skating, which reached its peak in popularity in the late 1980s and early 90s.
Right now, Michelle Kwan should be having a successful professional career. Right now, Sarah Hughes and Sasha Cohen should be battling to see who can reach the top of the Olympic podium in 2010.
*The attack on Nancy Kerrigan: Remember all the attention? It was extremely unhealthy for the sport, because it generated a flood of made-for-television events, tours, etc. that the sport couldn't financially sustain. It also generated rubberneckers who were not true skating fans and would not support the sport in the long-term.
*The 2002 Olympics judging scandal: The biggest blow, not only because it happened but because judging wasn't reformed the way it should have been.
There was nothing wrong with judging skaters on a 6.0 scale. What needed to be changed was the national affiliation of judges, which was improper and led to the horse-trading that produced the 2002 scandal. The lack of transparency in judging also needed to be addressed. Instead, there is now a complicated system that television viewers don't understand.
Here are ways to fix the sport:
*Raise the age limits: The minimum should be 16 for women, 18 for men for senior competitors. Until a skater has developed physically, he or she should not compete at the senior level. Period. Enough of this nonsense of "Oh, she has to re-learn her jumps because her body's changing."
*No parachutes for pros: Unless you're injured, retire or turn professional (or have a military obligation), you compete in your country's nationals. No three years of "Dancing With the Stars" and then trying to qualify for the Olympics.
*Know your audience: Go after those most likely to be loyal supporters of the sport. Market to them. And when you televise the sport, put your best rivalries (For the U.S., that's currently the men.) in prime time.
*Affordable ice shows: Create something the whole family can enjoy.
*Bring back 6.0s, artistic value and (finally) integrity in judging: Change the judging system again, so that it values quality and transparency. No national judges.