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Sadly, it seems the Olympics wouldn't be the same without a figure skating judging controversy.
This time it's yesterday's surprise gold medal by the four-time Russian national champion Adelina Sotnikova, who as skating great Brian Boitano said, literally "jumped her way" to the top of the podium, beating the artistically better skater, South Korea's Kim Yu-na, who won the gold four years ago.
Many skating insiders are criticizing the scoring system's anonymous judging. Two-time Olympic champion Dick Button says the judging system is deeply flawed because each national skating federation chooses its judges.
One of the judges in yesterday's competition was accused of fixing results in the 1998 Nagano games. Another judge is married to the general director of the Russian figure skating federation.
Button, who is out with a new memoir, "Push Dick's Button: A Conversation on Skating from a Good Part of the Last Century--and a Little Tomfoolery" (excerpt and slideshow below) joins Here & Now's Robin Young to discuss the judging.
His thoughts on yesterday's upset
"I have absolutely no complaint whatsoever about this. In fact, I think it is one of the best occurrences to happen in the world of skating. I’ll tell you exactly why: because if, maybe, enough people are outraged by not the fact of who they chose, but the judging environment that was there."
"Look, I don’t blame the marking that was there. I don’t blame the result. I just hope that there’s enough complaint about it that the real matter will erupt. Finally, the sport should get itself in order."
On what he considers a flawed scoring system
"Nobody stops to realize that it isn’t the figure skaters that control this, and they say, ‘Change the judging system.’ You aren’t gonna be able to change the judging system unless you change the structure. The [International Skating Union] is controlled by a speed skater. Guess who it was that created the new judging system? It was a speed skater. He wants everything to be measured as it is, and why does he want everything to be measured? Because, very clearly, he doesn’t want a new scandal, like Salt Lake. So he now runs the ISU until 2016, which is too late to do anything of major change before the next Olympics. By the way, there are many good things in this judging system, many good things, and many good things in the old system. But the two have to be carefully and cleanly brought together, the good out of each and the bad out of each."
On his unapologetic stance on Olympic judging
"I have loved the world of skating for too long to count, and I am wearing my sassy pants today. When you get to be my age, you can say what you want, when you want, and the heck with whether anybody else likes it or not!"
By Dick Button
Come On In Folks!
The Door's Open!
If you look forward to watching national, world, or Olympic skating events, then please come and sit on the couch next to me and we will watch them together (I promise not to eat all the popcorn!) and we can talk about the many things of interest.
When it comes to watching skating, as the saying goes, it’s all “in the eye of the beholder.” One program excites us; another leaves us cold. But what exactly are we watching? An elite skater moves through a competitive routine at a pace so quick that the virtuosity on display (or not!) can be difficult to see, let alone consciously register and evaluate. Blink, and the move can be over.
That is why I am starting this conversation—to help guide you on what to watch. Forget the twirling fannies with their ruffles (if you can!). There are so many elements in skating that can capture your eye. But now that you are here on my couch and turning the TV on to the skating event, I would urge you to keep your eye on how the blade meets the ice, where you can see that an edge is a lean of the body, and then concentrate on everything that comes with it: the music, the costumes, the story that the skater is telling, and of course the points that are necessary in order to win.
Let’s talk then about some of the elements that will make watching figure skating a little more understandable and fun. For example: what to look for in a skater’s entrance . . . what centers a spin? . . . is there a jump in that jump? . . . costume delights and disasters . . . why there are no “figures” in figure skating . . . a “crash course” on the new rules . . . and lots more.
The history of skating over the last century is full of incidents both on and off ice that shed light on what might happen again at national, world, or Olympic events—incidents that are likely to surprise us, confuse us, or make us laugh—or that are so outrageous that they might blow our minds.
The last century? Good grief, are there any of us left from the 1948 Olympic Winter Games in St. Moritz or the 1952 Games in Oslo?
So remember, forewarned is forearmed!
There’s still so much that needs to be clarified and explained, including for me, in this most unexplainable sport of all sports. Unexplainable because, in addition to requiring truly prodigious technical athletic ability, it also demands musical understanding, a sense of history, a feeling of space, a need for choreographic finesse, a concern for haute couture, and a full-blown awareness of what “performance” means.
For more years than I care to count, starting with CBS’s coverage of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games in Squaw Valley (you do the counting!), I have been an on-air commentator for Olympic and World Championships and assorted other funny games for national TV.
The ostensible reason I was there was to guide the audience—“to comment”—on the finer points of the sport, which is why we were called, for better or for worse, “expert commentators”!
How did I get to this position? Easy! There was a vacuum.
The Olympics were new on television, and most sportscasters covering major sports were unlikely to be knowledgeable about figure skating and its rules. But I knew them intimately. Let’s face it, friends on the couch, I had been a two-time Olympic gold medalist, five-time World Champion, seven-time U.S. Champion, and, most importantly, the runner-up in the Regional Subsectional Binman Avenue Juvenile Skating Jamboree.
I competed in my first skating competition at the tender age of thirteen, in the Novice event of the Eastern Figure Skating Championships in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1943. When I told the neighbors what I was doing, they asked, “What’s a figure skating competition?” Certainly there wasn’t any television coverage of the sport at that time. Skating was more or less an activity of folks who skated in the Skating Clubs like those in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, and on outdoor ponds.
