Saturday, May 30, 2009

Perhaps An Unpopular Opinion About the Comeback Kids

So it appears to be happening again, as it has several times now in these days when skaters seldom use words like retire or turn professional as much as they use terms like on a breakconsidering their options… or, in some cases, don’t even say that much.

I think, in my often over-cynical nature, I’m starting to think of such folks as the Ross and Rachel of the sport. Remember them? The perpetually frustrated, and frustrating, characters on NBC’s Friends (played by David Schwimmer and Jennifer Anniston) whose romantic relationship for many of that show’s seasons seemed to spin back to the phrase “we were on a break”--? And what had happened and/or been decided during said break that impacted the rest of the relationship?

It was written for laughs, of course, and plenty of plot spins too. But I can’t help but wonder if there were other fans of the show like me; fans that got fed up with the pairs’ collective indecisiveness, and felt a little pity for the other women and men in Ross and Rachel’s lives… unsuspecting pawns in a game R&R insisted on playing to satisfy their own fragile egos. Is it any wonder that Chandler and Monica’s slow-budding romance became far more interesting by comparison? (To some of us, at least.)

Anyway, that’s my analogical way of saying that when I start hearing about skating comebacks, unfinished business, etc… the first thing I think of are “the others”. The ones who have been training and competing consistently since the last Olympics. The ones who, perhaps, have also been waiting for Their Turn since then as well.

What does Sasha Cohen’s intended re-entry into competition do to the mindset of an Alissa Czisny, for example? Yes, we’re all aware that it’s because of Czisny’s inability to do better than 11th at Worlds that the U.S. can only send two ladies to Vancouver. But it’s hardly her fault that, if Cohen proves to be a worthy competitor once again, the number of Vancouver openings gets cut in half (with Czisny herself an unlikely recipient of the other spot, most would say).

Likewise, it’s not Cohen’s fault if she’s deemed one of the two best that the U.S. has to offer next January. But I have two issues with her being there at all:

1) Figure skating isn’t swimming. Still-medalling-in-her-40s Dara Torres can come back to swimming year after year, so long as she’s still got the speed to succeed. When she loses the speed, she’s done; end of story. Not necessarily so with Cohen. A lot of speculation continues to buzz regarding Cohen’s ability to land the triples and triple combos necessary these days… and there are those that point to the fact that Cohen has had the unfortunate “gift” of fumbling her jumps just enough to keep her from the major titles she once sought so badly… so maybe this entire debate is moot. But in any case, there is a second score to consider with figure skating; the still-subjective artistic mark, the one that has been known to “hold up” skaters deemed brilliant, but Just Having a Bad Skate. Skaters such as Cohen are admittedly lovely artists to begin with, but to come back to amateur ranks with so much professional experience and polish… it’s just one of those unfair advantages that don’t make sense to me.

If Rachael Flatt competes next January with seven flawless triples, level 4 footwork and spins, and slightly-above-average for her age/experience artistic impression, will that be considered equal ground if Cohen pulls less technical merit but glows (as, admittedly, she always does) artistically?

My fear is that it won’t, and that ultimately, Cohen would win that battle because she’s Sasha Cohen.

2) Just about everyone I’ve heard discuss Olympics-related comebacks says the same thing—that it’s all about sending the best a country has to offer, and if one of the best turns out to be Cohen, so be it.

I know this sounds odd to say, but… is that really all it’s about?

Here’s my thought: the Olympics are about excellence—of course they are—but
best as I can tell, they are also about opportunity; a wonderful chance for athletes to represent their country in their own uniquely talented way. Those opportunities are rare enough as it is. Why must they be gobbled up by the same handful of superstars for 12 years?

I know the USFS (or the IOC, for the matter) isn’t going to put “term limits” on a competitor anytime soon…of course they shouldn’t. I guess I wish said competitors would willingly acknowledge when enough is enough, and give the chance to someone else. When IS it enough, you ask? That’s strictly a case-by-case thing. If I were Sasha Cohen, I’d like to think I’d be saying to myself right about now “Look, I’ve been in two Olympics already… I earned a silver medal at one of them… I’ve had my turn.”

(On the other hand, if I were Todd Eldredge back in 2001, I might make a very good argument for myself to do exactly as he did, and make one more run for a medal, ANY medal. As I said—case-by-case. And I still wasn’t fully supportive of his decision at the time.)

As for Evgeny Plushenko’s reported return… all I can say to that is At least I can understand Cohen’s return in the “unfinished business” sense of things. Plushy came to Torino 3 years ago with a silver medal from 2002 and something to prove. He proved it. Some would say he proved it several times over. What’s left?

Yes, it could be rooted in a concern (first heard a few years ago that Russia was starting to lack high-quality male singles skaters, and was therefore in danger of losing some of that all-important prestige… but if that was really true, wouldn’t Plushy have put his money where his mouth is by now? At this point, I cannot be convinced that it’s about anything but Plushy himself. And since when was that anything remotely close to the Olympic sprit?

As I said before… I’m aware my opinion is unlikely to be a common one. And yes, I’m in agreement with everyone that says At least it’ll make for an interesting 2009-10 season. I’m just thinking about “the others”. There may not be many of them directly affected by what might or might not happen, but in my book, there’s enough to matter.

For the
Clip of the Day I’m jumping back to January 2002 to show Eldredge’s successful bid for a spot on the Salt Lake City team.


Sharon said...

I think your commentary here is spot-on, and I'm with you. I'm not a fan of "comeback kids" for the most part. Everyone should have their time to shine and I worry, too, for the "others". We can only hope that the judges will judge these comebacks with the same critical eye as the rest of the field.

Kelli Lawrence said...

Thanks Sharon! OK, that's one more... anyone else? :-)

Laura said...

Nice post! I guess I am one of those people who doesn't feel right saying that someone has already had their chance - if they're competitive, then go for it. I know you pointed out that skating is subjective, but it's not fair for me to expect a skater who is still competitive (if that is the case) to step aside when I would never have expected Michael Phelps or Michael Jordan to do the same.

My fear (echoing Sharon) is that someone like Cohen or Kwan will get some ridiculous advantage in the (US) judges' or USFSA members' minds when it comes to judging nationals (like you mentioned, being "held up" by the artistic score) or picking for the Olympic team. All things being equal, I would MUCH rather see a new person get on the Olympic team than someone who has already had a bunch of chances. But if that older person is the absolute best we have (and I doubt that at this point), then I would feel weird telling her she shouldn't go for it. Wow, I am all sorts of conflicted.

Kelli Lawrence said...

I DO wish our current crop of ladies was so unbeatable right now I wouldn't have to worry about them!