As much as the technical side of the sport matters, it’s the way a skater makes us feel that defines his or her arrival in what I call skating’s “collective consciousness.” That pull, for better or worse, can be a big factor in deciding who prevails or falls off the podium at an event like this week’s world championships.
“The human factor” is how ISU council member and former Skate Canada president and international judge Benoit Lavoie likes to describes it. As an example, he remembers the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, where he was working as a commentator for CBC/Radio-Canada and was among the many who expected American skating queen Michelle Kwan to win the women’s title.
Most skating insiders could not have imagined that Kwan wouldn’t win Olympic gold. She embodied everything that a legend should — from talent, poise and grace to lots of impressive results at the highest level.
“She had the credentials and the mileage and the experience,” Lavoie says.
Instead, Tara Lipinski burst in with a performance so strong that it couldn’t be denied. Despite his admiration for Kwan, Lavoie called it on the air as the upstart finished her free skate — Lipinski had stepped up and earned the gold.
Manley believes her under-the-radar status worked to her advantage.
“Going into Calgary, I was not considered a favourite at all and didn’t have any hype on me,” she says. “I really had no publicity and definitely didn’t have endorsements and things. The focus wasn’t on me, and I was left alone. I was able to focus and do the job I set out to do with no distractions.
“I was able to sneak in past all the skaters [that the judges and fans] were crazy over and win. It was kind of fun to see the scramble that happened with the media after the fact, because no one had a story on me.”
Four-time world champion Kurt Browning saw the benefits of being considered the man to beat.
“Every time I step on the ice as a professional, I consider it an audition for next year,” he says. “If you do the same as an amateur and keep your quality up high more often, then you burn your skating into the collective consciousness of the skating world, making yourself relevant.”
“Back in my competitive days there was almost no coverage of events anywhere in the media, so the skating community had very few opportunities to follow my development and progress,” she says. “That made training sessions at events really important. If Guy and I skated well during our practice, it gave our coach [Bruce Hyland] some terrific material to publicly promote our skating abilities.
“A good coach will always remember that judges are part of the audience too. It doesn’t mean anyone was trying to cheat. It does mean that this special thing, human emotion, will always play some kind of role in the result.”
On the flip side, Elizabeth Manley’s coach felt that being invisible wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“It’s hard to really answer if it would have made a difference if I had been promoted or pushed by the association. Maybe [the judges] wouldn’t have been afraid to let me win gold if I was more in the limelight with being a contender. I don’t know.”
So the debate remains unsettled on the question of how much becoming part of the “collective consciousness” helps score points with the judges. Lavoie, though, sees another, perhaps more important, way in which prior success can boost skaters — in their own minds
“It’s not only about the medal, or the money, or the lifestyle. “It’s about the passion to make it even better.”