I should have written this long ago, but words fail me.
I feel like I have gone back to that dark time when Susanna Rahkamo and Petri Kokko skated like the ice was their friend, like there was nothing they could not do with the blade. Yet they never won a world championship. They were from Finland, a country that had no power in figure skating and especially ice dancing. The results didn’t always match what happened on the ice, especially in ice dancing, always the trouble child of figure skating. The medals were for those who had the power to arrange it.
During the season of 1994-95, Rahkamo and Kokko created a quickstep like no other, working hard to stand out from the others, to be noticed and finally rewarded. This dance offered up unusual rhythms – they used a constant beat but would use, for example, the end beats which made it playful, yes they often skated with tongue in cheek. How can you stay sane otherwise? It helped them win the European championships that year and a silver medal at the world championships. And finally: respect. Their dance became a compulsory dance, called the Finnstep. And it became the compulsory part of the short dance at Sochi this week.
The judging system adopted after the judging scandals of the 2002 was supposed to stop the results that didn’t match what happened on the ice. It was supposed to make the results real. After all, IOC vice president Dick Pound threatened to pull ice dancing from the Olympic roster if the sport didn’t clean up results that seemed pre-determined. During the opening ceremonies in Sochi, an official took an oath to promise to judge fairly.
All of it: apparently just words. What’s difficult to swallow about the results of the short dance at the Olympics is not the fact that defending Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are second, but the results just don’t make sense.
Virtue and Moir skated the performance of their lives, easy to see in Moir’s reaction when he did a joyful, spontaneous dance when they finished. When the marks came up, I knew it was over. They weren’t going to win this one. And of course, they were dinged in the Finnstep, receiving a level three, rather than four, although Tracy Wilson on NBC had said they were clean. Of course, they were called for making a mistake. They always are. It’s always something. It reminds me of the Cup of Russia Grand Prix event this year, when suddenly skaters were getting level ones and twos for their Finnstep while the Russian team, Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev, in a fight for the Olympic bronze medal, were the only ones to get level threes. (Nobody got a level four.) They were eight points ahead of Canada’s other talented dance team Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje in the short dance, mostly through their technical mark – a result that astounded other judges not on the panel.
The technical panel had been weak at that event, but their findings are considered a field of play call, something that the Court of Arbitration for Sport wouldn’t touch. The Finnstep is a hard dance to call, because it is so quick. It’s easy to miss something. Yet this panel had decided to be stricter than strict.
And what about Davis and White’s levels in Sochi? They received level four for all of their elements, wrapped up in huge execution and component marks. It seems that every time they set foot on the ice, they set a world record – and they did again in the short dance.
Yet this from Petri Kokko, in a tweet: “Hope [Virtue and Moir] wins. Americans timing off in the Finnstep and restrained even otherwise.” He should know.
And the Americans set a world record? During the team event, a television camera clearly caught Davis and White out of unison going into twizzles. But did those sharp-eyed callers catch it? Apparently not. Are skaters being judged by the same standards?
And then later, from Kokko: “I don’t understand the judging in ice dancing. Virtue and Moir should be leading in my honest opinion.”
If he doesn’t understand it, how can I? How can anybody? Has anybody thought about the drop off of interest in figure skating following the Salt Lake City scandals of 2002?
And by the way, earlier, Kokko had tweeted, thanking Virtue and Moir for “a beautiful Finnstep.”
Rahkamo, who was in Sochi, watching, also tweeted: “Tessa and Scott the best for me. They dance for each other.”
They are not the first to be puzzled by Virtue and Moir’s results in the last couple of years. Legendary Russian coach Tatiana Tarasova told a Russian newspaper that she cannot understand why Virtue and Moir’s “Carmen” free dance of last year did not win. In fact, she does not understand why they did not win the world championships, even after Virtue made a bobble in the twizzles in the short dance. Former world champion Alexander Zhulin said the same.
And get this from a young, upcoming Russia ice dancer, Ksenia Monko: “Personally, the Canadians are more pleasant to me than the Americans. They take the basics more seriously, while the Americans can sometimes be careless. Sometimes they don’t hold moves and let themselves relax in ways the Canadians wouldn’t.”
At the very least, is the emperor wearing new clothes? Is the narrative so strong that judges aren’t even watching? Talk to some dance experts and they will tell you that: Davis and White may have a reputation for speed, but they get their speed through hops, skips – and White sometimes wide-steps, like a hockey player. Virtue and Moir gain their speed (and power) with their edges and their knees, so they look as if they float. Virtue and Moir vary their speed a lot more than the Americans and the component mark is supposed to take this into account. Virtue and Moir can get up to full speed in three strokes. Davis and White don’t stretch their legs straight. Virtue and Moir do. Davis has “clunky feet” according to one expert. Davis and White spend more time dancing while facing in the same direction (which is easier) while Virtue and Moir change their holds constantly, and so seamlessly, you’re almost unaware of it. Davis and White are rather stiff in their upper bodies. Virtue and Moir’s movement is astonishingly organic. Their whole bodies move from ankle to head. I could go on.
And other dancers see this. Ilia Averbukh, an Olympic silver medalist from Russia, says the two teams can’t even be compared. “Last year, I was extremely confused by the judges’ decision to put the American team above the Canadians,” he told a Russian newspaper. “I still haven’t completely understood why Davis and White won the world championships last year, because for me, Virtue and Moir stood head and shoulders above, from the choreography of the free dance to the performance.”
So I go into the free dance today with a heavy heart, feeling like it’s the old days, when you already knew the results before the skaters tied their laces. And that’s what bothers me. Meryl Davis and Charlie White will win the first Olympic gold medal for United States in ice dancing.
If I’m wrong, I’ll do a Scott Moir dance.