I enjoy following politics and sometimes, you can only digest what’s going on in the government with the help of people like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and in Canada, Rick Mercer. Mr. Mercer has a great youtube channel where he uploads entire segments of his show and this week, this showed up in my subscriptions page:
In the video, Rick Mercer’s skit touches on a few facets of figure skating that puzzles Olympic viewers and devoted figure skating fans alike. Consequently, I thought I’d go back into a Skating 101 mode and talk about a few of the things that he mentions in the video. For hard-core figure skating fans, you probably know this and if you have anything to add, please share your insights in the comments. For those who aren’t as familiar with these ideas, please read and share!
Coaching Multiple Competitors at Once
“I currently coach 72 countries and I have all the jackets.”
If you aren’t reading Canadian news, there’s been a bit of a fuss lately in the media when Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue revealed that they felt that coach Marina Zueva may not have been on their side this season (see article here), since she also coaches their archrivals, Meryl Davis & Charlie White. It’s true that both teams have stood at the top of the World and Olympic podium but true blue figure skating fans know that the real Queen of ice dance is neither Tessa or Meryl but Marina Zueva. As for the fact that Marina coaches several teams, well… it’s standard practice in the figure skating world.
If you think about it logically, there are probably very few people in the entire world who have the knowledge of the sport, business and teaching skills to become a figure skating coach. That number becomes even smaller when you need figure skating coaches at the elite level. As a result, you often see the same coaches for a lot of the top skaters in the sport. However, when this happens, reality and money steps in and becomes a bit of an issue.
The world of contracts between coaches, choreographers and their students isn’t exactly an open space but we know that for some of the elite coaches, they not only charge a fee based on the time they spend with their students but they also earn a certain a certain percentage of their students’ earnings. From a business standpoint, it makes sense for a coach to invest his or her time in a team who has a track record for being successful. After all, being on the podium gives you prize money and more importantly… endorsements (aka the biggest source of money a skater can get). Consequently, it’s not surprising to see two teams coached by the same person but with programs that are markedly better or worse depending on where they stand in the figure skating echelons.
An example of this can be seen this year with the teams under Virtue & Moir and Davis & White’s former coach and choreographer, Igor Shpilband. Many fans noted that the American team of Madison Chock & Evan Bates seemed to have gotten somewhat trashy programs this season (though some suspect that it may be because Shpilband in general lacks the more refined taste that his former coaching partner, Marina Zueva had) compared to the joyous and more elegant free dances by European teams, Nathalie Pechalat & Fabian Bourzat and Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte. The disparity in the quality of programs makes sense if we assume that Shpilband saw that Chock & Bates were not going to overtake their American teammates, Davis & White, and that they would also be unlikely contenders for an Olympic bronze medal. As for the two European teams, both teams have been doing well in the past two seasons and have stood on the World podium in the past, unlike Chock & Bates. Even if they (and any other team, really) couldn’t catch up to Virtue & Moir and Davis & White, they still had a good shot at the Olympic bronze. With this information, it’s not surprising that Shpilband would focus his attentions and efforts to the success of the two solid European teams under his guidance.
Then again, what happens when you’re the coach of the best in the world? Or at least, two sets of competitors who are at the top but are on pretty much the same level? Well, unfortunately, I would have to say that money will likely play a role in deciding who gets to be on top. We can look at the example of Brian Orser who coaches the current men’s Olympic Champion, Yuzuru Hanyu as well as the Spanish phenom, Javier Fernandez. Both students are very capable figure skaters but there is one huge difference between the two competitors that has little to do with their ability: Yuzuru is from Japan, a country with a skating federation that has recently become politically powerful and well, wealthy. From the 2000s onwards, Japan has established itself as a single skating powerhouse and figure skating shows have become super popular in that country, generating revenue (I mean, we have an entire ISU-sanctioned competition based in Japan – the World Team Trophy – as a result). Compare that to Spain who doesn’t have a lot of history in figure skating, with Javier earning a lot of the first accolades for that country. From that, we can assume that the Spanish skating federation doesn’t quite have the revenue or the political power to match the Japanese federation. The money comes into play when a skating federation can provide better funding to a skater for the fees they incur when participating in the sport. With that being said, we can guess where Orser would focus his efforts. Of course, if you ask coaches if there’s a conflict of interest or if any of this influences their coaching, they’ll respond with a negative but it doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to think that these sorts of things come into play when a coach decides how they will work with their students.
