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Lysacek vs. Plushenko: The Nature of Figure Skating

One of the big issues that arose during the Winter Olympics surrounded the results of the men’s figure skating competition. The winner, American Evan Lysacek, beat out Russian Evgeni Plushenko despite not completing a quadruple jump, a feat that Plushenko believes alone should have merited him the gold medal. Plushenko went on the record saying that the quad is the only sign of progress in the sport, and he stated that not rewarding the feat with a gold medal holds the sport back. He also raised the question of whether or not figure skating was sport or just dancing, as evidenced by Lysacek winning on the strength of his footwork, not his jumps.

To begin with, I saw both of Lysacek’s routines. They were masterful performances. Every jump was crisp and clean. Every spin was smooth and fast. And the dance moves were gorgeous to watch. Lysacek earned the gold medal, fair and square. Regarding his lack of a quad, I ask this: should one trick be weighed so heavily against the quality of an overall routine? It is true the Plushenko completed a quadruple spin and Lysacek did not. But Plushenko just did that trick just once. The rest of his routine contained a similar combination of spins and footwork that Lysacek’s did. And when it came down to scoring those spins and dance moves, Lysacek simply scored higher than Plushenko did. While Lysacek did not perform a quad, the rest of his routine was deemed superior to Plushenko’s. And it wasn’t as if Plushenko’s routine was so much worse other than the quad. The total difference in score was less than two points. The quad was scored accurately, and it gave Plushenko enough points to stay close with Lysacek. It just did not do enough by itself to give him the gold, and I don’t believe it should have. Figure skating is about a routine, not a single trick. And Lysacek’s routine was better than Plushenko’s. He deserved to win the gold.

The fact that spinning and dancing garners as many points as it does raises a more interesting questions: is figure skating a dance or is it a sport? I believe it’s a little bit of both. My mother’s dance company espouses the idea that dancers are a combination of athlete and artist. Looking at figure skaters, it is clear that this is the case. It is impossible to deny the physical skill required to perform the jumps and spins so common to competitive figure skating. Personally, I can barely stay upright on skates, so I have tremendous respect for the physical capabilities of these athletes.

But, at the same time, there is definite artistry to figure skating. If nothing else, consider that figure skating is choreographed to music. It’s a performance. If it were purely a sport, there would be no need for a musical background to the performance. It would just be a series of tricks performed in sequence. The difference is similar to the floor routine and the uneven bars in gymnastics. The former is a dance routine that combines artistry with physical ability. The latter is just an athletic performance.

Figure skating IS a combination of art and sport. Because of that, there must always be scoring for the artistic component that balances out the athletic component. Hence, you have situations like the one we had in the Olympic Games. Evgeni Plushenko had the more physically demanding performance, I’m not going to argue that. But Evan Lysacek’s performance was the better combination of artistry AND athletic ability. And in figure skating, it’s that balance that determines the gold.

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