Monday, February 24, 2014

Sochi Olympic Sojourns XI: When Scott Went (Relatively) Silent

It took a while, but I’ve finally figured out what—or better said, who—I want to focus on in this post-ladies final fallout.

Scott Hamilton.

Yeah, I know. He’s the guy you might get sick of hearing after a couple nights (or less) of figure skating on NBC, with his “triple luuuuutz!!!!” grunts and drinking-game-worthy quips (did you know blades do not like to go sideways?), OR he might be the Olympic champion athlete/entertainer/cancer survivor/humanitarian and all-around Good Guy that would make your short list for Celebrities I’d Like to Invite to a Dinner Party. 

Either way, he’s been doing skating commentary for the better part of 30 years. At CBS he worked the first-ever prime-time Worlds coverage in 1987, as well as three Olympic Games. He’s the voice we heard as Paul Wylie skated for the silver medal in Albertville... as we waited and waited AND WAITED for Tonya to take the ice in Lillehammer... as Michelle and Tara went toe-to-toe for their medals in Nagano. Then he followed the TV rights to NBC and started covering the Games with Sandra Bezic and Tom Hammond in 2002—where his “How could that happen??” led the battle cry for the Salt Lake City Pairs Scandal. The three have worked the front lines of Olympic Figure Skating ever since... and of course, were in the booth when Kim Yu-Na’s free skate scores came up Thursday night.

Since then, we've seen and read a lot of things:

We've seen that the component scores for Adelina Sotnikova were so much higher than her previous best components, you'd think they could inject elements like skating skills, transitions, and choreography with baseball-quality steroids. (Scroll halfway down through this article to see what I mean)

We've read (and maybe signed) the petition making the rounds demanding "Open transparent scores" and the removal or anonymity... 

We've seen the picture of Sotnikova getting bear-hugged by the same Russian judge that sat on the panel for her winning free skate.

We've read that South Korea filed a complaint with the IOC... and that it was filed far too late to do any good.

And we heard from Christine Brennan (among others, but she was Tweeting about it before the event was even over) about the suspect judging panel... then from Phil Hersh, with quotes from ISU Prez Ottavio “Speedy” Cinquanta that proved his well of cluelessness is deeper than his harshest critics gave credit for...

And we heard from... Scott? One of the most historically outspoken guys in the sport? Well... there was this in the LA TIMES:

"I was waiting for the mistakes she (Sotnikova) usually makes, and she never made them," said 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton, commentating for NBC.
"I looked at the way the component score (rules) are written, and Adelina checks off every box. It's not as aesthetically pleasing as Yuna or Carolina, but she does everything the judges are looking for."

Even so, Hamilton admitted his jaw dropped when he saw the component scores.

OK... did he say anything else about that jaw-dropping? No? Well, maybe over here in this link from CBS News:

Watching from his NBC broadcast location, 1984 Olympic champ Scott Hamilton was intrigued by the 17-year-old Sotnikova's strategy, which he said worked perfectly for the scoring format. It was more than enough to beat Kim and Carolina Kostner, whose bronze medal was the first in Olympic singles figure skating for Italy.  "Adelina collected more points. That is really the only way you can describe it," Hamilton said. "If you look at Yuna of the past, this was not a program as difficult as she has done, and she left the opportunity for someone to collect points on that side of the scoring.

"It may not have been as beautiful as Yuna and Carolina, but under the rules and the way it works, she did all that. ... I think it was a just strategy that worked on the night."

It’s not that what he’s saying is incorrect... it’s just surprisingly opinion-free. But then Hersh’s article produced this within its final lines:
To Scott Hamilton, the 1984 singles champion and a TV commentator, the controversy is the best thing that could have happened.
“You’re going to be around the water cooler and everybody is going to have an opinion, and I love it because it will make everyone care about the sport again,” he said, laughing.

Which may or may not have prompted this comment from Hamilton on Twitter:

Reading lots of angry tweets. Please know that I am doing the best I can without showing favoritism. I love the sport. Want the best for all

Or this one...

Leave Sochi tomorrow. Thanks to all in FBland 4 your support & understanding during Olympics that skating nor I am perfect.#grateful

So here’s the thing. I spoke at length with Scott Hamilton for the Skating on Air book, and if you’ve read it, you know he’s got a soapbox and he’s not afraid to use it. Here’s a passage from page 185:

And as mentioned in a previous chapter, the fact that the IJS seeks to improve the quality of scores—rather than the quality of the judges that give them—leaves some believing the entire system was is an exercise in futility. “If George Steinbrenner gets to pick the umpires for the World Series, would you ever believe in the results?” asks Scott Hamilton. “It’s the same thing... instead of looking at the quality of the judges, they’re representing their country, and there’s a conflict of interest there. I think there’s a way to set up judges who are affiliated with the ISU, but are still their own person... and the best judges should be the ones to go to the Olympic Games. I think it would inspire greatness.”

That paragraph, interestingly enough, is followed by a comment by Tracy Wilson about the real suspense in an event these days coming with the judges’ draw... a factor that reared its head this week in Christine Brennan’s “anonymous source” article. 

But back to Hamilton. The first quote from him up there sounds like someone trying to be as diplomatic as possible, perhaps purposely leaving it up to readers to say Well if THAT’S considered good components these days...

Then what? Do four-year fans tune out in disgust when 2018 rolls around? Maybe... but probably not. Any four-year fans still following after 2002’s Skategate seem to be a pretty forgiving lot. How about die-hards? Will this be the judging controversy that finally does some of them in? Yeah, there might be a stronger possibility there. But with most non-Olympic skating coverage relegated these days to online streams and delayed highlights on network TV, maybe NBC simply doesn’t care what they do—or, better possibility, they realize that die-hards don’t rely on Hamilton to help them understand things.