But when the 1960 Olympic Winter Games in Squaw Valley came around, television coverage had arrived. CBS bought the TV rights to those Games for $50,000. (Now they cost more than a billion dollars. Could there be any inflation here?)
At that time, it was necessary for a skating commentator (that was me, folks!) to point out the most basic moves. To the average viewer, an Axel was something on a car and a Salchow was just maybe a sick cow.
Today, audiences are inundated with detailed TV commentary, and endless information and opinions are everywhere on the Internet. Most viewers know a great deal about this sport, so these days it’s less necessary to make commentary so basic (doesn’t everyone know that a “flying camel” is not a camel that flies, but a “Button Camel”?). (A fuller explanation will be given later when we have a drink at the bar.)
Figure skating, like everything else, has become much more complex. It might therefore be of some help for all of us to be guided through what can be one of the most complicated sports. I’ve always relied on experts to help guide me through stuff where I don’t know as much as I think I know. (Did I say that?) That includes skating, where I still seek others’ opinions on the rules, choreography, musical interpretation, technical merit, performance, costumes, and many other issues. (Correction! I try never to ask about the costumes of the ladies, because that can be a sinkhole of the most dangerous order.)
By researching the music, the skating rules, and the choreographic background, I understood why British ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean were so wildly successful when they competed in and won the ice dance competition at the 1984 Olympic Winter Games in Sarajevo. Their memorable performance to Maurice Ravel’s Bolero received worldwide attention, was one of the most iconic ice dance programs ever, and changed the face of ice dancing.
But if Torvill and Dean had skated exactly the same program four years later at the 1988 Games, they would not have lasted five seconds—so changed, so controlling, so constipated had the rules become. In place of the freedom to create the choreographic concept called for by the music, heavy restrictions were quickly imposed: there was to be no kneeling on ice; no lying on the ice; official timing began when movement started, even if the skater had not moved a skate; and the music needed to have a clearer melody.
Understanding the whys and wherefores of such changes gives us knowledge—The age-old saying, “Knowledge is power,” should be counterbalanced by the other age-old saying, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” So I hope any comments I make herein will help give greater knowledge and understanding to the viewers of the skating events in the Olympic Games or elsewhere—and may also make me feel like the powerful, puffed-up, old Pooh-Bah that I have become in my doddering old age. (It is not necessary to say I was on my way a long time ago.)
Many times I received irate letters from fans saying I was spoiling their viewing of the skating programs by interjecting my critical comments. But after competing in, watching, dissecting, studying, examining, and researching the fine art of skating and taken on the job of commentating on it, I would have been remiss if I did not critique, explain, and try to guide the viewers.
Frank Carroll, the eminent coach of Olympic champion Evan Lysacek, Michelle Kwan, Linda Fratianne, and many other top skaters, has stated, “You don’t know what it’s like until you have been dissected by Dick Button on national television.” I’m not sure whether that was as a result of my referring to him on TV as, “There’s the old curmudgeon,” but either way, my reputation was firmly established. The truth was that I only got excited about and criticized those skaters who I felt were talented. Honest criticism is born out of a fundamental passion. Honest criticism comes when you recognize talent in someone, and you want that person to experience the sheer joy of doing their best. Talented skaters are the ones who are interesting. So my reply would be, “You know I admire you if I criticize you!”
What I was attempting to provide was an understanding of a position, a point of view, a perception about an element in the choreography or a particular movement in a spin, on an edge, or in a jump. All of these contribute to the creative process that, ideally, results in a memorable performance.
And many times I made a mistake when calling some whippity-doo-dah jump combination. In this Internet age, everyone is knowledgeable and informed. Every statement you make can be criticized mercilessly.
But for anyone who thinks I may pull any punches out of fear of being criticized, let them beware! I’ve spent far too many years watching the Fine Art of Figure Skating and commenting on its wondrous idiosyncrasies to give a rusty hoot what anyone may think of my comments. Throw raw eggs at me if you like.
Unlike the ever-tactful Michelle Kwan (I’m sure I’ll wake up one day to hear she’s been appointed to a key diplomatic post), I would never last a minute as a diplomat.
But here’s my little secret: I love all the epithets that have been tossed my way. Having been called so many imaginative, funny, and sometimes questionable things, I relish the opportunity to share them with you. Some of the best are:
A comfortable old chair
A comic figure with alarmingly muscular legs
A combination of pedagogic schoolmarm and wildly enthusiastic fan
Popeye on Ice
Dispenser of “inane, insane, brilliance”
That eccentric, beloved, octogenarian, Ivy League skating professor
And some comments even I can’t print. Skating is a family sport, after all!
So here we are: you who may once have been skaters (like me) and you, who may never have skated but who got hooked by the lure of this highly flamboyant sport, crammed together on this overstuffed coach with the striped slipcover that is reshaped by endless nights of dogs sleeping on it.
