Saturday, February 13, 2010

Day 2: (Re)Figured Skating UPDATED

UPDATE: The Dick Button (during NPR interview posted today) agrees with me (basically). Although my point about deductions may be off base, my discussion of the results of the scoring system seem to be on point (if you'll pardon the pun):
"We have to remember that this is a judging system based on points," Button said. "It's the point value that counts [for] each of the individual moves."

The biggest point values come with high-scoring jumps, Button says, so skaters don't take the time for lingering and fluid grace on the ice. Thus, Button predicts, they are unlikely to inspire the kind of innovation he brought to skating.

"They're doing the same moves over and over and over because that's what they get the points for," Button says. "And there isn't enough emphasis put on ... the performance level, the [elegance] level, the music, the interpretation."
Much thanks to my dad for pointing me to this. Hear the complete interview here and read excerpts here.

I want to state up front that I do not much care for figure skating. That being said, I want to carefully chart my opposition lest readers attribute ungenerous or false motives. In so charting my opposition, I implicitly say a few things about rhetoric.

First, I find figure skaters to be amazing, well-trained, dedicated, and athletic bodily artists.

Second, my opposition is not predicated upon some knee-jerk, macho reaction against sequins. For instance, I think this is awesome.

My opposition has to do with the how the sport is cultivated by its judging system. In short, the event has become the Olympic equivalent of the educational phenomenon of “teaching to the test.” And, in Olympic figure skating, it is the worse kind of test. As I understand it (note the caveat), the scoring is predicated, in large part, upon deductions. While this may certainly misrepresent the full nuance and complexity of the scoring system, I am ultimately talking about how it strikes me as a casual viewer. Skaters are punished for mistakes rather than rewarded for successes. Because of this scoring system, and the narratives it spawns on the part of commentators, figure skating becomes about not making mistakes: every jump is appreciated in terms of “stuck landings.”

This is further compounded by another aspect of the scoring system: it is highly rationalized, and it tellingly involves instant replay. The judges can review the particular aspects of each component at an amazing level of detail: “The technical specialist uses instant replay video to verify things that distinguish different elements; e.g. the exact foot position at take-off and landing of a jump.” This is all fine and good for a system designed to be objective and to curb abuses of this sort. It is, however, a terrible system for praising and blaming an artistic performance. When judges can explicitly divorce the technicality of a move from the fluid context of that move (to make the dynamic static), then the performance, as art, must necessarily suffer.* This is likewise true, for me, of gymnastics. I am sure that the balance beam is the perfect stage for artistic enactments of bodies; however, I watch primed to spot wobbles and shaky landings.

I do not claim that figure skating lacks artistry or artistic merit. I assume that most in and around the sport would defend it against the “charges” I here level. I would say, however, that the emphasis on objectivity and technicality must necessarily cultivate the performances and the performers themselves, in addition to mediating how viewers experience the event. Rules are not merely added on to sports; rules cultivate sports and the athletes who compete in them. For instance, this. In conclusion, I feel that in figure skating this cultivation errs on the side of the static and the technical at the risk of erasing the performance as dynamic and artistic.

*I recognize the problem of decisively separating the artistic from the technical. Art is itself a function of technique. I am focused here on the issue of ecology and balance. How carefully tuned are audiences to both aspects of the performance and when are they moved too far in one direction? Back

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