The second quote from him is all about “strategy”; more words seeming to be pro-IJS but comes across to me as a non-endorsement of anyone... especially Kim Yu-Na as he echoes what some have said about Kim not really bringing it here as she did in Vancouver. It’s also possible he was trying to play up the athletic side of the sport in an effort to keep this whole thing from sinking to the melodrama status that people love to hate (or hate to love, depending on who you ask). But some may have interpreted it as Dang, Scott doesn’t have Yu-Na and Caro’s back on this one?? What side is he on anyway?!

As for the “watercooler” quote... I’m a little suspect of it as being the kind of thing Hersh might grab quickly to wrap up a story when there were many, more complex quotes to choose from. But I cringe at its flippant nature nonetheless. If I didn’t know any better, I might think he only gets up in arms about things when a North American skater is involved.

I do know better. So I’m left being a little puzzled by it all. On his FB page, following each of those semi-apologetic messages of his... all the thread comments I saw were very positive in nature, so I don’t know exactly which “angry tweets” he was referring to (unless he meant figure skating-related Twitter traffic in general). Maybe he’s under some pressure from NBC to downplay the controversy since, unlike in 2002, secret judging is likely to keep the story from unfolding any further. Maybe he’s feeling some heat after being effectively upstaged throughout the Games by the “B” squad of Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski. Maybe experience has taught him the futility of fighting some of these decisions, and he just wants to stay out of it as much as he can. Hand that baton to someone else.

“They’ve gotta dance with the date they brought,” I remember him telling me in reference to the ISU making heads or tails of IJS once it was locked into place. Maybe, at age 55 with nearly three decades of skating broadcasting behind him, he’s finally resigned himself to “dance” a little too. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Sochi Olympic Sojourns X: Ladies Preview/Predictions


There are 30 ladies from (I think) 20 nations scheduled to take the ice in Sochi for the short program. The top 24 will advance to the free skate on Thursday.

The Favorites: Before the Games got underway, reigning Olympic and World Champion Kim Yu-Na of South Korea was probably the odds-on favorite to retain her OGM status. That was before Russia’s Julia Lipnitskaia (who I endearingly refer to as Gumbyskaia due to her jaw-dropping flexibility) was revealed to the rest of the world via the Team Event. Now, I’m guessing these two are considered co-faves for gold by many.

The Top Challengers: Japan’s Mao Asada, who won silver here in 2010, is a highly competitive force—especially if she nails one or both triple axels she has planned in her programs. But if/when she makes mistakes, teammate Akiko Suzuki has the goods to outskate her (as she did at Japanese Nationals this season). Italy’s Carolina Kostner is the tallest of the ladies, the fastest, typically garners huge component scores, and won Worlds in 2012—she should not be overlooked. Also very much in the mix is Adelina Sotnikova of Russia; kind of off-the-radar since Gumbyskaia hit it big in Sochi, but it’s worth noting that Sotnikova has narrowly defeated her teammate a time or two this season.

(What about) The USA (?): Yes, we have a shot at the podium—but I don’t think it’s as solid a shot as NBC would like us to believe. Scott Hamilton hinted at this last night when they briefly discussed the Ladies event in prime time, indicating that while reigning US Champ Gracie Gold may indeed have “the goods” and may indeed deliver them, her relative inexperience and youth may translate into back-of-the-pack placement among four or five ladies competing with the same degree of technical difficulty. (NOTE: this argument doesn’t really apply to even-younger Gumbyskaia because many believe she already skates with the maturity of a twenty-something. This is part of what makes her an OGM favorite.) As for Ashley Wagner, she’s at a slight disadvantage on the technical side of things because her most difficult jump is a triple flip/triple toe—it gets a lower base score than the triple lutz/triple toe of others because it’s considered a little easier. But if she can avoid the slight two-footing and underrotations that prompted her infamous “disappointed” face during the Team Event, she should be in very good shape.

Polina Edmunds! What about her, you ask? I honestly do not know because she has never been in an international senior-level competition, let alone one as monumental as this. Yes, she too possesses magical triple-triple combos... but assuming she can pull them off here... will she come off as too “juniorish” to compete among the Suzukis and Kostners and Kims and fellow 15 year-old Gumbyskaia?

My Predictions for medals:
SILVER—Julia Lipnitskaia, RUS

Because... in a battle between Kim and Lipnitskaia (which has not yet happened anywhere; the latter was not part of last year’s Worlds and Kim was out the early part of this season with a foot injury), I simply think Kim is still going to emerge the winner.

What if Asada lands her triple axels cleanly, and has the skate(s) of her life? I will be SOOOOO happy for her because I personally get the feeling that Asada has worked the longest and hardest for this. There, I said it.

Bonus predictions! Other names to look for finishing in the Top Ten (in alphabetical order):
Gracie Gold, USA... Carolina Kostner, ITA... Kanako Murakami, JPN... Kaetlyn Osmond, CAN... Adelina Sotnikova, RUS... Akiko Suzuki, JPN... Ashley Wagner, USA.

Remember, the Ladies SP starts today, 2/18, at 10AM on NBC SN (Sports Network), with highlights coming in prime time Wednesday night! (And the FS is Thursday 2/19!)

I will be live-tweeting as much as I can... follow me on Twitter @KLBSt8ofSk8.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Sochi Olympic Sojourns IX: Every-Four-Year-Fan's Update on The Ladies


Olympic Gold Medalist Kim Yu-Na (KOR) didn't compete in the 2010-11 season except worlds, where she won silver. After skipping the 2011-12 season altogether, her only major event the following season was 2013 Worlds... which she won. It’s worth noting that she has never finished lower than 3rd at the World Championship level.

Following the 2010 Worlds—in which she defeated Kim—Olympic Silver Medalist Mao Asada (JPN) went about re-learning the technique on all her jumps in an effort to be more consistent with them. Consequentially, 2010-11 and (some of) 2011-12 were rough competitive years, with Asada finishing 6th at Worlds both times. But by 2012-13 she—and her triple axel attempts—were back in business with a bronze medal at Worlds.

