Snap Into a Salchow!
Sure, the competitions sometimes have foregone conclusions. And yes, with the constant bitching, weeping, and illegal beating of other competitors with blunt objects, sometimes skating seems more soap opera than sport. But the same could be said of professional wrestling, and nobody calls wrestling fans gay -- although that may be because many wrestling fans also list "gun enthusiast" as one of their hobbies. Hey, at least my guys wait until they're off of national television to start groping each other.
When they're not suggesting that watching figure skating is tantamount to relinquishing all your claims on manhood, those who don't understand the intricacies of the sport usually claim that it's just plain dull. These people aren't wrong per se, except insofar as their opinion differs from mine. They just don't appreciate the subtle joys that skating can bring.
For one thing, when a skater pulls off the rare, truly brilliant performance; when every motion is a fluid, graceful extension of the music; when the jumps seem to hang in the air for much longer than gravity normally allows; figure skating becomes something more than a performing art or a pseudo-sport. It can be profoundly stirring. On occasion, I have been moved to tears. Seriously.
But mainly figure skating is fun to watch because sometimes the skaters suck. And figure skating fans like myself enjoy that, because we are evil.
Not a lot evil, mind you. I mean, it's not like we're watching the Special Olympics and hoping that somebody crashes. It's just that there's just something strangely satisfying about seeing a highly trained athlete collapse onto the ice in a crumpled heap of assorted limbs, sequins, and failure.
Oh sure, when a skater falls, what you hear from the crowd is groans of dismay, but don't be fooled. They're only doing that because they're afraid you might otherwise hear the gleeful cackling inside their head. My girlfriend and I take particular enjoyment in loudly exclaiming, "Ass!" whenever it appears that a meeting with the surface of the rink is imminent. For those of you looking for some side activity to make skating more interesting, this also makes a fine drinking game.
Now before you pass judgment, consider for a moment why people watch the Winter Games at all. The athletes do display impressive feats of stamina and agility, but that will only take you so far with an American viewing audience. After all, is one good luge run really that distinct from another? Maybe your Norwegian roommate Nils can tell the difference, but I'm pretty sure Mavis Johnson of Wichita can't.
No, what actually keeps the people watching is the knowledge that, at any given moment, that speed skater might take a blade to the jugular. That biathlete might catch a stray bullet. That ski jumper might reach the bottom of the hill only to explode in a puff of powder, ski poles, blood, and mucus.
It's this possibility of severe, even fatal, injury that makes the victory of a successful competitor thrilling. And while some may be loath to admit it, the agony of defeat is often just as entertaining. Nobody wants to see anybody hurt badly or killed, but a tibia-shattering high-speed collision is still rip-roarin' good fun.
Which is why I think people who appreciate other winter sports so often malign figure skating. To many, seeing a bitchy teenage girl's butt connect with a sheet of ice is simply not as spectacular as seeing a bobsled shoot out of the track and plummet through the roof of a ski chalet.
That is, unless you realize that there are some things that are harder to run up against than snowpack, or ice, or tree trunks.
Things like a fragile self-image, perched precariously on the belief that you're a great skater.
Things like four long years spent watching your peers enjoy their childhoods, while your every waking hour is focused on training.
Things like knowing that son of a bitch from the Ukraine isn't half as good as you, but he's got a gold medal and all you've got is an ass crack full of shave ice.
You see, the key to appreciating skating is to understand that, to skaters, the seven minutes they're performing is life. When an Olympic figure skater skates a clean program, her life has a meaning. And when she goes down hard, legs akimbo, cheeks splayed across the surface of the rink, you can almost hear her little heart shatter. That's what makes it so dang fun to watch.
In fact, I dare say that the only part of NBC's Olympic Coverage I found more stimulating was the closing ceremony, and then only because I was straining to catch a glimpse of something peeking over the top of skank queen Christina Aguilera's leather hooker pants.
Yet, for all its primal joys, figure skating is a difficult thing to watch on television. That's because televised coverage of skating events carries with it something so unspeakably ghastly that after ten minutes you'll find yourself praying for Johnson and Johnson to break in and tell you how much they care about your kids.
I'm talking, of course, about that godawful commentary. Figure skating commentary is a singularly awful blend of jealous sniping and endlessly repeated clichés, made all the worse by the fact that you can't really mute it if you want to know whether the skaters are in synch with their music. It is my dream that some day the Separate Audio Program feature on my TV will allow me to listen to skating music without skating commentary, in addition to allowing Spanish speaking peoples to enjoy reruns of CHiPs.
The problem is that NBC chose skaters to comment on skating. This is a huge mistake because skaters are wholly incapable of distancing themselves from the competition. To the sympathetic commentator, all is beautiful and affecting, a successful routine being the equivalent of an extended orgasm. To the unsympathetic, any mistake is a personal affront, punishable by the severest form of browbeating.
In case you've been fortunate enough to be deaf during the skating coverage of the last two weeks, allow me to try to describe this dreadfulness to you.
First, you should know your enemy. During the Ladies' Free Skate last Thursday, this was NBC's crack commentating squad:
Sandra Bezic has nothing good to say, and yet, against all advice, says things pretty much constantly. NBC's Olympics web site describes her as "a 1972 Olympian and former Canadian pairs champion." Hardly the most auspicious pedigree, but to hear her talk you'd think gold medals came out of her ass. She currently works as a skating choreographer, additional evidence to bolster the supposition that those that can't do, teach.
Her commentary is solely defined by the fact that she cannot allow a skater to make the tiniest of errors without pointing it out in great detail. Sometimes her remarks take the form of abject shock, sometimes mock disappointment, but whatever the turn of phrase, the message is clear: "In my day, I could skate rings around this pathetic charlatan." Even though she couldn't.
