It’s unarguable that both audience and TV have largely abandoned the sport. Equally so is the sport’s need of a paying audience since it lacks both the numerous participants of tennis and the supporting schools of gymnastics. Worse yet, participation is difficult and more expensive than the other two sports. Nor is a solution obvious.
Insignificant and nearly invisible, roller competition offers a cautionary view of figure skating’s likely future without a substantial audience. Roller competitors do the same things performed by figure skaters in single, pair and dance events but never having attracted a significant audience, pay the price of that lack.
Folks recalling the sport’s origin in ballet danseur noble Jackson Haines say: Put the artistry back. The president of the International Skating Union says figure skating is a sport, not a dance. And the public seldom watches anymore. Much as U.S. Christians and atheists in current political discourse, the ‘sport’ versus ‘art’ sides talk past each other, precluding progress.
Today’s figure skating has faced this inner contradiction from its conception. Writers not long past called it an art-sport for lack of a better characterization. A serious New York ballet magazine wrote about it while the sports section of the Los Angeles Times was reluctant to mention its competitions. Throughout those times, the audience remained faithful and even expanded greatly when TV put it before the eyes of more watchers.
But like gymnastics, the sport is judged, not measured and its aesthetic emphasis drove off young men, unwilling to be classed as “sissies” for appearing in spangled tights to music. And most damaging, the subjective nature of judging plus the politics of international competition produced unavoidable paranoia, too often magnified by the media. As politicians anywhere, the figure skating managers had to ‘do something’ about a judging scandal and in effect, reduced the subjective portion of judges’ marks to reduce the room for political maneuver by judges. That in turn, substituted in-air revolutions for entertainment values and first bored, then drove off the audience. What can be done?
The sport may stay on its current, unobserved path and eventually join its roller skating sibling in obscurity. Or it may return to its former art/sport, neither fish nor fowl ambiguity in hope of eventually reclaiming a significant audience. No other obvious alternative appears. The second choice may amount to a death sentence too from the sport’s challenged finances, but at least it offers hope. But such a move will not be easy, either politically or practically.
Noting that ballet has adopted figure skating innovations, particularly pair skating moves, it stands out that ballet dancers have not increased jump revolutions. Those are simply, too difficult and unreliable for a professional product. So if skaters are to pursue serious artistry again, there must be a cap on jump revolutions. A substantially lower cap, too. That will raise the first political resistance.
Giving titles to the most successful in-air twirler may not aid artistry, but it is signal help in avoiding accusations of biased judging. All that is needed to pick a winner is the ability to count. Cutting back to all being able to accomplish most of their jumps will bring better performances at the cost of less unarguable judging. You may have your cake or you may eat it, never both, right? Put another way: You may have figure skating with its judging issues or you may watch it fade.
A significant segment of the sport’s managers and instructors has invested in the multiple revolution model; they will oppose dropping it for obvious reasons. Their arguments will be specious and as transparent as those of say, Keynesian-leaning politicians but they will find listeners.
Another problem will arise from professionals who see a chance to remodel the sport in favor of their incomes. That will be magnified by the declining numbers of ‘amateur’ officials as adult skaters have been a declining demographic in the sport.
And even if the rule makers surmount these obstacles and return more artistic emphasis to the sport, the ability of current coaches to provide skaters with the necessary training in this day of rock and rap has to be questionable. So does the interest of any substantial audience much under the age of say, sixty years. Even those brought up on Broadway and Hollywood musicals are aging. On the other hand, perhaps today’s cruder approximations of dance may satisfy younger audiences.
The sport’s underlying economic and demographic issues have been written of elsewhere; resolving the aesthetic issue will not resolve those. That will resemble a young girl’s attempt to resolve her unpopularity by buying a new dress. But neither will dealing with the other issues restore the missing artistry needed to sustain an audience. The art must be restored but doing so will be no easy challenge. Perhaps the greatest difficulty wil prove to l be finding enough people who care.