Olympic Bronze medalist Joannie Rochette (CAN), whose mother passed away during the Vancouver Games, effectively retired from amateur competition in 2010.

Meanwhile... Team Japan remained strong both in terms of veterans (Asada, 2012 World Bronze Medalist Akiko Suzuki, and 2011 World Champion Miki Ando) and new blood (19 year-old Kanako Murakami).

Team Russia had two ladies in Vancouver, neither of which has had a remarkable career since (though one, Alena Leonova, was World Silver Medalist in 2012). Instead, a bevy of "baby ballerinas" have replaced them at the top... most notably Adelina Sotnikova and Julia Lipnitskaia, both of whom are in Sochi.

Team Canada has had a difficult time finding its next "Joannie", though Kaetlyn Osmond (2-time National Champ) has emerged over past couple of years as a force for the future.

Finally, Team Italy has Carolina Kostner, she of the up and down career that gave her a 16th place finish in Vancouver but also made her a World Champion in 2012.

What about Team USA? Aha, that’s the most mixed bag of all! 

2010 National Champ and Olympian Rachael Flatt had some success in 2010-11 season, but injuries and then a full courseload at Stanford led to her fade from the top. And 2010 Teammate Mirai Nagasu,  as you might have heard, was ALMOST here. But is not. (Scroll down to my January entries for more about all of that!)

2011 National Champ Alissa Czisny had her best season ever in 2010-11, winning her second national title, a Grand Prix Final title, and finishing 5th at Worlds (easily the highest placement of her career there). But 2011-12 was not as kind to her competitively, and recurring hip injuries/surgeries have kept her out of major competitions for the past 2 years.

After just missing the 2010 Olympic team, 2012 & 13 Nat champ Ashley Wagner. eventually did a major overhaul (moving west, picking up John Nicks as a coach). And it paid off when, by the end of 2013, she’d become the most decorated and consistent lady the U.S. had seen in several years: nine Grand Prix medals, two Grand Prix podium finishes, 4th and 5th place finishes at the last two World Championships, and a Four Continents title in 2012. This is why she was named to Team USA in Sochi, despite a fourth-place finish at last month’s Nationals.

As for reigning National Champ Gracie Gold—if you didn’t hear that name much until the past month or so, that’s because she hasn’t been around the senior ranks very long. Just two competitive seasons, to be exact. But with two GP medals and a U.S. title-in-an-Olympic-year to her name, her presence is already being felt.

Now that you’re all CAUGHT UP... ready to celebrate some new athletes?

My preview/predictions for the ladies will be up before the SP gets underway at 10AM Eastern time on Wednesday! Stay tuned...

50% OFF SALE for "Skating on Air"! Through Friday Only!!!

We interrupt this near-daily stream of Olympic skating updates to let you know that if you've been waiting (and waiting, and waaaaiiiiting) for my book Skating on Air: The Broadcast History of an Olympic Marquee Sport to go on a big-time sale... the waiting is over!

My publisher, McFarland & Co., just announced they are offering Skating on Air for 50% OFF this week!!! 

Interested? Here are two ways to get in on the action:

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Please note that internet retailers such as Amazon,, etc. are NOT in on this sale-- it is a McFarland exclusive! Also note that it only runs through this FRIDAY, 2/21.

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If you like figure skating, you'll love this book!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Sochi Olympic Sojourns VIII: A Celebration of U.S. Ice Dance

With Meryl Davis & Charlie White now the first-ever Olympic Champions in Ice Dance from the U.S., I thought I’d do something a little different... especially since I don’t do a good job of deciphering ice dance at face value, and I have not taken the time yet to examine the free dance protocols... (like I could decipher them thoroughly anyway)

In honor of the Davis/White victory, here’s a list of  what I believe is EVERY U.S. ice dance team to have competed in the Olympics since the sport joined the Games in 1976 (along with their placement). They’ve all paved the way for today!

Colleen O’Connor/Jim Milns, 1976/Bronze
Judi Genovesi/Kent Weigle, 1976/15th
Susie Kelley/Andrew Stroukoff, 1976/17th

Stacey Smith/John Sumners, 1980/9th
Judy Blumberg/Michael Siebert, 1980 & 1984/7th & 4th
(Special mention here because, as you might already know, Blumberg/Siebert would have won bronze in ’84 had a judge not deemed their FD music to be “dance music”. The selection they used? The same thing Davis/White just won with... Scheherazade.)
Carol Fox/Richard Dalley, 1984/5th

Suzie Semanick/Scott Gregory, 1988/6th
Susie Wynne/Joseph Druar, 1988/11th

April Sargent/Russ Witherby, 1992/11th
Rachel Mayer/Peter Breen, 1992/15th

Elizabeth Punsulan/Jerod Swallow, 1994 & 1998/15th & 7th
Jessica Joseph/Charles Butler, 1998/21st

Naomi Lang/Peter Tchernyshev, 2002/11th
Tanith Belbin/Benjamin Agosto, 2006 & 2010/Silver & 4th

Melissa Gregory/Denis Petukhov, 2006/14th
Jamie Silverstein/Ryan O’Meara, 2006/16th
Emily Samuelson/Evan Bates, 2010/11th

AND... a very honorable mention goes to Judy Schwomeyer/James Sladky, who were National Champs from 1968-72, World medalists from 1969-72, and about the only U.S. team with as much dominance for its time as Davis/White. Might as well hand them a retrofitted 1972 Olympic medal while we’re at it, right?

And to get an appreciation for just how much ice dance has changed since those times, here is Schwomeyer/Sladky’s FD from 1972 Nats!

I continue to live-tweet as much as I can... follow me on Twitter @KLBSt8ofSk8. 

