When you think of figure skating, what comes to mind?
Is it a love story, set to music and enacted on ice by Olympic athletes who stun us in the Winter Games every four years? The skating flicks that showcase the romance, humor, and heartbreak of this beloved winter sport? An ice show with princesses and superheroes?
Maybe, but more likely it was “the baton strike heard around the world.” 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the attack on Nancy Kerrigan at the 1994 US Figure Skating Championships orchestrated by the ex-husband of Kerrigan’s main rival, Tonya Harding. The ugly incident had a distinct silver lining, however. When Kerrigan and Harding faced off for their short program later that winter in Lillehammer, their Olympic showdown became the third highest-rated sports television event of all time. Public awareness of the sport shot into the stratosphere, drawing sponsors, skaters and viewers to figure skating in greater numbers than ever before.
Two decades later, figure skating remains an inherently dramatic sport. There have been other scandals, like the outcries of cheating and unfair scoring at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City after the results of the pairs short program were announced, which ultimately led to two gold medals awarded that year. In a life-is-stranger-than-fiction twist, this led to allegations that the Russian mob had pressured judges to fix scores, a failed “coup” attempt to set up a new skating federation, and lifetime banishment for some skating officials!
There’ve also been more traditional competitive upsets and surprises, like spitfire jumper Tara Lipinsky eeking by graceful Michelle Kwan in 1998 to become the youngest ladies’ gold medalist, underdog Sarah Hughes surpassing two favorites in 2002 to capture gold with a flawlessly skated program, and Surya Bonaly’s shocking, awesome response to judges who she felt unfairly scored her 1998 short program, putting her out of reach of an Olympic medal. (Check out the totally illegal, unbelievable move she pulled off at the Nagano Olympics to the gasps of the crowd and the disbelief of the commentators. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rC7yJ4jez68 )
The sport has its share of romance and tragedy. A number of on-ice pairings have led to off-ice love affairs. Ekaterina “Katia” Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov pairs skaters for the USSR, fell in love, married, had a child and won Olympic gold in 1994. A year after their victory, Sergei collapsed on the ice and died due to a congenital heart defect and Gordeeva remade herself into a singles skater.
But it’s also had some remarkable comeback stories, like Katarina Witt who spent a decade at the top of ladies’ figure skating during the 1980s, retired, then staged a return to competitive skating ten years after winning her first gold medal in the Sarajevo Olympics. She finished an admirable seventh at Lillehammer in 1994.
This year, Russia’s Evgeni Plushenko is making his own comeback. Over the last few years, this men’s champion has been out with injuries, taken a hiatus, lost his eligibility and been reinstated. He’s been selected (in a highly controversial move—leapfrogging over two champions) for the Russian men’s Olympic team in Sochi. (It’s a good bet he won’t be skating his Sexbomb striptease program. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c1T61vX4wm4 )
But sometimes the drama doesn’t come from competition or the machinations of officials, but from the danger inherent in the sport: performers leaping, spinning and being thrown onto a thin bladed boot and landing on an unforgiving, slippery surface. The closest we may come to the athletes we idolize is huddling with our families in a cold arena watching Disney on Ice or Stars on Ice, listening to vendors hawk overpriced toys and junk food until the house lights dim and the skaters glide out. Before long, you’re on the edge of your seat as an athlete in a tutu death spirals around another in spandex pants.
It’s all of these elements that keep us avidly tuning in to the national and international competitions every winter and every four years when the Olympics roll around. We watch Hollywood flicks centering on the heartache and hope of figure skating dreams. Remember the ’70s tearjerker Ice Castles or, my personal favorite, ’80s rom-com The Cutting Edge? If you haven’t seen this film about a rich, high-maintenance figure skater paired with a blue-collar, former ice-hockey player it’s worth watching. Here’s the official trailer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QratAk_OUuc
As the Olympics starts this week, we need to know: Will Jason Brown be able to replicate something like this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wzlcVKFVWVI flawless performance? Will the prevailing Canadian champs or the favored Americans come out in top in ice dance? And will that new figure skating team event be anything but a hot mess?
No matter what goes down, you can be sure it’s worth watching. Bet your toepick on it!
Rachel Cross is the author of four novels, including Spiraling, an emotional, sexy romance between a figure skater and an actor.
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