Uniformity or flair? Skirting the issue

Renee James Contributor
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This is why you have to love the Olympics.

In nearly every event, with the exception of team sports, there is exactly one thing that determines the winner: A timer. A sophisticated timer to be sure but you can’t argue the hundredths of seconds that determine which athletes “medal” or “podium” or whatever noun acts like a verb these days to indicate the first, second and third place winners.

But one group of athletes barely acknowledges a timer: figure skaters. Yes, there are minimum and maximum lengths to the competitions, ranging from 2 minutes, 50 seconds for the short program to as long as 4 minutes, 40 seconds for the men’s singles and the pair skating. (Women’s singles are limited to 4 minutes, 10 seconds.) Ice-dancing original dance ranges from 2 minutes, 20 seconds to two minutes forty seconds. The “free” dance lasts longer, with a 20-second variable (3:50 – 4:10). But these are hardly the split times and milliseconds that matter to the other competitors.

So who wins? If you have an hour or two, hop online for an explanation of how judges score skating. Briefly, skaters get two sets of marks, for technical elements and program components. Each technical element has a base value that gets a grade of execution added or subtracted from it. Then the high and low get dropped (or the scores get randomly selected – the explanation was unclear on this point), the remaining numbers get averaged and the Total Element Score gets determined. Then each program component—skating skills, transitions/linking footwork & movement*, performance/execution, choreography/composition*, interpretation, and timing (compulsory dance only)—gets scored. [*Not used in compulsory dance.]

Then, finally: “The panel’s points for each Program Component are then multiplied by a factor, to give them approximately equal weight within a program to the Technical Elements. The Total Element Score and the Program Component Scores are added together and any deductions (under or overtime, costume violations and falls) are applied. The result is the skater’s Total Segment Score for that phase of the competition. The Total Segment Scores from the short programs and free skates are added together to determine the medalists.”

Got that?

The good news is: we don’t have to. We’re not judges. But what intrigues me most is the idea of a “costume violation.” Have you seen some of these outfits? Then explain to me how they aren’t “violations” when you read the guidelines: “Competitors must be modest, dignified and appropriate for athletic competition – not garish or theatrical in design. Although there’s an abundance of nude-colored illusion fabric or “fake flesh” (particularly among the ice dancers), clothing cannot give the effect of excessive nudity. While figure skating is heavily influenced by ballet, men cannot wear tights, only trousers. Interestingly, female skaters only recently were allowed to wear pants (either as separates or unitards). Before 2004, skirts were mandatory, and even they had to be a certain length.”

Hold it. Women skaters are allowed to wear pants? Are you kidding me? That’s like saying the women beach volleyball players are allowed to wear bike shorts and jerseys. And just as likely.

I don’t understand why elite, Olympic level skaters, who train and sacrifice and compete for years and years to make the United States Figure Skating Team wear “costumes.” Why don’t they all have the male or female version of the Skating Team uniform? And it isn’t because their event is part athleticism and part ‘performance.’ One could argue the same thing about gymnastics, especially the floor exercise competition, and those athletes wear team uniforms.

So here’s my proposal. Skaters still compete to the song of their choice, and perform the technical elements of their choice. But if you represent a country, you wear the team uniform.

This uniform also addresses the makeup, the hair, the accessories: they’re out. This isn’t about packaging; it’s about skating. You can’t convince me that the feathers, the sequins, the theatrical eye makeup or the nude-colored illusion fabric isn’t distracting, at least a little bit. In fact, judges adjusted the rules about women’s costumes based on Katerina Witt’s outfits and her “strategically placed feather trim.” (As NPR reminded us recently, she sort of “fell out” of her low-cut costume while spinning on the ice in 1988.)

It’s time to cut out this nonsense. Well, not the fabric itself – nude colored or not – but you take my point.

Renee James writes social commentary and keeps track of the things that mystify her on her blog: It’s not me, it’s you, found at reneeaj.blogspot.com. Her e-mail address is raaj3@msn.com.