Wednesday, February 12, 2014

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:

THE TEAM EVENT PROS

+  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).

THE TEAM EVENT CONS

+  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.

1 comment:

sara.raju said...

I kind of feel like this team event was a success of Russia in front of a home crowd. I can't imagine that next Olympics, South Korea is going to care as much. I honestly as a hard core fan, do not care for the team event. It does dilute the excitement of the Big Events that come later. Plus! The injury question took Plushenko out of competition at the last second! You have to think that had he not competed in the team event, he might have a bit more left in the tank for the individual event. So it might've backfired for Russia overall. You have to think they'd rather he win than the team.