Olympic Figure Skating Time Machine

John Curry, 1976 Olympics, Innsbruck


As my best friend Jessica says, at a time when all eyes are on Sochi and everyone is talking about Yulia Lipnitskaya, Yuzuru Hanyu and Ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White, I am probably one of very few people watching old figure skating videos.

When I tire of the overly technical nature of the sport today, I watch John Curry, whom legendary commentator Dick Button called the “most elegant skater” he had ever seen. “Don Quijote,” his long program at the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck is full of beautiful positioning on the ice, graceful spins and exacting edges. It is breathtaking–though Curry said that he and his coaches toned down the elegance and made the elements much more obvious so that the judges would not detract from his technical merit score.

I love all the moments when the network commentator tries to say something or engage Dick Button, and Button just cuts him off because he is just so enthralled by Curry’s skating. Without a doubt, John Curry’s 1976 performance is, as Dick Button says, “One of the finest moments of skating I have ever seen.”

And when I start watching figure skating videos, I have to watch at least one four videos of Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov. Their 1988 Long Program at the Olympic games in Clagary is flawless, unless you count, as commentator Peggy Fleming does, her positioning in one of the death spirals; there are also a few seconds when they are not synchronized perfectly on their spins. Beyond the quality of their classical balletic style, there is so much joy on Gordeeva’s face as she skates, especially at the end when she knows that they have won gold.

Another reason I love this video is of course the commentators: 1968 Olympic Champion Peggy Fleming–who won gold just 8 years after the whole US figure skating team died in a plane crash–and of course Dick Button, 1948 and 1952 Olympic Champion, who was also the first to do many spins and jumps.

Here are Gordeeva and Grinkov in 1994, returning to amateur competition under “Brian’s Law,” the one-time opportunity allowing professionals to compete as amateurs. This time, they return as a married couple with a young daughter. Sergei makes two bobbles, but they win gold anyways. Some say their Russian teammates Natalia Mishkutenok and Artur Dmitriev should have won instead–they made no mistakes–but this sport is so subjective. I am too biased in favor of Gordeeva and Grinkov, so I go with legendary coach John Nicks and say that they won fairly.

And if for some reason I want to make myself very sad, I will watch a video special on Sergei’s tragic heart attack and death in 1995. He was 28, she was 23.

Lately, all of my conversations with Jessica, my best friend, circle back to figure skating–the corruption of judging, the artistic shortcomings of so many of the top skaters, and Patrick Chan failing to deliver. It is tiring and more than enough of a reason to take refuge in John Curry’s elegant lines, Peggy Fleming’s delayed single axel, the edge and speed coming out of Robin Cousin’s double axel and Dick Button’s commentary.

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2 Responses to Olympic Figure Skating Time Machine

  1. Joyce says:

    I think part of it is that we are reaching the outer limits of what is physically capable technically (I was reading an article about this, like physically, we are pretty much maxed out in terms of jumping). And so, because we are at this “frontier” we lose a lot of the ease and smoothness. Also, as you touched upon, the technical aspect is more prevalent…figure skating is a sport and not an art, although there is artistry involved, and it seems it wants to define itself in terms of athleticism more and more.

    • claisly says:

      Absolutely, and this post was less about contemporary figure skating’s shortcomings than it was about how much I appreciate classic figure skating. These skaters were at top of their class in terms of technical prowess, but combined it with great artistry and style. I think Gordeeva and Grinkov, in particular. They did quad twists at the beginning of their career. But beyond that, as one competitor said, if you listened to their skating, it was silent. That’s quality.

      There are modern exceptions, people who can get points under the new system and still have a beautiful programs: I hope Jason Brown, with the quad under his belt, wins the next Olympics. Patrick Chan was also an exception but he failed to deliver in these Olympic games. His first coach was a 90-something legendary Canadian coach who made him practice stroking for something like 30 minutes each day, at least. Akiko Suzuki is also artistic and emotive and was a surprise winner at this year’s Japanese nationals. So it’s possible. It’s just not common.

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