What happened to the success of the United States in women’s figure skating? | Launderer’s report
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Russian dominance was expected in Tuesday’s short program. The same was true for the Americans. But if you haven’t followed American figure skating in a while, you might be wondering what happened?
American figure skaters Alysa Liu, Mariah Bell and Karen Chen were eighth, 11th and 13th respectively after Tuesday’s women’s short program. All will pass to the last Thursday, although none are considered medal favourites.
Liu skated the cleanest routine of the three Americans and retained third place after the fourth rotation, in which she and Chen performed. Bell, who skated in the second rotation, crashed during her routine, as did Chen.
But after Kamila Valieva, the young 15-year-old Russian at the center of a doping investigation, performed in the fifth rotation, she moved into first place and was followed by her compatriot Anna Scherbakova in second. Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto is in third place and Alexandra Trusova, the third Russian teenager in the event, was in fourth after falling during her performance.
An American last won the individual medal in 2006, when Sasha Cohen won a silver medal. Sarah Hughes last won gold for the United States in 2002. Since then, the number of Americans watching figure skating has steadily declined.
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In 1998, 6.8 million Americans look at the US Figure Skating Championships on television. Twenty years later, as the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang approached, only 4.5 million Americans watched the national championship.
In January, only 2.34 million viewers watched the 2022 US Figure Skating Championship.
In 1994, the year Tonya Harding’s ex-husband hired a man to hit Harding’s competitor Nancy Kerrigan in the right kneecap with a baton during that year’s national championship, the Olympic short program in Lillehammer , in Norway, starring Harding and Kerrigan became, at the time, the third most watched sporting event in television history, behind two Super Bowls. It’s still the most watched Winter Olympic event, with 126.6 million viewers logging in to see Kerrigan win the silver medal (Oksana Baiul of Ukraine won gold) and Harding’s skate laces snap as she sobbed to the judges for another chance.
Meanwhile, the Beijing Games are likely to become the Least-watched Winter Olympics of all time. NBC, which broadcasts the Games in the United States, warned advertisers in January to prepare for the decline in audiences.
Why are fewer people watching what was once a landmark event and must-see TV?
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It turns out figure skating is actually harder to understand than it used to be, thanks to changes to the judging system that came into effect in 2004 and were fully implemented in 2006. judgment scandal at the 2002 Olympics, when two French skating officials fixed the pair skating competition, allowing a Russian pair to win gold in exchange for Russian judges supporting the French in the ice dance event, forced this change. The International Skating Union (ISU), the international governing body for figure skating, wanted to make this kind of cheating more difficult. They eliminated the old 6.0 scale for grading skaters after their difficulty and presentation were independently assessed.
Now, as part of the International Judging System (ISJ), skaters receive a base score for each element performed – the jumps, spins and gravity-defying step sequences the sport is known for. Then they are evaluated separately for the quality of their execution of each element and for the quality of their skating and performance. And don’t forget the bonuses! A 10% bonus is awarded to any jump element performed during the second half of a skater’s routine.
All of this can be deeply confusing for a four-year-old fan trying to follow an Olympic broadcast, even with its color-coded system designed to show when items land and are rewarded as well. Dick Button, the former figure skater and skating analyst, blame the sport’s drop ratings on the new system in a 2018 interview with CNN’s Ahiza Garcia. “You could hear people in a bar clapping and wondering if someone should have had a 5.7 or a 5.8,” Button said of the old system. “Now a ‘personal best’ of 283.4 points is confusing!”
Button also criticized the ISJ for rewarding difficulty at the expense of clean execution. And indeed, with the rise of quadruple jumps and quadruple combinations, the most difficult skills currently being competed for, it is theoretically possible for a skater who hesitates, or even stumbles, on one to win an athlete with better execution but no quad, according to Alex Abad-Santos in Vox earlier this month.
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When skating became more difficult to understand, viewers stopped trying. And without anyone watching, the sport had less incentive to grow in America. Fewer athletes have stuck with the sport and those that have are not pushing its boundaries.
Tara Lipinski, the surprise 1998 gold medalist who now works as one of NBC’s primetime figure skating analysts, wrote in a New York Times op-ed in 2018 that the judging system’s rewards for risk in terms of difficulty are what allowed Russian women to overtake Americans in the event. Young American skaters, Lipinski said, “have been rewarded not for innovating… but for skating cleanly” in national, but not international, competitions. Meanwhile, Russian skaters took advantage of the point system, “until[ping] the technical difficulty at a very young age,” Lipinski wrote.
Although membership in American Figure Skating has been constant in recent decades, with peaks in the Olympic years, nearly half of its members are under the age of 12. Americans tend to train individuallywithout government support unlike Russia or high level development camps like in Japan. Sport is extremely expensive for Americans, who could spend $50,000 or more per year at higher levels.
Compared to Russia, where there is a deep channeling from junior skaters who trained difficult skills in a centralized system at state expense for years, there are relatively few skaters who hold up through puberty and beyond in the United States. But like Dvora Meyers, writing for FiveThirtyEight, observedit is largely not until racing puberty that the current generation of young Russian skaters are able to do quads.
Valieva, 15, and Trusova and Scherbakova, both 17, all train under Eteri Tutberidze in what Daniel Victor of The New York Times appointed “a skating factory.” Before her positive doping test came to light, Valieva became the first lady land a quad in Olympic competition last week.
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All three Russian skaters use a technique called pre-rotation, twisting their upper bodies in preparation before their feet leave the ice, allowing them to complete the quad (and many also use the same technique for triples). The technique is hard on the back and responsible for the early retirement of many Russian skaters from the sport, said Meyers, who also writes that no skater over 18 has landed a quad. (Lipinsky, who wrote that she was “proud to have played a small role” in pushing skaters towards more difficulty over cleaner execution, was the first woman to land a triple loop-triple loop combination in competition, resulted in a quad, but retired after winning the Olympics at 15 and needed hip surgery before he was 20.)
Liu, now 16, was the first american woman to land a quad jump in competition, in 2019. She was a junior at the time, then went through a growth spurt and didn’t land one in a senior competition. If Liu tries a quad at the Olympics, she could fight for a medal. Bell, 25, the defending national champion, and Chen, 22, don’t tempt them. While their relative longevity in the sport is impressive, the lack of quads likely means none will win a medal.
Between the dwindling number of mature skaters on American rinks and the dwindling number of viewers for the sport at home, the sport of figure skating is starting to look a bit like a cultural relic in the United States. Our competitors, especially Russia, produce medalists who keep the sport fresher, but at what cost? Neither system wins and viewers lose the most.