An Every-Four-Years-Fan Guide to the Ladies is still to come, followed (pretty quickly) by the Ladies Preview/Predictions... all before the action starts up again Wednesday! 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sochi Olympic Sojourns VII: Ice Dance Preview/Predictions


There are 24 couples from 15 different countries scheduled to take the ice in Sochi for the short dance. I’m not sure if any will be cut by the free dance round; in Vancouver, only 23 couples competed and all of them competed all three rounds.

No more Compulsory Dance: Speaking of three rounds... that doesn’t happen any more. Starting with the 2010-11 season, compulsory dances (the ones where all the skaters skated the same dance over and over with the exact same music) were eliminated, and the Original Dance (the middle round; the one where dancers fell all over the place back in the 2006 Games) was replaced with a compulsory/OD hybrid known as the Short Dance. The Free Dance (final round) remains essentially the same, however.

The Favorites: Whether you’ve heard it for just the past 7 days or the past 7 months, you’ve heard it for a reason: Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the USA won the World title 11 months ago, and won every event in which they’ve entered even further back than that.

The Top Challengers: Reigning OGM’s (and training mates) Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada are pretty much Davis/White’s only challengers, but they do it extremely well, keeping it close... and as recently as this week I was reading reports of little tweaks they were making to their FD in an effort to boost their technical score. One thing is for sure: Virtue/Moir are not okay with taking turns on this OGM thing.

The Battle for Bronze: This might be the most interesting part of this event, with (by my count) as many as five different couples in contention for this final spot on the podium:
+      Kaitlyn Weaver/Andrew Poje (CAN), 5th in 2013 Worlds
+      Nathalie Pechalat/Fabian Bourzat (FRA), 6th in 2013 Worlds but World Bronze Medalists in 2012
+      Anna Cappellini/Luca Lanotte (ITA), 4th in 2013 Worlds
+      Ekaterina Bobrova/Dmitri Soloviev (RUS), reigning World Bronze Medalists
+      Elena Ilinykh/Nikita Katsalapov (RUS), 9th in 2013 Worlds but 2nd at Europeans just a month ago

The USA: Ice Dance remains one area in which the US thrives, with enough success on the international front to send three couples to Sochi. Davis/White are the ones everyone talks about, but Madison Chock/Evan Bates and Maia/Alex Shibutani, aka the “Shib Sibs”, are both likely to finish in the top 10. It is the Olympic debut for the Shib Sibs and Chock; Bates, however, competed in the 2010 Games with former partner Emily Samuelson.

My Predictions:
GOLD: Davis/White (USA)
SILVER: Virtue/Moir (CAN)
BRONZE: Bobrova/Soloviev (RUS)

BECAUSE: See my previous comments for an explanation, if necessary, about choosing D/W. As for bronze... this is one time where the Team Event is playing into my guess. Let me be clear in saying that who I’d really like to see in that bronze spot is France’s Pechalat/Bourzat. They may have lost their podium spot last year due to a collection of minor-ish mistakes in the FD (it was a tight race for bronze back then too), but this year’s FD known as “Le Petit Prince et sa Rose” is as fresh and enchanting program as you’ll see among the contenders this week.

They also won bronze with this program at the Grand Prix Final back in December, against several of these same teams.

However... Bobrova/Soloviev have been nipping at their heels and/or overtaking Pech/Bour at various turns all season, at least in the judges’ eyes. And in the Team Event SD last week, Bob/Solo defeated the French Team handily. While I doubt the judging panel for Sunday’s SD will be exactly the same, I tend to think the message has already been sent for these Games. If so, the good news out of this is that Bob/Solo have reportedly bailed on this year’s FD in favor of last year’s “Man with a Harmonica”... which I thought was a much better program.

Remember, the Short Dance starts today, 2/16, at 10AM on NBC SN (Sports Network), with highlights coming in prime time Sunday night!

I will be live-tweeting as much as I can... follow me on Twitter @KLBSt8ofSk8.

And I’m aware I have not yet done an every-four-years fan update on either dance OR the ladies... I hope to get that completed later today. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Sochi Olympic Sojourns VI: Man vs. Superman

Men’s Final in Review

On my laptop, alongside the tabs I have open for Facebook and Twitter, I currently have six articles and/or video clips waiting to be read and/or viewed. Almost all of them are about the ongoing figure skating events in Sochi. And almost all of those are about the Men’s event which concluded Friday night.

Over here: how Russian athletes are taking Plushenko to task for his late withdrawal from the event.

Over there: An article defending Jeremy Abbott’s well-publicized statement (I refuse to call it a rant; he was simply giving a long-overdue, honest answer to a reporter’s pretty specific question) following his 12th place finish.

Over here: A side-by-side video breakdown of Yuzuru Hanyu and Patrick Chan’s short programs that shows how the elements are calculated.

Over there: A detailed write-up by the always enjoyable Jackie Wong that shows the jump miscalculations by Javier Fernandez and Jason Brown which cost them a placement when all was said and done (and, in Fernandez’s case, cost him the bronze medal).

And of course, there’s the snarky one from Vanity Fair (a powerhouse of skating knowledge, to be sure!) proclaiming The End of Men’s Figure Skating, as well the curious one from Deadspin asking if skaters have maxed out the human ability to jump and spin in the air with these elusive tricks known as “quads”.

All this, all after what was largely perceived as a pretty disappointing night for the sport. Hanyu didn’t win gold as much as Chan forfeited it to him. As many as nine different guys were mathematically within reach of bronze after the SP, but save for Denis Ten, one by one they fell, they doubled instead of tripled, and they ran out of steam. And one of the cleanest skates of the entire night—by none other than Never-Give-Up’s man of the hour Jeremy Abbott—was too far back in the pack to make a difference. (Yes, I know there was no quad in it. Yes, I know he had to dumb down a couple other jumps just to muscle through it. Not the point right now. Stay with me here...)

This is what I saw the past couple of days. Maybe you saw it too:

+     I saw two men with the weight of the world that is their individual nations on their sturdy, but still very human, shoulders.

