Skating away with our identity

Charles Gordon June 27 1988

Skating away with our identity

Charles Gordon June 27 1988

Skating away with our identity


Charles Gordon

In your neighborhood, there may not have been riots and demonstrations when the International Skating Union dropped the compulsory figures this month. Several neighborhoods were completely unaffected. But more is at stake than you think. The International Skating Union’s decision could cut to the heart of Canada’s identity as a nation.

Not many people realize it, as yet. They don’t think of figure skating as all tied up with the national consciousness. They just see it as something men in tuxedoes get excited about once or twice a year on CTV. Music plays, skaters in bright costumes twirl about the ice, judges hold up numbers, people cry, and so on. Every four years, there are the Olympics, and men in tuxedoes get very excited. The same procedure is followed, but, if a Canadian wins, there are parades.

That is the popular view, which does not recognize the vital role figure skating plays in the nation’s sense of itself.

For the compulsory figures, a skater goes very slowly along a tiny patch of ice, looking over her shoulder, while men in hats stand just a few feet away, holding clipboards. It is one of the more unusual spectacles in competitive sports, and, until the International Skating Union decided to dump the whole thing, the compulsory figures counted for 30 per cent of a skater’s mark.

There are traditionalists who decry the decision. They may sense the powerful hold figure skating has on the Canadian psyche, or they may just be the kind of people who like things to stay the way they are. What they say is that there is a virtue in skating slowly over a small patch of ice in front of men with hats and clipboards.

They say it demonstrates balance, coordination and patience. The ability to leap in the air at full speed and spin around two or three times before landing cleanly on one skate is meaningless, they say, unless one can also creep along, backwards, tracing a line on the ice.

It is not a view that has many adherents. In most competitive fields, the ability to perform under game conditions in front of the big crowds is what matters. If baseball were run as figure skating has been, 30 per cent of George Bell’s value would lie in the quality of the callisthenics he does before the game begins, as well as his ability to hit

home runs in batting practice. If concert music were run the way figure skating has been, Glenn Gould’s execution of the Goldberg Variations would not, in itself, guarantee him the acclaim that was his due—not unless he was also able to impress the judges with his scales. And, in literature, the judges would want to inspect Mordecai Richler’s supply of sharpened pencils and listen to him recite his ABCs before deciding if St. Urbain’s Horseman was worthy of serious attention.

The essential silliness of the compulsory figures may be the reason more people are not upset that they are being phased out. However, there are those who think that the end of the compulsory figures is the beginning of the end of figure skating. It is this that should have Canadians worried.

For figure skating is the quintessential Canadian sport, more than hockey, more than baseball, more than lacrosse,

The fact is that figure skating fits in well here—we are a nation of judges, hard to impress, quick to find fault

perhaps more, even, than shopping. When the International Skating Union, over there in Switzerland, takes away the compulsory figures, it is tampering with more than it knows.

Because if they take away the compulsory figures, who is to say that they won’t, some day, take away the judging altogether. And judging is what is at the heart of figure skating. It is also what makes it the most Canadian of sports.

In most games, it does not matter what anyone thinks of your performance. If you run the fastest, hit the hardest, jump the highest, shoot the most accurately, cross the plate or the goal line the most—you win. And it doesn’t matter how you look when you do it, or what you have done in the past. In most fields of endeavor, if a person leaps into the air, twirls around a few times, lands on his feet at high speed and keeps on going, spinning and leaping again, while the crowd cheers wildly, the reaction will be “Wow! Look at that!” In figure skating, the reaction is “Uh-oh! Looks like she landed on her inside edge. And her left

arm was a bit bent at the elbow.”

And that’s that. On comes the next contestant, who performs amazing feats and thrills the crowd. However, she offends the commentators because they do not like her music and bores the judges because they have never heard of her before.

Canadians complain about the way the system works, particularly when one of ours is harshly and—it goes without saying—unfairly treated by the judges. But the fact is that figure skating fits in well here. The reason is that we are a nation of judges.

We are hard to impress, quick to find fault. Our first reaction to a new idea is to seek the flaws in it. Our immediate instinct when a Canadian emerges into prominence is to debunk him. Our initial assumption about a new structure is that there must be a better one in the United States. Earlier this month, a member of the Royal Family toured Canada and when he left, the newspapers ran articles about how disappointing he was.

Figure skating judges have nothing on us. We are bored by our entertainers, disappointed with our athletes, exasperated with our politicians, and we are sure we could find something seriously wrong with the new National Gallery if we were only given a few minutes to think about it. The sunset is okay, but we’ve seen better and, anyway, the taxes are too high and the food is much better in Europe.

Lesser people would be moved by someone who can leap in the air and spin around three times, landing on her feet, and leaping again without stopping to take a breath or fill out forms or do any of the other things mere mortals do before leaping. Lesser people would react emotionally to such a spectacle. But being a nation of figure skating judges, we are made of sterner stuff, able to avoid mere enjoyment for the sake of maintaining a properly analytical mood. And when we see someone leap into the air and turn around three times, we are able to keep our composure and say, “Why didn’t she jump into the air and turn around four times?”

Figure skating purists worry that the death of the compulsory figures will be followed, inevitably, by the death of figure skating. When that happens, many Canadians will experience a sudden feeling of emptiness, and not know why.

Charles Gordon is a columnist for The Ottawa Citizen.