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Perspective is everything in figure skating.
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.
Personally, I’m just more aware of some skaters than others, and I don’t think I’m alone. Even judges aren’t immune to feeling the attraction of certain skaters at times.
How much it really affects the results, though, is open for debate.
“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.
A similar dark-horse story played out in 1988 in Calgary, where lightly regarded Canadian Elizabeth Manley won a surprising silver medal.
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.”
The Manley and Lipinski medals show that good judges are capable of setting aside their personal views and assigning marks based on the performances they witness on the day of competition.
“If you have done your homework and you go back to the right criteria, when it’s time to make a decision you will be able to make it with what was done at that time,” Lavoie says.
Still, skaters are always striving to make an impression on judges that could help them down the road.
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.”
For Debbi Wilkes, who won pairs silver at the 1964 Olympics with the late Guy Revell, the opportunity to make an impression extended to the practice rink.
“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.
“I think Peter [Dunfield] liked it that way,” she says. “He felt we could concentrate and not getting caught up in things.
“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.”
It’s worth noting here that Katarina Witt — the defending champion and one of the biggest stars in skating history — beat Manley for the gold in Calgary.
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
“People are coming back and skating better [after they become] Olympic champions. That tells us something about them — that they want to advance the sport for the benefit of the sport,” Lavoie says.
“It’s not only about the medal, or the money, or the lifestyle. “It’s about the passion to make it even better.”