Monday, March 26, 2007
1961 US Figure Skating Team
boarding flight to
I took just enough time out over the weekend from some projects, ferrying the kids to & from their jobs, fencing & theater, plus attempting to write up some end-notes for The Alphabet to watch the women’s competition of the World Figure Skating Championships, held this year in
Neither would, tho they were about to introduce the years of gloom for figure skating, first with the brouhaha caused by Harding’s husband’s inept attempt to cripple Kerrigan at the 1994 U.S. championships, then a series of international judging scandals that forced the international federations to adopt a far more complex – nearly impenetrable – point system that appears to have taken the favoritism and vote-trading out of the judging process.
The actual inheritor of Yamaguchi’s throne turned out to be another Asian-American, Michelle Kwan, who, between 1994 and 2005, won the U.S. championships nine times, finishing second the three other times, won the World’s five times, finishing second three times, and third once. While Kwan hasn’t skated competitively since withdrawing from the 2006 Olympics, she has not said that she has retired. By the time of the 2010 Olympics, Kwan will be 29, the same age at which Maria Butarskaya won the European championships in 2002. But the real story here is that skating has simply passed Kwan by. She has never won under the new scoring system, which assigns points and difficulty levels for everything, making jumping a far more important part of the sport than the graceful aesthetic spirals that are Kwan’s trademark move.
Kwan, for all of her dominance of the sport, never has won the Olympics, finishing second in 1998, third in 2002. During this same period, no other female skater matched Kwan’s overall dominance, tho Irina Slutskaya of
During these years, the sport as seen far too many one-hit wonders, skaters who won gold at the Olympics or other major events, then quickly turned pro & cashed in on one of the touring ice shows where skaters can make millions without ever having to do a jump more difficult than a double. The last four Olympic champions – Oksana Biaul, Tara Lipinsky, Sarah Hughes & Shizuka Arakawa – are not skating competitively any more. Biaul, whose 1994 Olympic long program is still the single best performance I’ve ever seen, never competed again, unless you count an appearance on Celebrity Poker.
All of this points up the relationship between competitive skating and global capital. Skating is a sport that requires an enormous investment early on, which privileges hegemonic nations. Either the state pays by taking toddlers into national training academies, as I believe may be still done in the People’s Republic of China, or else parents put down 50 grand a year, year after year, often moving from state to state in search of the right coach in the hopes that little Tiffany will grow up to become more than just another ice rat. Not every parent can do that, so it helps to live in a society where enough of them can.
Thus it’s not an accident that seven of the last 14 Olympic champions in women’s skating have been Americans. Americans have won the silver six times during that span, bronze five times. Combined, that’s 43 percent of all possible medals since 1956 in a sport in which several dozen nations compete. But since women’s skating was brought back into Olympic competition in 1920, only two women have won gold more than once, Sonje Henie of
So anyone who chooses to compete on a continuing basis – as did Yamaguchi & Kwan did & as, apparently, reigning U.S. champ Kimmie Meissner is choosing to do – has an enormous long-term value for the sport in this country, even if only in attracting small children & their parents into one of America’s dwindling number of ice rinks to get some exercise.
Because the global geography of women’s skating clearly is changing. Skating commentators for years now have been talking about the “coming wave” of Chinese & Japanese skaters and finally it’s arrived. Chinese skaters in particular have been strong in the pairs competition now for several years, having won 12 medals at the Worlds since 1999, seven by the couple who won this weekend, Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo. During that same period,
But it is women’s singles that is the focal point of competitive figure skating and this weekend saw Japanese skaters finish first, second and fifth, with
So the long view of women’s figure skating would see its center moving from the countries where it was long an indigenous local sport, such as Sonje Henie’s Norway, to the nations at the center of the Cold War – The Soviet Union, the U.S. and Germany – and now toward the economic center of the next century, Asia. One wonders if Americans register this indicator of the shift in global relations for what it signals.
Empires are notoriously fragile constructs and there is no question that the
There are a lot of conflicting indices of hegemony in the contemporary world, international sport being pretty close to the bottom when it comes to explanatory importance. But at the same time, it is an index and the message is reasonably clear. “Our” time, if by our we mean the big rubber finger that reads “
Five hundred years from now, it would be very interesting to see at what moment historians would identify the peak of the American empire, the moment beyond which the various roads downhill began to overtake those still on the rise. My guess is that it would be sometime around 1961, when the long post-World War 2 expansion had just a few more years to run, and when John F. Kennedy took over from Eisenhower. The Eisenhower-Kennedy transition represents the moment when the ability of the
Depending on which index you use, the
One could argue, in fact, that our current experiment in government by malevolent incompetence is a serious symptom of what happens to any hegemon as it tends downward. The former Soviet empire ditto. The problem is that countries that are visibly sliding in the wrong direction are often prey to the worst impulses of an increasingly desperate population. It’s not a formula for optimism.
Coincidentally, 1961 was also the only year since the end of the Second World War when there was no world figure skating championship. The competition that year was to have been held in
In 2007, it’s increasingly self-evident that the