Monday, January 31, 2011

Visiting The Dead: Compulsory Figures

In the world of traditional Catholics, the loss of what is now known as the Extraordinary Form was keenly felt in a Church gone crazy as it threw aside the old ways in favor of the new.

In the last half of the twentieth century, that phenomenon was not restricted solely to the Church. Even in the world of sports, things changed, not necessarily for the better. In baseball, the mound was lowered and the designated hitter was introduced. In basketball, the skilled teamwork of bygone eras was replaced by a more free-flowing style that was perhaps more entertaining, but at the expense of basic fundamentals.

So it went in the world of figure skating. Figure skating had for a long time been composed of two elements, the compulsory figures and the free skate. The free skate is of course what we see on television today, men and women skating around at various speeds, performing jumps and spins throughout. Compulsory figures was a portion of the competition that involved the drawing of figures on the ice with the edges of the blades of one's skates. The figures' exactness in terms of how they were made and their shape were judged and marks were given. Watch the video below, a clip from coverage of the 1988 Winter Olympics at Calgary, Canada for more information along with interviews on the change going on in the sport as the idea of removing compulsory figures from international events was first considered.

Over time, the figure skating changed as the free skate gained in importance, especially with the advent of television coverage of premiere events. Compulsory figures did not translate well in the medium as the above clip demonstrates (though by the late eighties, much had been done to make it as appealing as possible); audiences watched the jumps and spins of the free skate and then were left confused by the compulsory figures and the winners of competitions who excelled at the latter and beat the favorite of the general public who watched for the skaters who excelled at jumping and spinning.

The clip below from a documentary on the 1972 Winter Olympics at Sapporo, Japan happens to document not just the games themselves, but the turning point for the sport of figure skating. The first skater shown, Beatrix Schuba of Austria, is considered to be one of the greatest compulsory figure skaters ever. The second skater shown, Janet Lynn of the United States, was known to American audiences for her free skating ability.

Schuba received a 5.0 for her figures, a high mark that was what I have read extremely rare at senior international events and placed first. Lynn was tentative as the clip shows so well (more on the second video later) and placed fourth. The situation was reversed though for the free skate as Lynn placed first and Schuba seventh. Due to the weight given compulsory figures, Schuba won the gold medal and Lynn the bronze. After that result, a new short program was introduced and the weight of compulsory figures was slowly reduced over the years until in 1990 they were removed from international competitions altogether.

Today, compulsory figures have been largely forgotten by the viewing public and in the skating community at large as well, though there is debate in some circles as modern skaters are seen by some as having lost the skills needed for fundamental footwork that even the mediocre compulsory figure skaters of yesteryear displayed in their jumps and spins due to their training in the discipline. Whether this is actually true, I cannot say, not being an expert myself, but it stands to reason that something has been lost.

Having started to watch curling during the Winter Olympics a few olympiads ago and having watched the clips above, could there be an audience for compulsory figures, if not as a component, then as a sport unto itself? Certain people are willing to sit through curling, thought by others to be exceedingly boring, not because they are well versed on the ins and outs of the sport, but due to the human drama unfolding on the ice. Especially on television with the close-ups of the participants, viewers can get a very good sense of the tension of the back-and-forth match of wits and skill. The second clip above demonstrates that there certainly was tension in compulsory figures. With high-definition televisions and modern technology demonstrating the sport, I would suggest that the viewing experience today would be far different from all those years ago.

This obviously isn't a blog dedicated to the sport of figure skating and this post is pretty much for me alone, but it's something I have thought about and wanted to share. Make of it what you will.

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