What is the lure of ice? For me it was the moment my brothers took me to Crystal Lake, a pond at the edge of Englewood, New Jersey that looked huge to my six-year-old eyes but that is now divided by Route 80 and much smaller. We also went to Coffin’s Pond (at the foot of the wide lawn spreading down from forbidding nineteenth-century stone houses at the top of Palisade Avenue and right across from the Englewood School for Boys, which I was to attend years later).
What was it that kept us constantly hoping for cold weather and the “red ball” to go up over Crystal Lake? That was where entrepreneurial folks built a warming hut, charged 10 cents for skating and kept the “red ball” flag, a nineteenth-century signal that “the ice is ready” flying from a pole high enough for everyone to see (remember this tradition started in the nineteenth century when there were no telephones or internet, and visual signals were sometimes the best way to communicate).
Was it the cold that invigorated us? Was it the magic of being able to glide across the ice, “sculling” as my older brother George taught me (pulling my skates together and then pushing them apart, first forward and then backwards)?
Was it the ambiance created by music from a 78 record player broadcast over a tinny loudspeaker? The fire on the bank for warming our hands? The marshmallows someone brought, which we put on sticks and scorched in the fire? Was it the freedom of the moment or the pure joy of childhood that we didn’t realize then was the pure joy of childhood?
Was it later the feeling of flying across ever-larger ponds with the wind behind us pushing us along, or the challenge of competition and its technical demands (as in: “I can do anything better than you can”—the idea behind the song that later was sung in Broadway’s Annie Get Your Gun)? Was it the history of the Olympics (I think I knew every story by the time I was ten)? Was it the possibility of an ever-expanding selection of music available and allowable for competition, or the clothes that at first kept us warm or aided our ability to fly, and still later helped us complete the picture we were painting? Was it the theater of ice shows, the glamour and stardom of great skaters, and the fun of comics and vaudeville and even animal acts that had moved onto the ice? Was it the camaraderie of skating and then having Friday night dinner at the Skating Club? Was it the hypnotic flow of skating itself, the realization that “an edge is a lean of the body,” or the exhilaration of being able to move without moving?
Is it the totality of this sport that grips us? The wildness of the costumes, or their elegance, and the things designers can do? Was it Vera Wang designing a white Grecian number for Nancy Kerrigan when she was famously whacked in the knee? Is it the extraordinary things the skaters can do and the enormous range of music that sweeps us along on flying blades—even though we may be glued to the couch?
I suspect that it’s some of these things for all of us and all of these things for most of us.
Whatever it is is why we’re all crammed together on this couch (maybe someone could push the dogs off? They won’t listen to me!) where we are trying, but failing, to stop eating all the popcorn so quickly and impatiently waiting for the blasted commercials to end and the skating to start.
So let’s take first things first and prepare ourselves for what we will see even before anyone starts to fly over that slippery surface.
First: Look for quality of skating: how the skater moves across the ice, and the skater’s edging (remember, an edge is created by a lean of the body).
Second: “Personality” should leap out at us.
Third: Expect the unexpected. The mystery of the judging will befuddle us. The specter of human drama and the misfortune of defeat will hover over all.
Fourth: Try to gain a sense of the rules. Easier said than done! Stay tuned for more in later chapters.
Fifth: Falls are to be expected. They can be fun and humorous but also dangerous and painful. I also hope to explain to you what, under the rules, a fall is—that is, if either you or I have the temerity to think we might know what a fall is in the first place.
Sixth: Expect change. I like to see the change that continually occurs in this sport and to the people in it. The way it develops from one generation to another. It’s like the unruly child with raging hormones who acts up, goes wild, and almost falls overboard—and who then does something so magically different or throws a move that is so technically extraordinary or inventive that all you can do is wonder, “Could I do that?” and forgive every extravagance.
Damn this couch! I would much rather be half a century younger, flying over a glacier or a frozen surface behind the Palace Hotel in St. Moritz with the mountains as a backdrop, underneath the clearest blue sky, and where the cold didn’t make you cold. But nowadays, talking about it and seeing it and watching the great history of this sport unfold in front of us is the next best thing.
It’s easy to be able to see all this right here in my living room. When I was growing up, there was no television and no computers, and the only skating I could see was at the Palace Movie Theater in Englewood (down Palisade Avenue, across the train tracks, and to the right). When I heard something was showing that included skating, I paid my quarter and sat through whatever was playing, just to see the skating in the movie or the newsreel. Then I’d sit through the whole thing over again—the news that Sonja Henie’s Hollywood Ice Revue was coming to New York City’s Madison Square Garden, or a skating movie like Sun Valley Serenade, Suspense, or One In a Million.
I guess the things we get hooked on as kids can sometimes be the things that stick with us and remain a part of us forever.
So, will someone please make a whole mess of popcorn, open the nuts, and mix up a big bowl of guacamole? We need to fortify ourselves for what’s to come tonight as we and the dogs sit too close on this comfortable old couch!
And we’ll certainly sit here again soon, because there will always be skating enthusiasts who will want to see what Jim McKay on Wide World of Sports called “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”
Excerpted from the book PUSH DICK'S BUTTON by Dick Button. Copyright © 2014 by Dick Button. Reprinted with permission of CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
This segment aired on February 21, 2014.
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