Monday, March 26, 2007

1961 US Figure Skating Team
boarding flight to

I took just enough time out over the weekend from some projects, ferrying the kids to & from their jobs, fencing & theater, plus attempting to write up some end-notes for The Alphabet to watch the women’s competition of the World Figure Skating Championships, held this year in Tokyo. I may have mentioned before that, outside of a couple of World Series games (thank you Oakland A’s), the only other sport championship I’ve ever actually attended in person was the Women’s Worlds Figure Skating competition, which was in Oakland in 1992, won that year by Kristi Yamaguchi. Yamaguchi had a clean sweep that year, winning the U.S. championship, the World’s and the Olympics. The other female skaters on the American team at the World’s were two up-&-comers, Nancy Kerrigan & Tonya Harding, each of whom was hoping to become the next Kristi Yamaguchi.

Neither would, tho they were about to introduce the years of gloom for figure skating, first with the brouhaha caused by Harding’s husband’s inept attempt to cripple Kerrigan at the 1994 U.S. championships, then a series of international judging scandals that forced the international federations to adopt a far more complex – nearly impenetrable – point system that appears to have taken the favoritism and vote-trading out of the judging process.

The actual inheritor of Yamaguchi’s throne turned out to be another Asian-American, Michelle Kwan, who, between 1994 and 2005, won the U.S. championships nine times, finishing second the three other times, won the World’s five times, finishing second three times, and third once. While Kwan hasn’t skated competitively since withdrawing from the 2006 Olympics, she has not said that she has retired. By the time of the 2010 Olympics, Kwan will be 29, the same age at which Maria Butarskaya won the European championships in 2002. But the real story here is that skating has simply passed Kwan by. She has never won under the new scoring system, which assigns points and difficulty levels for everything, making jumping a far more important part of the sport than the graceful aesthetic spirals that are Kwan’s trademark move.

Kwan, for all of her dominance of the sport, never has won the Olympics, finishing second in 1998, third in 2002. During this same period, no other female skater matched Kwan’s overall dominance, tho Irina Slutskaya of Russia and Chen Lu of China clearly dominated the sport in their own countries. None of the three ever won Olympic gold, tho Slutskaya, a six-time European champion, won silver in 2002, bronze in 2006, while Chen Lu earned bronze in 1998 & 2002.

During these years, the sport as seen far too many one-hit wonders, skaters who won gold at the Olympics or other major events, then quickly turned pro & cashed in on one of the touring ice shows where skaters can make millions without ever having to do a jump more difficult than a double. The last four Olympic champions – Oksana Biaul, Tara Lipinsky, Sarah Hughes & Shizuka Arakawa – are not skating competitively any more. Biaul, whose 1994 Olympic long program is still the single best performance I’ve ever seen, never competed again, unless you count an appearance on Celebrity Poker.

All of this points up the relationship between competitive skating and global capital. Skating is a sport that requires an enormous investment early on, which privileges hegemonic nations. Either the state pays by taking toddlers into national training academies, as I believe may be still done in the People’s Republic of China, or else parents put down 50 grand a year, year after year, often moving from state to state in search of the right coach in the hopes that little Tiffany will grow up to become more than just another ice rat. Not every parent can do that, so it helps to live in a society where enough of them can.

Thus it’s not an accident that seven of the last 14 Olympic champions in women’s skating have been Americans. Americans have won the silver six times during that span, bronze five times. Combined, that’s 43 percent of all possible medals since 1956 in a sport in which several dozen nations compete. But since women’s skating was brought back into Olympic competition in 1920, only two women have won gold more than once, Sonje Henie of Norway three times in the 1920s & ‘30s, & Katarina Witt of the German Democratic Republic twice in the 1980s.

So anyone who chooses to compete on a continuing basis – as did Yamaguchi & Kwan did & as, apparently, reigning U.S. champ Kimmie Meissner is choosing to do – has an enormous long-term value for the sport in this country, even if only in attracting small children & their parents into one of America’s dwindling number of ice rinks to get some exercise.

Because the global geography of women’s skating clearly is changing. Skating commentators for years now have been talking about the “coming wave” of Chinese & Japanese skaters and finally it’s arrived. Chinese skaters in particular have been strong in the pairs competition now for several years, having won 12 medals at the Worlds since 1999, seven by the couple who won this weekend, Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo. During that same period, Russia, once the flat-out dominant pairs nation, has won ten medals, tho none the last two years. The U.S. has won just one bronze during this same period.