+     I saw a man from Kazakhstan who was too ill or injured to compete most of this season find a way to show the world that his “surprise” World Silver Medal from last year was no fluke.

+     I saw not one, but two men in the final flight on Friday that I really didn’t expect to see there.

+     I saw three veterans of the sport—one Japanese, one French, one Czech—do their level best close out their Olympic careers on a high note. Considering two of them were part of that fight for bronze (and the other just behind the rest of that pack), I’d like to think they think they were successful.

+     And I saw an American veteran of the sport take a prizefighter’s bruising and turn it into newfound peace.

In other words, the brighter side. Or at least an attempt at the more compassionate side. Because that other side—damn, it’s a tough one.

If you’re a regular reader of State of the Skate, then you know my appreciation for Patrick Chan’s often-sublime skating is tempered by his cockiness and foot-in-mouth disease when it comes to dealing with the press. Arguably with the most on the line in this event—NBC made a point of showing the perpetuators of the “Canadian curse” on camera before the men’s final flight began—Chan found himself joining said perpetuators by the evening’s end. The quotes I’ve seen from him in the aftermath are scattered; some apologetic, some defensive, some determined to show pride in his accomplishments, as if to publicly reassure himself of his place in skating history.

I get this, even from him.  And if I was in Sochi covering the Olympics, I’d like to think I’d let whatever he had to say just lay there, untouched for once. Skating’s favorite journalistic curmudgeon Phil Hersh thought differently, though. He took it upon himself to remind us (via Twitter) that the overwhelming Olympic pressure has been managed in the past by true champions, e.g. Kim Yu-Na, Brian Boitano, and Gordeeva/Grinkov. Superheroes. In other words... not mere, faltering mortals like Patrick Chan.

Because if you’re going to kick a skater while he’s down, you might as well do it wearing toepicks, right?

I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I’d rather try and see these outstanding athletes for what they are... human.

Except for Plushenko. He’s an ass.

But that’s another story for another time.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Sochi Sojourns V: Olympic Men's Preview/Predictions


Check out this post I did last week to find out what’s up with the 2010 Men’s medalists these days.

There are 30 men from 21 different countries scheduled to take the ice in Sochi for the short program; 24 of them will move on to the free skate Friday night.

The Favorites: Patrick Chan, multiple World Champ who is hoping to win Canada’s first-ever gold medal in this discipline. Co-favorite, if there is one, would be Japan’s teen phenom Yuzuru Hanyu (one of the few to defeat Chan in recent memory).

The Top Challengers: Aside from Russia’s pride and joy Evgeni “Plushy” Plushenko there are several... including Tatsuki Machida (JPN), reigning World Bronze Medalist Javier Fernandez (ESP), reigning World Silver Medalist Denis Ten (KAZ), 2010 Olympic Bronze Medalist Daisuke Takahashi... and yes, if USA champ Jeremy Abbott can somehow keep it together through both programs, he could be seen as “a challenger” as well.

The USA Men: We have two representatives in Sochi. 28 year-old Jeremy Abbott was in Vancouver but finished in 9th, well behind OGM Lysacek and 6th place finisher Johnny Weir. He is capable of some of the most intricate, nuanced, gorgeous skating you’ll ever see—but has a long history of crumbling at the worst times (world championships as well as Olympics). In fact, you might’ve seen him come apart just a few days ago in the Team Event—he skated his SP there. That SP gets a second shot this week, as does his stunning (and self-choreographed) Exogenesis Pt.3: Redemption free skate.

On a completely different plane—at least in terms of experience—is 19 year-old Jason Brown. He was still competing at Junior Worlds last season, but now he’s an Olympian who actually defeated Abbott in the Nationals Free Skate (finishing 2nd overall). Brown’s Riverdance FS is a viral video smash, but he also possesses a smoking-hot SP to Prince’s “The Question of U” that is not to be missed. Brown does NOT have a quad jump in his repertoire, but even at his relatively young age, the quality of his jump, spins and all-around skating is so high he’s managed to hold his ground against many of the quad kings anyway. He’s THAT good.

Quad Counts: Most of the top 10 men will attempt one in each program, either the quad toe-loop (a toepick jump) and/or the quad salchow (an edge jump). Chan, Hanyu, Takahashi, Fernandez, Machida, and possibly Plushenko will go for one in the SP and two in the FS. And Kevin Reynolds of Canada might go for as many as FIVE in the entire event: two in the SP and three in the FS. Because he’s out of his crazy-haired mind. (Just a guess. It’s more likely because he’s an excellent jumper and not the artiste that Chan is.)

And a note about Uzbekistan’s Misha Ge (pronounced “Jee”): He won’t likely be in the Top 10, so I don’t know that NBC prime time will show him... but if you can catch either of his programs via streaming video or at NBC SN, please do so. Literally and figuratively he’s one of the most colorful, joyous skaters in the business right now.

My predictions:
GOLD- Yuzuru Hanyu
SILVER- Patrick Chan
BRONZE- Evgeni Plushenko

BECAUSE: I think Hanyu has the least to lose... never medaled, not defending anything, might be in the sport for years to come, and he’s already shown he can outskate Plushy in the SP (Plushy’s strong suit at this point). BUT I think he’ll need to come from behind to win—if he’s on top after the SP, the first-Japanese-Man-to-win-Gold nerves might overtake him. Chan’s got a similar battle to overcome in regards to “winning it for Canada”, but I can’t help but remember the outrage that has brewed from some of his World victories...and I can’t help but wonder if the judges might be on their best behavior here, trying to avoid the controversy that questionable judging at the Olympics can bring. Then again, when they’re filing the ridiculously high component scores that were obtained by Plushy in his FS contribution to the Team Event, who knows what to expect? (It’s for this last reason I’ve got Plush in for the bronze, BTW.)