As for Marina Zueva’s top two teams? Well, both Davis & White and Virtue & Moir have been successful in the past Olympic cycle BUT Davis & White have won more competitions in the past two years and then, this might be a factor to consider…
In the Olympic cycle leading up to Vancouver, Davis & White did not have as many endorsements or as much media attention. However, I had a feeling that they had a ton of that this year especially when this pops up in my stats. The following a screenshot taken of the top 5 most popular posts on this blog taken when this post was written:
I can tell you now that the interest for the Tessa Virtue look-alike post came in sporadic bursts in random intervals. Some days, that post would pop up unexpectedly in the list of the most read posts of the day. The interest in the look-alikes post for Meryl Davis however, only began during the Sochi 2014 Olympics. I don’t have full access to the American media but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were on a ton of ads, TV talk shows and the news quite often leading up to Sochi. And with this much interest in Meryl & Charlie, well, we can speculate what that means…
So, as the interviewer asks, “Don’t you find that your allegiances are split?”
The answer is, well, yes but there’s so much more that comes into play. Fame is a fickle friend, as is your confidence and in a sport where injuries occur so often, things can change quickly. We’ve seen Yuna Kim come out of a nation with no major figure skating history and establish a one woman dynasty and a new market of avid figure skating fans. We’ve seen Patrick Chan succeed with full support from Skate Canada, endorsements and the full attention of a little-known coach and yet falter and let the Olympic gold slip through his fingers. Twice. As Kurt Browning likes to say about the skating world, “Ice is slippery.”
The Judges’ Backgrounds
“In the last two competitions, I was two of the three judges. […] Well, I run [the International Ice Dance Federation] out of my basement. I’m the president and treasurer.”
During the debacle that were the results of the Olympic ladies competition (you can read my thoughts on it here), Alla Shekhovtsheva, a Russian figure skating judge gained quite a bit of infamy for hugging Adelina Sotnikova, a Russian skater who did well in the competition and for well… being the wife of Valentin Piseev, the president of the Russian skating federation. This raised a lot of eyebrows in the media since many figure skating commentators, past champions and devout fans (including me) were confused about how on earth Sotnikova managed to win and with a score that was 20 points above her season’s best.
As fellow reader, and personal friend, Ay-sa points out, it’s not unusual for high ranking officials of national figure skating unions to be judges. However, even if this is common, I think we should seriously think about whether or not this is an acceptable practice. National skating federations exist to provide funding and support for their own competitors. If you’ve watched Tessa & Scott’s reality show, you’ve probably seen Mike Slipchuk, President of Skate Canada (though I don’t think he’s a judge) come into Canton to talk to Tessa & Scott about the Sochi Games. Some of the major skating federations (Canada, the U.S. and Russia) hold training camps just before the competitive season starts so that skaters can show their programs to international judges and get feedback. In short, each skating federation has a vested interest in helpings its elite skaters succeed, especially since these federations need to accountable to their sponsors, whether that be their national governments or corporate sponsors.
With that in mind, we should seriously ask if there is a conflict of interest when a high ranking official (or their relative) judges a competition in which they have skaters with who they have invested a lot of money in. Because right now, it seems as if there’s always some sort of disagreement with the judging every season (some worse than others) and it’s not really a problem with the new judging system (the IJS) but how the judges are using it. It’s upsetting to hear that technical specialists might have been overly lenient with a certain skater or that the program component scores have been over inflated for someone else. As someone with some experience with program evaluation, I can see that the IJS is actually quite sophisticated in its attempt to produce an objective measure of a skater’s performance compared to the old 6.0 system. Yet, when the judges misuse the new system, it puts the IJS into question but even worse, it puts the integrity of the entire sport into question, especially after the Salt Lake City scandal, which really isn’t all that far back in the past.
The Strange World of Figure Skating
In the end, I think Rick Mercer’s skit is a good segue into the murky world of figure skating – a sport that composed of extreme athleticism and ostentatious pageantry. I’m not sure if there’s any other sport with this much drama, politics and feelings involved. In a way, the murky depths of the figure skating world may be just as mysterious as the intrigue within Stephen Harper’s inner circle – though I’m sure that all these figure skating programs are a lot easier to watch than Question Period at Parliament Hill.
I wonder what Mr. Mercer would say if I told him that I read figure skating results the same way Katniss viewed her sponsor gifts from Haymitch in the Hunger Games books.
What are your thoughts on Rick Mercer’s skit and the strange, strange world of figure skating? Please tell me in the comments!
~The Rinkside Cafe