Catch Phrase: "She must be so disappointed in herself."
Scott Hamilton, God bless him, is sincerely one of the best skaters of all time, and clearly an all around great guy. For a man with only one testicle, he has a surprisingly cheery outlook. So optimistic is he that he will sometimes declare a skater to be the clear gold medal winner, moments before the judges give him straight 4.6's and award the gold to the Russian.
Sadly, his overwhelmingly positive attitude does not translate into good announcing, and he spends most of his time countering the bitchy vitriol spewing from Sandra Bezic. When a skater lands a difficult jump, his effusive praise reaches such a fever pitch it sometimes sounds like he's just taken a massive crap in the announcing booth.
Catch Phrase: "Well, he/she/they gave a gold medal performance tonight, and nobody can ever take that away from him/her/them!"
Tom Hammond is, well, I'm not really sure who the hell Tom Hammond is, except that his head is very large and puffy, and he doesn't appear to know very much about skating. He's plainly afraid that if he says something wrong, Sandra Bezic will taunt him caustically. As a result, when he does open his mouth, it's only to unleash some patently obvious truism that couldn't possibly get him into trouble.
As near as I can tell, the reason Hammond is there is that some relatively sentient NBC producer has detected that the skating experience might be enhanced by not having to listen to constant inane commentary. As a result, Hammond periodically tries to get Sandra and Scott to just shut the hell up for a while. It never works.
Catch Phrase: "During this next program, we will keep our commentary to a minimum."
Let's listen in now as these seasoned broadcasting veterans enjoy the final moments of one competitor's long program:
HAMILTON: "What a wonderful display of technical prowess, a beautiful routine skated almost flawlessly!"
BEZIC: "Yes, a nearly flawless program, except for about fifteen minor slip-ups which I will now show you in slow motion several times so that I can point out how disappointing her performance actually was."
HAMMOND: "For you viewers new to skating, slow motion is a technique in which we replay the film at a lower speed, thereby 'slowing' the 'motion'."
BEZIC: "You can see right here, as she's going up for her jump, she slips a little bit off her edge. It's very sloppy, and should lose her some points. All in all, a disappointing program."
HAMMOND: "She'll probably lose some points with the judges if they perceive her as not being very good."
HAMILTON: "But she was still very strong artistically, and she really got the crowd behind her, which the judges love to see. I think she's got a good chance for gold here."
The skater sits waiting for her marks with the expression of someone who is passing a stone. After a few moments, the scores flash up on the screen. Most are mediocre to good, with the exception of the French judge, who has somehow managed to give an artistic mark of -0.4.
HAMILTON: "Wow! That will take her out of medal contention. I don't know what happened there with the judges. In my mind, and, I think, the minds of everyone in this audience, that performance was worthy of a gold medal."
BEZIC: "Actually, those marks are higher than I expected."
HAMMOND: "Next up are the three skaters placed highest after the short program. We understand that you will want to enjoy their performances uninterrupted, so during their programs we will keep our commentary to a minimum."
The next skater begins her program, and there are about fifteen seconds of silence from the panel. During that time, the skater makes two minor mistakes, and you can hear Sandra Bezic actually vibrating in her chair as she battles the urge to express her outrage. Finally...
BEZIC (explosively): "She stepped out a little bit there, that's going to cost her!"
HAMILTON: "Yes, that's a mandatory deduction, but next up is the triple Lutz, double toe combination. Nobody does these better than her. I've watched her do them all week in practice, and it's simply breathtaking. She's getting into position now and... OH YES!! JUST FANTASTIC HEIGHT THERE!!"
BEZIC: "She two-footed that landing."
HAMILTON: "But she got so much height and such big rotation!"
BEZIC: "She's got to be disappointed with her performance right now, as are, I think, the judges, the audience, and generations of her ancestry watching from on high. She'll be lucky to be in the top ten, and luckier still not to be deported when she returns to her home country."
HAMMOND: "This Russian skater's home country being, of course, Russia."
And so on. Perhaps you can see how some people might be turned off by two hours of this sort of thing.
Fortunately, there is a solution that could make figure skating the toast of the next Winter Olympics. I've hit upon a way to make televised skating coverage more accessible to the common viewer, more tolerable to watch with the sound on, and, at the same time, less gay-associative. My idea is this: fire Sandra Bezic and replace her with professional wrestling personality, "Macho Man" Randy Savage.
Oh, come on; just tell me you wouldn't tune in to hear this:
HAMILTON: "Her next jump is one that she does better than pretty much anybody in the universe, and perhaps beyond: the triple Salchow. She goes back for it, and... OH YES!!!!"
SAVAGE: "Awwwww yeeah, she snapped into that triple like a Slim Jim! She just crushed the Russian's medal hopes like a commie grape, brother!"
HAMILTON: "Now a death drop into a camel spin. This performance is shaping up to be one of the crowning moments of figure skating for all time, ever. It's truly something for her coach, her teammates, her toy poodle Floofy, Deney Terrio, really the whole world to cherish and be proud of!"
SAVAGE: "You bet your half-full nut sack, Scott, awwwww yeeah! And speakin' of death drops, my little bald friend, I'm layin' down a formal challenge right here, right now, for Brian Boitano to meet me in the rink this Saturday, if he thinks he's man enough! What you gonna do, Boitano, awwww yeeah?"
And why stop there? We could add some scantily clad cheerleaders to bounce around in the kiss-and-cry area. Instead of little girls picking up the thrown flowers after well-skated routines, how about midgets in face paint... with no skates! And wouldn't you think "Leaping" Lanny Poffo could do one hell of a triple toe loop?
No, no, I'm being ridiculous. Just fire Bezic. And hire midgets. That should be good enough for Torino.
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