Remember, the Men get started at 10AM Eastern time Thursday 2/13 on NBC SN (Sports Network), with highlights coming in prime time Thursday and Friday nights! But be warned... NBC was pretty stingy with its prime-time pairs coverage. If you’ve got a favorite that’s not likely to make the top 6 after the SP, play it safe and catch them in real time during the day.

I will be live-tweeting as much as I can... follow me on Twitter @KLBSt8ofSk8.

Sochi Sojourns IV: The Team Event in Review

The inaugural Team Figure Skating event is in the books! As expected by a lot of people, it was Russia/Canada/USA for the podium (though, admittedly, I was off on my guessing as Italy outskated France for that final spot). Let’s take a look at some pros and cons I came away with over those 3-4 days:


+  It’s a good dress rehearsal (literally). You’ve got the costumes, the makeup, the music, the programs... everything except scores that will actually be counted in the Real Thing. (And I doubt there’s any skater at the Olympics—at this time, at least—that puts this event on par with the Real Thing. But I’ll get back to that later.) For some athletes this event had to give them a great boost of confidence, even if their contributions are largely forgotten by the end of the Games... I’m thinking of lesser-knowns like Germany’s Peter Liebers (in the SP) and Italy’s Valentina Marchei (in the FS), as well as those who didn’t compete much this season due to injury (Canada’s Kaetlyn Osmond) or equipment problems (Canada’s Kevin Reynolds). For others—particularly those of whom expectations are high over the next two weeks—it was hopefully a place to work out the kinks and jitters and leave them behind. Patrick Chan, your triple axel needs attention again. (I know you think your skills are beyond reproach, but it does.) Ashley Wagner, your triple/triple has returned, but you’ve got to believe it enough to give it a little more height and a little less 2-foot. And Jeremy Abbott—what is left to say, other than to convey the hope that your “Olympic disaster” (as you put it), this time around, really is over and done with.

+  It proved to be an interesting preview of things to come, even for those of us who have followed along all season. Was Plushenko beatable in the SP? Yuzuru Hanyu showed us he was. Are Davis/White beatable, period? Not this time around. Could Wagner, Gracie Gold, and Julia Lipnitskaia deliver under all different types of pressure? By and large, yes—especially Lipnitskaia. Which brings us to the next “pro”...

+  It instantly turned Julia Lipnitskaia into Katia Gordeeva redux. Back at the 1988 Winter Olympics, USSR’s Gordeeva won gold in pairs with her future husband, the late Sergei Grinkov... but she also won over the media instantly with her youth (she was 16 at the time), her beauty, and her delightful smile. Twenty-six years later the story maybe a little different— this Russian teen competes in singles, with flexibility for days and a shyer, less ebullient beauty—but she’s an instant Olympic darling just the same, and her excellence in the Team Event surely has nudged Ladies Figure Skating a little higher on the Olympics marquee. Had this team event not taken place, Gumbyskaia (my nickname for her, in case you’re new to this blog) would have likely remained Just Another Olympian until the Games were nearly over. (Remember, with the pairs event happening early in the ’88 Games, Gordeeva had all kinds of time after the event to become better recognized, and adored...)

+  It encouraged the “rare” team atmosphere for figure skating. I put “rare” in quotes because it was said repeatedly by the US athletes, if not everyone else... and also because there are a LOT of people involved in the discipline of synchronized skating that justifiably feel a team atmosphere in this sport is what they are all about. But as for individual (and paired) men and women uniting for one goal... sure, I suppose this worked on that level.

+  It also earned medals for several skaters who are not likely to see them otherwise. Think Osmond and Reynolds for Canada, think a large part of the US team... even a few on the Russian team fall into that category. Including Plushenko, who many thought would withdraw from the individual event with an injury (but apparently isn't).


+  As I said before, it’s a good dress rehearsal... but I don’t think that’s what The Powers That Be had in mind. The easy fix for this would be for the whole thing to happen last in the chain of Olympic Figure Skating events rather than first, and I’ve heard that suggestion made from fans and skundits alike.

+  Another reason to do it post-individual disciplines: the ever-present risk of injury. Stefania Berton (of the Italian pair Berton/Hotarek) was the unfortunate example to draw from this past week, when she went down hard on a set of SBS triple salchows during the Team Event FS. In obvious pain as they awaited scores, I couldn’t help but think how little time the pairs teams have to recover for their own event as it is, let alone if they suddenly found themselves bruised and/or swollen from shoulder to shinbone. And now that the pairs event is complete, I can’t help but think this would’ve been a different Olympics for Berton/Hotarek if not for the Team Event. (And Italy didn’t even win a team medal for their trouble! Talk about adding insult to injury!)

+  Then again, columns like this one in the Washington Post are proposing the event be dropped altogether... and it makes me wonder how many watching (with a voice that counts) came away from the weekend on the opposing side, saying “Yes! Yes! More Team Figure Skating, please!” (Besides Ottavio Cinquanta, I mean.)

Which brings me to one of the concerns I had when I first heard it was happening: is this really the time in figure skating’s arc of popularity to trot out a new event? Seems to me that this is the kind of thing that might’ve been a smash hit circa 1998 (sort of like an Ice Wars that actually counted for something more than bragging rights). But nowadays, figure skating ratings seldom bring good news to anyone. The one place the sport still holds its own, or better, is during the Winter Olympics. Why risk that by possibly diluting the audience with a worn-out welcome? I know The Powers That Be don’t see it that way; they see the more is better approach as appropriate. But I tend to think of this whole Team Event as a quintessential behind-the-times move.

+  And if it does stay in the Olympics... it needs a scoring overhaul. When the final portion of competition (Free Dance) is basically an exhibition because the outcome will have absolutely no bearing on the final standings, something’s definitely amiss. Giving more weight to the free-skate programs sounds like a good start to me.

One more thing I want to add about this event: shortly after Jeremy Abbott turned in perhaps the most disappointing performance of the entire three days worth of short and long programs, USA Today’s Christine Brennan took Abbott to task in this article, citing his willingness to credit the team event as a place to shake off the demons as something that “won the Olympic gold medal for utter self-absorption.”

