‘Ice skating isn’t a sport.”
Those words are familiar to me. I ice skated for eight years, starting in singles and eventually moving to ice dancing, and if I had landed triple jumps as often as I hear that phrase, my face would be on a Wheaties box by now.
But what exactly qualifies ice skating as a sport? After all, there are no touchdowns to score, no clocks to time. Although one can disregard the naysayers who simply feel sequins have no place in the world of sports, it’s harder to defend the subjective judging system that all too often results in questionable outcomes.
To answer this criticism, let’s examine the definition of the word “sport.” According to Webster’s New College Dictionary, a sport is “a specific diversion, usually involving physical exercise and having a set form and body of rules.”
Skating meets that definition. Frigid temperatures mean skaters may not sweat as much as other athletes, but it still demands endurance, strength, balance and flexibility. Winning skaters must not only possess the skill to rotate three times in the air and land on a single, thin blade, they must also do so at the end of an exhausting five-minute program. Men bench-press their partners, and women bend themselves into positions that should come with a “Don’t try this at home” warning.
These feats take years of training, and the people who perform them are, unquestionably, athletes.
Ice skating also has a set form and a body of rules. Certain elements are required to win: speed, artistry and an arsenal of triple jumps. A male singles skater who blows a triple axel has as much chance of winning as a long jumper who hops five feet.
Originally, skating had even stricter requirements for excellence. The sport was founded on school figures, figure-eights traced on the ice that judges would grade based on the shape and tracing accuracy. It was as empirical as it gets in a subjective sport, but figures were killed because they couldn’t generate TV ratings.
The little-known compulsory dance portion of ice dancing has suffered a similar fate. Compulsory dances are uniform dances that couples perform to set music. With everyone doing the same steps, it is easy to compare couples’ skills. Unfortunately, this objective part of the competition is weighted at only 20 percent. Why? TV ratings again.
Which brings us to the thorny question of skating’s judging. Although skating has an artistic aspect that will always invite subjectivity, there are enough generally accepted standards of what qualifies as good skating to maintain consistent scoring, if judges adhere to those standards. Spin fast. Skate fast. Don’t fall on your bum.
But what the public has seen in the past week is that judges might not always follow the internally defined standards of “good skating.” Capricious judging has undermined skating’s credibility, because if a sport no longer has a consistent method of determining winners and losers, it can no longer be called a sport.
Skating needs a judging and scoring overhaul if it is to regain its credibility. If it does not receive one, a strong sporting tradition will be destroyed, and skaters will become athletes looking for a sport.