Monday, February 8, 2010

An Every-Four-Year-Fan’s Guide to Figure Skating in Vancouver… Ice Dance Edition

(NOTE: In these remaining days leading up to the Opening Ceremonies, I’m doing a small series of posts to serves as a sort of Cliff’s Notes to figure skating fans who only follow the sport every four years or so. If that’s you, happy catching up… and feel free to comment or ask a question. If that’s NOT you… be sure to find an “Every-four-year fan” and tell them about it! Thanks.)

ICE DANCE: So Close and Yet So Far

Look at it on paper, and it might seem obvious who’s expected to be the gold-medal favorite headed into Vancouver. For of the three dance teams that made the podium in Torino, only one—Belbin and Agosto of the U.S.—has continued to compete. But as it turns out, Belbin/Agosto is now one of several teams with a legitimate chance for gold…

+ The 4th place team in Torino—France’s Delobel/Schoenfelder—won Worlds in 2008.

+ The 9th place team in Torino—Russia’s Domnina/Shabalin—won Worlds in 2009.

+ Canada’s Virtue/Moir didn’t compete in Torino, but have quickly found their way to two world medals since then nonetheless.

+ And the U.S.’s own Davis/White, while still awaiting their first world medal, defeated Virtue/Moir at the Grand Prix Final in December… and recently defeated Belbin/Agosto at Nationals in their first face-off of the season.

(It’s worth a mention too that the two top teams at Worlds in 2006 and 2007 are no longer in the picture…Bulgaria’s Denkova/Staviski were forced to retire from the sport when Staviski was involved in a very serious drunk driving accident in August 2007, and Canada’s Dubreil/Lauzon retired (by choice) after the 2006-7 season, and wed in 2008.)

So why is it that in this wait-your-turn world we know as competitive ice dance, Belbin and Agosto aren’t sitting pretty right about now? Here are some theories:

A) They had a chance to make a move, and missed it. When B/A started the 2006-7 season with a free dance choreographed to a retro-sounding medley of showtunes, it was so poorly received they scrapped it mid-season and started over (with the soundtrack to the film Amelie). Though it seemed to be a much better choice, the top 3 finishes at 2007 Worlds remained exactly as they’d been a year before.

B) They had a second chance to make a move, and took a fall instead… literally. In 2007-8, B/A created a free dance to all-Chopin piano pieces that appeared, especially with the aforementioned retirements, destined to give them a clear shot at gold. But when Tanith Belbin had an extremely rare fall during the compulsories at Worlds 2008, it knocked them out of the medals completely… and seemed to take away any sense of momentum they’d built to that point. (B/A ended up switching coaches and relocating in the off-season that followed.)

C) Ironically, it’s not such a wait-your-turn world anymore… the Code of Points prohibits it, at least to a point. So relatively young teams like Virtue/Moir, Davis/White and Domnina/Shabalin have found their way into the mix much sooner than they might have 10 years ago.

D) Some have even speculated that Belbin/Agosto aren’t #1 because they’re skating a lot less like the fun-loving B/A of yesteryear, and a lot more like a sophisticated (but also generic) pair of European-trained athletes. From the costuming to the music to the choreography, I can see their point. Check
this free dance from 2005 against this free dance from 2010 to see the difference. (And please note that I haven’t heard a single compliment on these costumes from 2010—they actually used different ones early in the season. Pray that they pack the other ones by mistake when they head north!)

And yet for all this talk about the former top U.S. team, there’s been plenty of other questions simmering for at least as long as that infamous “stare of death” between Fusar-Poli and Margaglio in Torino:

+ Delobel/Schoenfelder, who have skated together for the better part of two decades, finally claimed the world title in 2008… only to have to bow out the following year over a shoulder injury… and then announce Delobel’s pregnancy shortly after the season concluded (her son was subsequently born this past fall). Vancouver will be their first time in competition in over a year… what sort of factor will they be?

+ Domnina/Shabalin are currently making headlines over their controversial Aborigine “folk dance” (and costumes, and makeup…) used in this year’s Original Dance, but the bigger question to some fans is whether or not Shabalin’s knees will hold up throughout the competition—surgery has not solved all his problems, and the team skipped the entire first half of the competitive season in an effort to “rest up” for Vancouver. Expect the World’s Quickest Retirement after the Olympics, especially if they win it all.

+ And then there were not one, but two whisker-close finishes in last year’s Worlds: Domnina/Shabalin bested Belbin/Agosto for gold by less than 1 ½ points… and then Virtue/Moir took bronze over Davis/White by only four one-hundredths of a point, looking more on paper like the photo finish at an IndyCar race than an ice dance. The fact that Americans got the short end of the stick both times was lost on no one, especially with the event itself held in Los Angeles last year.

All in all, there looks to be no less than FIVE real contenders for the podium in Vancouver…

THREE of them happen to be North American…

In a discipline that has historically favored Europeans, some years more blatantly than others. Hmmm… looks like the Belbin/Agosto quest is just the tip o’the iceberg here.

I’ve been showing the highest-scoring performances under the CoP system for Clips of the Day, but was surprised to find that in the case of ice dance, the top score still belongs to a 2003 performance by Navka/Kostomarov (Olympic Champions from 2006). So instead I tried to find the highest-scoring free dance among any of the current favorites… and wouldn’t ya know, it appears to be the 2005 Worlds performance of Belbin/Agosto that I mentioned earlier. Hmmmm…

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"In a discipline that has historically favored Europeans". I would rather write "In a discipline that has historically favored Russians"