The 2014 Winter Olympics: February 20, 2014
-

The 2014 Winter Olympics: February 20, 2014

A mini manifesto: The true enemy is figure skating

Sochi, Russia, is nine hours ahead of the United States' Eastern time zone. I think that's just something we need to make clear right from the start. The amount of time between when events wrap up in the winter games in Russia and when they’re set to debut in primetime on American television is a chunk of time that equals an entire workday’s worth of work. Assuming that NBC has more than just one person operating its extremely expensive digital editing equipment, there are many, many human-hours of work going into each cut of Olympics primetime coverage. The network has miles of footage to work with; as America's exclusive carrier for the Olympics, it can tap into the official feeds from Sochi for most of the competitions. All told, NBC spent over $70 billion (or as we say these days, almost four WhatsApps) to get the rights to these games; the entire television schedule has moved out of the way so that NBC Universal, a subsidiary of the Shinehardt Wig Company, can run the national dialogue for two whole weeks.

The odds are ever in its favor—so how the hell has it screwed it up, again?

This ended up being a very disappointing night of television, given that some of the most important medals of the Olympics were handed out today. Yuna Kim lost to Russian dark horse Adelina Sotnikova for the gold medal in figure skating, for the worst possible reason: a technicality. Sotnikova’s program was slightly less well-executed, but a few points more difficult to accomplish. Yuna Kim is one of the most beautiful skaters on the ice, and yeah, points, okay, but the whole thing is a travesty, and you know it. 

Weirder still was what NBC decided to do with this footage, though. The same day that a groundbreaking new halfpipe competition award had its final competition—the same day that women’s hockey faced off for the gold-medal match in the U.S.-vs.-Canada match—NBC still decided to load this anticlimactic skating competition as the last 90 minutes of its primetime coverage, complete with pre-produced videos with skating montages and dramatic music. Meanwhile, women's hockey got about three minutes in the opening half-hour of the broadcast—and yo, that was a dramatic game. (The U.S. and Canadian women’s teams are each other’s only real competition, so their rivalry is fierce. And Canada came back from 2-0 to tie the game in the last five minutes of play and then beat the U.S. in sudden-death overtime. That is a goddamn game.)

NBC, of course, chose figure skating over the rest because the women’s figure skating free skate final is one of the Winter Olympics’ most-watched events here in America. It's a night that has some of the highest stakes for the network, in terms of ratings. And even without an American in the race for gold—fresh-faced Gracie Gold was only ever in the running for bronze, and no one else on Team USA could have beaten her—women's figure skating is a captivating event.

But figure skating is a terrible, capricious mistress.

I am, as you may have heard, a huge fan of the sport—mostly just from the Olympics, though when I was kid I'd watch the intervening contests, too. (And also, maybe the Ice Capades.) I am not alone. There is something very captivating about both the raw power and the assumed delicacy of figure skating—and, like gymnastics, American audiences seem to expect that feminine feats of strength be paired with sparkly tight leotards and obscure, subjective scoring systems. Both sports are also the kind that spark loyalties, controversies, and frustrated rage—the results always feel unfair, even though the commentators try to explain the scoring metrics. It always seems like some young woman who has spent her entire life mastering a sport has been arbitrarily ranked over or under another for reasons passing understanding.

My theory is that the reason it’s so compelling to watch figure skaters win or lose is because this perceived total unfairness feels, at times, like the total unfairness that is part and parcel of being female in a male-dominated society. (The reason the sport is so highly rated is primarily because a lot of women watch it.) In skating, there is a mysterious hierarchy at work, and a grading rubric that is Byzantine to the point of incomprehension. Winning is all but impossible, because it’s not that figure skaters are fighting to beat someone else on the ice—they’re actually fighting to achieve an unfair standard of perfection. The specter of “the perfect score” looms over any routine, even one as flawless a routine as those that medaled tonight. You can not lose, but you can’t really win, either.

That's one of the reasons, too, that losers in figure skating are so much more upsetting to me than losers in other sports—because they are confronting a dawning realization that this whole life they’ve lived is a lie. The first person that springs to mind is Michelle Kwan, perhaps the best skater of her era, who spent three consecutive Olympics chasing a gold medal and never won. She was always so close. But there was always someone who could edge her out—competition doesn’t always favor the best, although it does sometimes. And there was always something so tragic about Kwan's story—she put in the work. She had done it for long enough. It was her time. The look on her face after she lost was the one of confusion and inadequacy, the kind that comes when you realize that the rules of the game you were playing were totally rigged, and not in your favor, either. It’s disenfranchisement, and it comes to all of us. It surprises me not at all that most of the top skaters tonight essentially sobbed at some point after their free skate was over (my count was Mao Asada, Adelina Sotnikova, and Yuna Kim, with a possible Carolina Kostner thrown in there). 

But tonight—tonight was one of the more egregious examples of how frustrating and even broken competitive figure skating feels. Figure skating is not dancing, we know that: Ice dancing is even a thing people know about now. The commentators are often cautious to warn the viewing audience that what “looks good” is not necessarily what’s going to win awards. (Here is the exhaustive list of criteria for judging international figure skating. It is endless.)

By now, the conclusion being drawn is somewhere between resignation and accusations of foul play. It's unreasonable; it’s really not Russia that is at fault here, but figure skating. (Though an online petition challenging the ruling has received over 1,000,000 signatures.) Did Adeina Sotnikova really earn that score she got? Who the fuck knows, right? She hopped out of a jump—but the jump was harder than Yuna Kim’s jumps, so she still wins. Fine. Whatever.

What's more troubling to me is that we choose the impossible standards of figure skating over the brawling, straightforward competition of hockey for our women’s sports—and it is women, largely, who are choosing it. I think I see why, as I said above. But it still makes me a little sad. Is Yuna Kim going back to Korea finding herself wanting? Are any of these women? I hope not. Anyone who watched Kim skate could not have any doubts about her mastery of the sport. She is arresting, graceful, and poised in a way that no other skater out there was today. And even though I fall for it, I am not interested in naming Adelina Sotnikova the enemy here, just as it’s not Tara Lipinski who was Michelle Kwan’s enemy in 1998. The real competition is with something nameless, much larger, and much more threatening than another woman looking for gold.

More TV Club