Re: Yuzuru’s Gold – Paradigm Shift or the End of an Era?

So as you may know, I wrote a post with something of a recap of the men’s event along with a lot of commentary about the Chan vs. Hanyu race for gold and how the International Judging System (IJS) came into play. Other than the limits of the PCS and whatnot, I think the IJS may also have something to do with what come commentators think is a shift in the world of figure skating.

plushy and yuzu

With Yuzuru’s historic victory as not only the first Japanese but Asian man to win figure skating gold, some articles (here and here) have noted that Yuzuru’s win represent a paradigm shift from East Asian countries learning from the traditional (and Western) figure skating powers of Russia, Canada and the U.S. to the other way around. In one of the articles, Udo Doensdorf, a German sports director, talks about money and how Japanese skaters are well-supported financially, given the interest in the sport in the country. While this is true, I think that we also need to consider is a small coincidence in timing with the one event that changed figure skating forever. That one event, of course, is the 2002 Salt Lake City figure skating scandal. (For a summary of what happened, refer to my Skating 101 post here.)

For Japan (or even other East Asian countries), figure skating medalists at Worlds or the Olympics like Chen Lu and Midori Ito were rare but their very existence and their achievements point to some degree of interest in figure skating back when the Canada, Russia and the U.S. were still dominating the sport. However, around the 2000s, we start seeing quite a few East Asian skaters on the podium with Japan taking medals in singles skating and China for pairs, followed by the one-woman South Korean dynasty that is Yuna Kim. I don’t know the precise details of the history of figure skating in each country but we do know this:

  • Bin Yao, pairs coach extraordinaire, skated in the 1980s and was one of the first pairs teams in China. Despite his own personal failures as a competitive figure skater, he began to develop an excellent pairs training program which budded near the turn of the millennium and really bloomed in Vancouver of 2010.
  • As for Japan, this country is usually touted as a success story and proof of modernization theory – in other words, Japan developed a capitalist economy, modernized and westernized a lot earlier than its other East Asian neighbours, which may explain why Emi Watanabi and Minoru Sano won medals in the ladies and men’s events at the World Championships as early as the 1970s. Japan had a medal drought until the 1980s/90s with Midori Ito and Yuka Sato but then Japanese skaters really took off near the 2000s.
  • Yuna Kim is a bit of an outlier in this argument seeing that she basically started the interest in figure skating in her country single-handedly in the 2000s.

In any case, what we see with China and Japan are two nations who had some interest in figure skating relatively late in the game compared to the Big Three (U.S., Russia and Canada). Interest in figure skating began to gain some momentum in the late 80s/90s and then took off in the 2000s. This could be an indication that the development of figure skating training programs in these countries began in 80s/90s and began to really make a name of itself near the turn of the millennium. While this may seem like a fun fact, it also means that these countries had less experience at the elite level under the 6.0 judging system.

For China and Japan, this late-comer status may have given them a small advantage which they have capitalized on in the past two and present Olympic cycle, which is that they probably had less attachment to the 6.0 judging system which allowed them to adapt to the IJS much faster than the Big Three. As a result, we have coaches from Japan and China train young skaters in a way that would help them succeed under the new system, resulting in a generation that are slightly better prepared for the idiosyncrasies and challenges of skating under the IJS. If you look at the success stories coming from Asia, many of them are teenagers or in their early 20s, meaning that they most likely entered their junior competitive career skating – where things start getting a little serious – solely under the IJS. Many of these skaters moved to North America or Europe to train eventually but their careers began in their home country.

For the Big Three, the transition may not have been as smooth as we see older skaters trying to adapt to this new system. For a while, it seems as if their transition was successful. The young teenagers still had to wait a little bit to dethrone the big names but by the beginning of the Olympic cycle going into Vancouver in 2006, we start seeing these teenagers come into the scene with their youth and their experience under the IJS and taking the skating world by storm.

With 2014 comes the 10 year anniversary of the implementation of the IJS in international figure skating. When this Olympic cycle ends, we will likely see the complete end of an era with the last of the 6.0 skaters retiring. Skaters like Brian Joubert and Evgeni Plushenko are probably the last of the 6.0 skaters in the field and by the next Olympic cycle, we will likely see only youngin’s who have grown up with the new judging system. That is not to say that 6.0 skaters weren’t successful in the new system but with their age and an older skating style (heavy focus on jumps, less transitions and sometimes very personality-based), 6.0 skaters either had to adapt quickly or lose relevance and momentum in their career.

So perhaps we will see the Big Three look towards Japan for best practices in figure skating but this might just be part of an overall process of getting over the growing pains of getting rid of the influence of a skating style from a bygone era to adopting a new one. Although Canada is a bit of an exception to the decline of the big three under the IJS, we are starting to see skaters from these countries flourish again but with younger skaters who have never been touched by the 6.0 judging system.

Do you think that Yuzuru’s win marks a shift in the way countries are improving their figure skating programs or are we just seeing the vestiges of the 6.0 system finally cast off? Tell me your thoughts in the comments!

~The Rinkside Cafe

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Andrea Kobayashi (@AndreaKobayashi)
    Feb 17, 2014 @ 05:13:35

    To really understand the rise of Japanese skaters would mean penetrating the mysterious world of the JSF. 😉 It seems to me that along with Ito, Sato et.al., Honda Takeshi was also a breakthrough figure in JP skating and has a high profile here as a commentator and coach. Recently Japanese skaters have trained OS often at JSF request; Ando, Arakawa, Takahashi, Mao, Oda, Hanyu. It seemed the JSF were very keen on Morozov and Tarasova a few years back until Morosov was moved to Moscow and Mao’s jumps came unstuck and she came back to JP and was matched up with Nobuo Sato (also wanting to be at home for her sick mother I suspect, though the public didn’t know that at the time.)

    I think it has been more contact and work with Nth American and Russian (or former USSR) coaches and choreographers that has helped the rise of Japanese skaters. (Mao has spoken of how she was inspired by the hours of ice dancing videos that Tarasova had her watch.) Also here the “Nagoya effect” is spoken of i.e. many good skaters coming from the same rink – success breeds success. Having sponsors with deep pockets (like Toyota, JOC) doesn’t hurt either I guess. Just my thoughts!

    Reply

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