VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Wasn't it romantic? Long ago, in a world before American Idol, judges with fickle hearts and talents with wow factors gripped and enchanted audiences on ice stages. All it took was that one moment in a skater's program to change everything -- like the money spiral from Michelle Kwan. She would gain speed in a sequined blur, then suddenly throw her arms out wide, burst into a flirty smile and glide elegantly on one skate blade across the rink in a curving line as if she were drawing hearts.
At that instant, the smitten crowds didn't care if Kwan had skipped a transition move or produced the hang time of a beer truck on her double toe loop. They admired her beauty, grace and maturity. As was often the case, so did the judges. There was room for awe in the scoring back when figure skating drew Super Bowl-sized TV ratings. But after the judging scandal that ate the Salt Lake Winter Games in 2002, the International Skating Federation made a New Coke-style decision to devise a revamped scoring formula: They instituted a skate-by-numbers system designed to value technical skills instead of a showstopper's touch, abolished the perfect 6.0 in favor of a calculus that requires a code breaker and cloaked all judges in anonymity so they wouldn't be vulnerable to outside pressure. (Now they're just vulnerable to insider pressure)."I don't see much improvement," grumbled the loquacious DickPound, a Vancouver 2010 board member, in a speech just before the Games. "It's so corrupt that the judging is anonymous."
The scoring will remain fishy until, like other sports, the judges are selected from a pool of professionals and not appointed by the politicized members of the ISU. The phantom judging leaves room for greater suspicion -- and confusion -- than ever. In the men's short program on Tuesday night, Russia's Yevgeny Plushenko, the leader by a thin margin heading into the free skate on Thursday, whipped up the crowd with his gravity-defying quadruple jumps -- an element many other men refuse to attempt because failure has a stiff repercussion in the scoring. Daring is marked down in skating. America's Evan Lysacek -- solid, consisent, and quad-less -- was still within gold medal distance in second place. "Without the quad, it's not men's skating," Plushenko has said. What the crowd wants doesn't matter as much anymore. There were even some boos accompanying the judging marks for American Johnny Weir's sassy short program -- which stirred cheers from the fans but not marks from the judges who placed him sixth. Only in figure skating can all numbers seem odd.
The scoring totals are a game of Boggle. Numbers like 89.81 and 124.60 and 213.33 flash on the board to the sound of a group "huh?" from the crowds. Nothing adds up to casual skating fans that have drifted away from the sport, all reflected in the declining viewership over the past few years. Some of the waning interest has to do with the obvious: There are no more glamour pusses like SashaCohen or Kwan or KatarinaWitt to attract crowds. This is true -- but that's because there can't be a Cohen, Kwan or Witt. Figure skating is now a sport for the young and weightless, for those unknown teen pixies with high technical flair but low wattage, with vertical leaps but no emotional connection with audiences.
Crowds are confused by what passes as great skating now. How could solid American RachaelFlatt edge out the stylish MiraiNagasu in the U.S. Nationals this year? By seducing judges with numbing consistency. In the big picture, there should be nothing wrong with feting solidity. But skating is not a detached sport. It's a drama acted out in sync with musical crescendos and timpani drum booms. What other sport has a kiss-n-cry area for competitors? In diminishing artistry, the post-2002 scoring system has effectively doused the candlelight of the sport. It's difficult for anyone to glow with a checklist of compulsory duties spinning in their head.
What's left of skating when the on-ice love affair fades? A focus on furry costumes, spray tans and bold statements. "Be Good Johnny Weir" isn't just the name of the Sundance Channel reality show about Weir, figure skating's answer to AdamLambert of Idol fame, it's also a plea for him to validate the attention he receives. There is no doubt Weir is a colorful, if overexposed, personality among skaters whose sentences are as choreographed as their routines. In the men's short program Weir, in black leather with pink accents, was true to his outrageous form. But in many ways, he has been a dominant storyline because of his off-ice persona to the point where Lysacek has been cast as a wallflower. Yes, Lysacek was in second after the short, but all eyes were on the vamp moves of Weir. He is a showman in an era when stagecraft is not rewarded like it used to be. Plushenko, who is back in Vancouver to defend the gold medal he won in Turin, is the test case for this trend. Throughout his career, Plushenko has been a trapeze artist with Liberace's entertainment taste. He is all flair in the air -- with a pocketful of quadruple toe loops in his repertoire -- but Plushenko admits he doesn't bother with transitions because he is so focused on the jumps.
Apparently, judges didn't notice this in Turin. A DVD to train judges on how to detect technical glitches last year highlighted the flaws in Plushenko's program for the Turin Games. As USA Today reported last week, the Russians demanded that Plushenko be edited out of the video. Plushenko was left on the cutting room floor, but will the judges keep his crude compulsories in mind this week? Is the fix on? Such talk fuels the conspiracy theorists who believe figure skating is as dirty as it was before the Salt Lake Games. "You hope that the medals are actually won on the ice instead of in the back room," Pound told Canadian television. "But the history of the sport doesn't give you total confidence that that's the case."
This may be true, but the outing of the Plushenko files feel contrived, as if skaters, officials and observers are trying to whip up a scandal in an effort to revive a sport that is fading in popularity behind the extreme athletes. Snowboarders and freestyle skiers are the bold, creative types of the Games. They are the emotional performers who connect with their fans and possess the wow factor once projected by Kwan and Company. The awe is on the outs in the numbers game of figure skating. The romance is dead.