But it is women’s singles that is the focal point of competitive figure skating and this weekend saw Japanese skaters finish first, second and fifth, with Korea’s Yu Na Kim, having set the world record for highest score on her short program, finishing third after two falls in her long program. Only defending world champ Meissner managed to get into the top five from anywhere other than Asia. And clearly they deserved it. One might have had an argument that Meissner deserved third as her program had fewer errors than Kim’s, but it also attempted considerably less. And, under the new scoring system, jumping once again bested aesthetics. Ando, the best female jumper in the world, finished second in both competitions that make up the championship, but with Kim dropping to fourth in the point-rich free skate and Asada having finished fifth in the short program, Ando’s total score beat Asada’s by less than a point. Had Asada won, the Sunday sports sections would have been speculating what might have been had Ando, the only woman with a quad in her repertoire, attempted one in the free program.

So the long view of women’s figure skating would see its center moving from the countries where it was long an indigenous local sport, such as Sonje Henie’s Norway, to the nations at the center of the Cold War – The Soviet Union, the U.S. and Germany – and now toward the economic center of the next century, Asia. One wonders if Americans register this indicator of the shift in global relations for what it signals.

Empires are notoriously fragile constructs and there is no question that the U.S. alone is sole military superpower remaining in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet bloc sixteen years ago. But as we have been learning the hard way in both Iraq & Afghanistan of late, being a global superpower doesn’t count for as much as it used to if one’s worst military enemies have abandoned the state as a construct altogether.

There are a lot of conflicting indices of hegemony in the contemporary world, international sport being pretty close to the bottom when it comes to explanatory importance. But at the same time, it is an index and the message is reasonably clear. “Our” time, if by our we mean the big rubber finger that reads “U.S.A., No. 1,” has passed. I wonder just how many other indicators out there right now are giving out this same information. More than a few, I suspect.

Five hundred years from now, it would be very interesting to see at what moment historians would identify the peak of the American empire, the moment beyond which the various roads downhill began to overtake those still on the rise. My guess is that it would be sometime around 1961, when the long post-World War 2 expansion had just a few more years to run, and when John F. Kennedy took over from Eisenhower. The Eisenhower-Kennedy transition represents the moment when the ability of the United States to “quietly” change regimes elsewhere in the world without a lot of mess back home started to implode, first with the Bay of Pigs, then Vietnam & more recently Afghanistan & Iraq. Not that Ike was good & JFK bad – they were a lot more similar than anyone made them out to be, actually – but that, starting with the Kennedy administration, it became necessary to go public with many of our foreign interventions, and that fewer & fewer of them actually worked. Ike’s one big success of installing the Shah as the leader of Iran doesn’t look so good from this perspective either, but at least that one took 25 years to implode.

Depending on which index you use, the U.S. expansion after WW2 came to an end in the mid-1960s or early 1970s, and by the 1980s per capita inflation-indexed earnings had peaked. Since then the concentration of wealth into fewer & fewer hands is not a scenario that shows the U.S.A. getting stronger. If it were not for the rise of the computer industry starting in the 1970s, the situation in this country might be quite a bit dicier than it is.

One could argue, in fact, that our current experiment in government by malevolent incompetence is a serious symptom of what happens to any hegemon as it tends downward. The former Soviet empire ditto. The problem is that countries that are visibly sliding in the wrong direction are often prey to the worst impulses of an increasingly desperate population. It’s not a formula for optimism.

Coincidentally, 1961 was also the only year since the end of the Second World War when there was no world figure skating championship. The competition that year was to have been held in Prague, but was cancelled after the flight carrying the U.S. skating team crashed & burned as it was attempting to land in Brussels. The entire U.S. team that year died, including 18 skaters, plus 16 coaches, officials & family members. In the 1960s, the U.S. had the resources to build a world-class skating program literally from nothing. In 1966, Peggy Fleming won the first of three consecutive world championships and the disaster of just five years earlier began to fade.

In 2007, it’s increasingly self-evident that the U.S.’s ability to compete on a global scale in figure skating, especially in the hyper-competitive women’s division, is under serious strain.