Spare me. First of all, Team USA was never in jeopardy of missing the finals, let alone the medals. Plenty of skundits did the math and pointed that out rather quickly, but Brennan wasn’t one of them. And more importantly—if there is ever a time for a figure skater to be self-absorbed, it is while they are competing at the Olympics. Yes, the bronze Team USA ultimately won is an outstanding achievement... but these athletes did not build their lives around it. To rag on Abbott for having the unmitigated gall to hope his best performances come on February 13 and 14...? Congratulations, Christine—you took snark to a new level with that one.

I know I’m a day behind with this post, but I’ll be sure to get my Men’s Preview/Predictions up before the SP gets underway Thursday! A Pairs Review will come after that.

    And I will be live-tweeting as much as I can... both as the     events unfold, and in U.S. prime time... follow me on Twitter @KLBSt8ofSk8.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Sochi Olympic Sojourns III: Pairs Preview & Predictions


There are 20 pairs teams scheduled to take the ice in Sochi for the short program... and 16 of them will make it to the free skate.

The Favorites: Volosohzar/Trankov (RUS), hands down. They’ve only one world title under their belt—2013, less than a year ago—but their momentum has been building for the past three years.

The Top Challengers: Savchenko/Szolkowy (GER) are multiple World Champs, the reigning Olympic Bronze Medalists, and are definitely capable of upsetting the Volo/Trank party if they have an off night. Canadian teams Duhamel/Radford and Moore-Towers/Moscovitch, both of whom helped Canada earn its Team Silver medal, are also medal-worthy at their best. And anyone who forgets veterans and reigning Olympic Silver Medalists Pang/Tong (CHI) in this event is making a big mistake.

The US Teams: Castelli/Shnapir are the 2-time National Champs, but only finished 13th at Worlds last year. Zhang/Bartholomay were surprise silver medalists who have never competed Worlds at all. Neither of these facts bodes particularly well for our chances... but then again, pairs is traditionally our weakest discipline of late. Having said that, the US finished 10th and 13th in Vancouver... and best-case scenario, I’d expect to see something similar happen here.

Extra-cool (and difficult) moves: Look for side-by-side triple lutzes from Duhamel/Radford, a throw triple axel from Savchenko/Szolkowy, and a throw quad salchow from Castelli/Shnapir (or an attempt at one, anyway).

My predictions:
GOLD- Volosohzar/Trankov
SILVER- Savchenko/Szolkowy
BRONZE- Pang/Tong

Remember, the Pairs get started at 10AM Eastern time Tuesday 2/11 on NBC SN (Sports Network), with highlights coming in prime time Tuesday and Wednesday nights!

I will be live-tweeting as much as I can... follow me on Twitter @KLBSt8ofSk8.

I hope to post my thoughts on the past weekend’s Team Event on Tuesday! (And Pairs thoughts some time after that!)

Friday, February 7, 2014

Sochi Olympic Sojourn II: Every-Four-Year-Fan's Update on Pairs & Men

So... you haven’t spied a figure skating blade on the TV screen since that blond Russian guy with the mullet whined about the American guy winning gold?  Have no fear. Read on and find out what you’ve missed in the past four years.

First up—the PAIRS in review:

2010 OGM’s Shen/Zhao (China) finally retired and are now raising a baby girl. Look for Zhao in the Kiss’n’Cry when the current Chinese pairs compete; he’s now a coach.

2010 Silver Medalists Pang/Tong (China) are engaged, but stayed eligible for one more Olympic cycle before moving on to the matrimonial stage in their relationship. Together on the world scene since 1998, they are unparalleled in terms of experience but are a few years past their prime. They’ve been on the world podium 5 times, winning twice.

2010 Bronze Medalists Savchenko/Szolkowy have been on the world podium every year since 2007 (winning four times in all) and remain renowned for their strength as well as their frequently out-there costumes/programs, but have more or less been eclipsed by Volosohzar/Trankov... though the recent Grand Prix Final proved they can still beat them if Volosohzar/Trankov have a really off day.

Who is Volosohzar/Trankov? A classic case of two pairs skaters just clicking on all cylinders from the get-go. She (Tatiana Volosohzar) was skating w/her husband Stanislav Morozov for Ukraine in 2010. They finished 8th. He (Maxim Trankov) was skating with Maria Mukhortova for Russia in 2010. They finished 7th. Shortly after Vancouver, they joined forces (representing Russia) and quickly rose to the top of the pairs skating world, winning silver at Worlds in 2011 and ’12, and gold in 2013.

Meanwhile, in North America...

Canada has been blessed with two very strong pairs teams post-Vancouver. Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford, skating together since late 2010, are 3-year national champs and the reigning world bronze medalists... while Kristen Moore-Towers/Dylan Moscovitch are right behind them, both nationally and internationally (finished 4th last year at Worlds). Both teams are in the mix for Sochi medals.

As for the U.S., it looked for a while like our best chance for a powerhouse team a la Volo/Trank was the pairing of Denney/Coughlin (she of the 2010 Olympian team Denney/Barrett; he of 2011 National champs Yankowskas/Coughlin). D/C took the 2012 National title and have finished as high as 8th at Worlds, but finished 3rd at this year’s Nats and did not receive one of the two Olympic appointments as a result. Those went instead to Castelli/Shnapir, together since 2006 and two-time National champs at this point... and Zhang/Bartholomay, a young team that happened to skate lights-out in both short and long programs at Nationals and became the surprise silver medalists as a result.

And now let's study the MEN in review:

2010 OGM Evan Lysacek (USA), despite remaining competition-free since Vancouver, had every intention of returning to Sochi to defend his title. Unfortunately, his injury-plagued body had other plans—and Lysacek is only in Sochi as a spectator (and contributor to the Today Show).

