January 24, 2010 in Sports

It’s our house, here are rules

By The Spokesman-Review
 

When it comes to skating and self- congratulation, Spokane wins gold, silver and bronze – and why not?

With the help of a slew of out-of-towners, we push our way into the Spokane Arena as if a winning Powerball ticket awaits on every seat. The U.S. Figure Skating Championships’ record for attendance, set the first time around in Spokane in 2007, will fall today when the house fills for the concluding exhibition – a session that goes for $75 a ticket, so at least a few families have been subsisting on Ramen noodles for the last month.

And those who go, glow – the oohs are awesome, the ovations not just standing but leaping. Beyond the grandstands, Spokane’s army of volunteers can coax a smile out of the grumpiest judge or most distraught skater.

So we did good, again. Let’s not forget who also did good – the skaters themselves, who not only competed their sequins off (performances soared over those of 2007, as they should in an Olympic year), but were routinely pleasant and unfailingly grateful. It may be that more than half the competitors are 17 years old and haven’t learned how to be pain-in-the-ass pro athletes yet, but seeing Johnny Weir pinned up against a wall in a hotel lobby by a gaggle of squealing fans and hanging tough for a salvo of snapshots fairly redefined the concept of accommodating.

So thanks for coming, and for caring so much. But don’t come back until…

•This is an actual Olympic trials. The people who buy the tickets deserve to leave the arena knowing they watched our Olympic team select itself, and not have it go to secret ballot in a back room.

The desire to send the team with the best chance of medaling is admirable, and as it turned out our 2010 Olympians mirrored the order of finish in Spokane. But the cheesy notion that led to Michelle Kwan’s ridiculous lifetime achievement award in 2006 has now been upgraded to crackpot. At least guarantee the national champion a trip to the games. Then you make it about competition.

•You make it about competition. Wait, we just said that. Well, this is a little different. Again, we invoke the example of our good pal Weir, who is a delightful notebook filler, a unique and compelling personality and a hell of a skater. But Weir all but dismissed the athletic side of skating by saying “jumps are jumps and everyone can do those” and that he’d “rather show beautiful character and style” and not risk a quad and fall.

Likewise, when ice dancer Ben Agosto spoke of “really studying the character,” the eyes, they rolled. Of course, ice dancing is not to be confused with legitimate sport like, uh, figure skating.

If this is performance art, find yourself a loft in Soho. If you’re not about the score and all about a character, go be Snoopy on tour.

•Somebody fixes the judging. Yes, we know the old joke – it’s already fixed. But for all the hand-wringing about the revamped scoring system encouraging a dulling sameness, it has at least cut into the rewards-for-reputation marks that made it impossible for a newbie to win.

Now it’s time to loosen up enough to make the risk of more quad jumps worth it – and to pay off for skaters pushing the athletic envelope. When pairs veterans Rena Inoue and John Baldwin were actually downgraded for their throw triple axel – which no one else in the world does – it was something of a joke. (That Baldwin bitterly insisted the judges had already decided the winners before the competition was something of a joke, too.)

But how about some transparency? When event-deciding calls are made (and blown) in other sports, game officials can occasionally be solicited to clarify (or alibi). Not only is the judging anonymous in skating, no overseer can be dispatched to offer a rationale to a public that goes, “Huh?”

•Everyone quits whining about marks. Yes, it’s a contradiction. But it’s a judged endeavor. Skaters decide to pursue it on those terms. Complaining about what score you’re given is like a baseball player bemoaning that foul balls aren’t base hits.

•You stop turning this into Halloween. Costuming is beyond parody. Did you see the ice dancing guy Friday dressed as an Aztecan transvestite Hells Angel?

•You start making sense. Stretching the senior events over two weekends may have been the usual sop to TV, though U.S. Figure Skating executive director David Raith tried to spin it as an accommodation to the athletes. Even when he was in Spokane last weekend, Weir ripped the format, noting that he’d fly home to the East Coast, then have to return to Spokane for today’s exhibition and miss training time.

Meanwhile, out-of-town ticket buyers who couldn’t afford 10 days of hotel or two round trips got priced out of seeing it all.

And while the overall record will fall, attendance for the senior events actually dropped by an average of 1,000 a session from 2007.

Spokane loves skating, it seems. Doesn’t mean it can’t be tough love, too.


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