2010 Silver (or as he would say, “platinum”) Medalist Evgeny Plushenko (RUS) is now 31 years old and skating at his fourth Olympics as a medal contender. He has not competed much (due both to choice and to injury), and his bid to win Russian Nationals this year came up a little short when he was defeated by a teenager. But none of the Russian men have skated solidly on the international front in the past couple of years; in fact, poor turnouts by both their competitors at last year’s Worlds resulted in Russia having only one slot for the men in this year’s Games. That one spot was ultimately rewarded to Plushy... as you may have already seen via his appearance in the Team Event.

2010 Bronze Medalist Daisuke Takahashi (JPN) went on to win Worlds that same year... but has not been able to replicate that victory since. Nonetheless, he is the most decorated Japanese male figure skater to date and has achieved “rock star” status in his native land. And despite finishing only 5th in this year’s Japanese Nationals, he was chosen as one of three men to represent Japan in Sochi. This will be his third and final Olympics (unless he pulls a Plushy, of course)... and he may be a sentimental favorite for the medals at best; the top man out of Japan right now is teenager Yuzuru Hanyu, who showed his tremendous skills Thursday in winning the SP in the Team Event.

Meanwhile, the post-Vancouver face of men’s figure skating belongs to a Canadian man of Chinese descent. Patrick Chan was 5th in his Olympics debut, but as the now three-time World Champion, he looks to break the “Canadian curse” (felt most strongly by the likes of Brian Orser, Kurt Browning, and Elvis Stojko) and win the gold.

The U.S. men have struggled since Vancouver to replicate the success of Lysacek (or Johnny Weir, for that matter, who like Lysacek is working for NBC this time around). Jeremy Abbott has won the US title four times in all, but has finished no higher than fifth at Worlds (and was 9th in Vancouver, as you may have heard about a zillion times already from the media). His teammates on the world front have varied widely over the past four years: Adam Rippon... Ross Miner... Richard Dornbush... Max Aaron... but none of them were able to grab that 2nd spot for the US men in Sochi. It went instead to rising star Jason Brown, the ponytailed wonder who does an SP to Prince music, has known Arsenio Hall since birth, and got over 3 million hits on YouTube after last month’s Nationals. At age 19, he is the youngest American man to figure skate at the Olympics since fellow Chicagoan David Santee did so in 1976 (at age 18).

I hope this helps bring 4-year fans in particular up to speed a bit as the first two “individual” disciplines (pairs & men) get underway in the coming days.

Remember, the Team Event continues Saturday 2/8 at 9:30 AM on NBC SN (Sports Network), with highlights coming in prime time Saturday night!

I will be live-tweeting as much as I can... follow me on Twitter @KLBSt8ofSk8.

Look for the next blog update sometime Monday! 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Sochi Olympic Sojourns I : The Team Event

It’s almost HERE AGAIN!!!!!

Can it be that four years has passed since we all gathered together via NBC and cheered on the 2010 Olympians in Vancouver? Based on all the tweets and other updates coming from Sochi, it must be so.

And here is the NBC Olympics Viewers Guide (2014 edition) to further back that up.

Here at State of the Skate, the hope is to update the blog around 8 times over the next 2 ½ weeks (with today’s post counting as Olympic update #1). As with Vancouver, I plan to do some stuff for the every-four-years fans as well as the die-hard regulars, though it’ll be in more condensed form this time. So if you’ve got friends, family, office mates, or people at your daughter’s dance class that are looking to you to find out whatever happened to Evan, or Evgeni, or even Michelle... or you’re dog-tired of trying to explain why Meryl and Charlie are the U.S.’s best chance for figure skating gold this time out... point them here!

But first up this time around is something new to ALL of us, at least in an Olympic format. So let’s talk Team Figure Skating... here are the needs-to-know as I see them:

1) The best/only comparison I can think of is the team competition for Olympic gymnastics: different countries (in this case, ten) select athletes from their team to execute different portions of the competition, with the best overall scores winning the medals. Of course there are differences, the largest being that 1) the teams are co-ed with skating, and 2) in lieu of different apparatus skating has the short and long programs of different disciplines (Ladies, Men, Pairs, Dance).

2) There are places to go for explanations of this “new” event beyond what NBC provides on-air... IceNetwork has this to offer, for instance. But if you’re confused even after doing your own research, take heart.... a lot of people are! We’ll probably need at least a day or so of viewing to sort it all out.

3) The 10 teams competing in Team Figure Skating this year are (in alphabetical order): Canada, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Russia, Ukraine, and USA. All teams will participate in Round 1 (Short Programs/Short Dance), with the top five point-getters advancing to Round 2 (Free Skates/Free Dance).

4) If you were thinking, perhaps, that Team Figure Skating was about teams of skaters taking the ice as a group and then skating a complex routine together... sorry. That is known as synchronized skating... a sport which, unlike its sister synchronized swimming, does not have Olympic status. Not yet, anyway. (They are trying to change that...)

5) All programs seen during the team event will also be seen during the individual events—in other words, no one is doing a “special” program just for team competition. However, depending on what team you’re talking about, this may be your best chance to see some of them in prime time.

As an aside: I, myself, am not crazy about this creation of an event. As I first alluded to in this tongue-in-cheek post that I did back in 2011, this is the brainchild of ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta—a man who, I believe, cares little about the athletes and lots about his Bottom Line. I worry not only about the chance that skaters could get needlessly injured in a secondary competitive event, but about the possibility of over-exposure of a sport that is already struggling to hold on to the viewers it once had.

But it’s here, at least for Sochi, so it’s time to accept its presence and hope for the best. My predictions?

Canada, France, Japan, Russia, USA for the finals... and...

GOLD: Russia
SILVER: Canada

Remember, the Team Event starts Thursday 2/6 at 10:30 AM on, with highlights coming in prime time Thursday night!

I will be live-tweeting as much as I can... follow me on Twitter @KLBSt8ofSk8.

Look for the next blog update sometime late on Friday!