My ESPN.com colleague Jim Caple recently ran a column in which he asked members of the U.S. Olympic figure skating and ice dancing teams how they’d feel about wearing a standardized Team USA uniform, instead of the costumes they usually wear.
This is a subject that Jim and I have discussed quite a bit over the years — once in an ESPN.com debate and several times amongst ourselves via email. But while it’s fun to debate and speculate, Jim’s recent column was the first time I’ve seen anyone ask the skaters what they think.
Although a couple of the skaters Jim queried were open to the idea of wearing uniforms, most of them were against it. And some of their reasons were very revealing. Here are the anti-uniform quotes — most of which are actually pro-costume quotes — from the skaters in Jim’s piece:
“[W]e costume ourselves to the story we’re telling or the art we’re performing.” — Jeremy Abbott
“[T]he costumes are what make our sport unique. We bring an artistry to the sport by wearing costumes and, with the music, that makes it more exciting to watch.” — Marissa Castelli
“It’s all about the whole package — from the hair and the makeup to the outfits and the music to the personality and the emotion you bring.” — Simon Shnapir
“I personally think [uniforms] would be a huge drawback from the performance. There’s no denying that figure skating as a whole and ice dance in particular are [as] much based on performance as on athletics. I don’t think figure skating sport [would be the same] without the performance, without the glitz and the glamour.” — Meryl Davis
“I think in theater it is very much the same thing. In theater, a lot of times you use your outfit to get the story across. And that’s certainly what I feel like we’re doing. We’re not just trying to look nice, we’re really trying to be the characters we’re trying to embody.” — Charlie White
Hmmm — artistry, theater, glitz, glamour, storytelling. Those are all perfectly valid terms, and they do indeed seem to be central to figure skating’s ethos, and even its scoring rules, which are completely subjective and include grades for “Composition and Choreography” and “Interpretation and Timing.” All of which reinforces a simple point I’ve been making for years (and feel obliged to make again, now that the winter Olympics are taking place):
Figure skating is not a sport.
At this point I think it would be useful to shift into virtual-dialogue mode:
What do you mean figure skating isn’t a sport?! You’re just trying to marginalize skaters by implying that they’re not athletes. But skating is totally athletic!
Agreed — figure skating is a very athletic activity. So is ballet dancing, and most other forms of dancing for that matter. But ballet isn’t a sport, and neither is figure skating.
That’s apples and oranges, because ballet dancers don’t compete against each other, they don’t have winners and losers, and so on. Skating has all of that — that’s why it’s a sport.
Having winners and losers makes skating a competition, not a sport. Lots of things are competitions but not sports: ballroom dancing contests, battles of the bands, chess tournaments, American Idol, video games, fantasy baseball leagues, Uni Watch design contests, bake-offs, and so on. At least one of those things is athletic, but none of those things is a sport, and neither is figure skating.
So how do you define the difference between a competition and a sport?
To me, it’s not a sport unless (a) it involves athletic prowess and (b) there’s an objective scoring system. Go the fastest, score the most points, lift the heaviest weight, etc.
But figure skating totally meets that standard. The winning skater is the one with the most points!
Yeah, but those points are awarded according to an inherently subjective system, and involve things like “interpretation” and “composition,” which are inherently subjective concepts. Judging a figure skating performance is like judging an essay contest (which is another example of something that’s a competition but not a sport).
All sports officiating is subjective. That’s why we have so many controversies about blown calls, bad refs, and all the rest.
Although sports officiating can be subjective, most sports’ officiating standards are objective. The controversies only ensue when an official gets something objectively wrong. Think of it this way: Every single ball that’s hit in a baseball game is either fair or foul. Now, the umpires may miss the call on some of those balls, but it doesn’t change the fact that every single ball truly is either fair or foul. We know, objectively, what constitutes a fair ball (i.e., a ball hit on or between the foul lines), and a ball that doesn’t meet those conditions is, by definition, foul. Similarly, every shot on goal in a hockey game is either a goal (i.e., it has completely crossed the goal line) or it’s not. How the officials observe and adjudicate the situations may vary, but the standards are simple and straightforward: 10 yards is a first down; breaking the plane is a touchdown; a pitch in the strike zone (which is an objectively defined zone, although umpires often choose to disregard that definition) is a strike; and so on.
By comparison, figure skating rules rely on nebulous standards that are inherently subject to interpretation. Consider: In many sports, we can now use instant replay to review a questionable call. But how would you do that with figure skating? The answer, of course, is that you can’t, because there’s no way to review a skater’s composition or interpretation like you can review a fair/foul call or whether the ground caused a fumble.
But they do use replay in figure skating! For example, they check to see whether a skater landed on the inside or outside skate edge when landing from a jump.
Right. But there’s no way to have replay for things like composition or interpretation of the music, which are a big part of the judging. Those elements play into the costuming, which is why we’re discussing this in the first place.
But other sports have nebulous officiating standards too, like the penalty for pass interference in football, or virtually any penalty in hockey.
Fair point. But those standards, while subjective, aren’t the core of their respective sports’ rules. In figure skating, the main premise of the scoring is subjective!
The idea that the scoring is based in part on how well you match your skating to the music seems particularly ridiculous, and not just because of the subjectivity. Consider: What if there were a really great figure skater who happened to be deaf? Would he or she be barred from competing (or unable to compete on a high level) because he/she couldn’t match his/her skating to a soundtrack? Similarly, does this mean that a deaf person can’t be a figure skating judge? That’s nuts — and also very unfair.
There are lots of Olympic sports that rely on subjective judging, like freestyle skiing and gymnastics. Why are you singling out figure skating?
Because those other “sports” (which I think are not sports, just like figure skating isn’t a sport) at least have standardized uniforms, not costumes. My point is that if figure skating were truly a sport — or if it wanted to be taken more seriously as something more akin to a true sport — it would ditch the costumes. All this talk of theater and storytelling and glamour and being in character — what does that have to do with sports? Nothing. Get rid of it. Just wear a unitard and a number like all the other athletes, or at most wear some sort of standardized outfit.
It’s odd that someone who makes a living writing about sports aesthetics would want to eliminate the aesthetic aspect of skating.
I’m not trying to eliminate the aesthetic aspect. If figure skating had uniforms, we could assess them just like we assess other uniforms. But we’d eliminate the bogus notion that the costume somehow has any bearing on the performance or the judging of same. And by extension we’d be saying that other aesthetic considerations shouldn’t have any bearing on the judging either. For example, does anyone doubt that some skaters are docked a few points for having a bad hairstyle? Or bad teeth? Or bad skin? Or for not smiling enough? Is there any question that a female skater who didn’t shave her armpits would be docked a few points? All of that is absurd. We can (and should!) debate how those things affect our viewing experience — that’s what we do — but none of that should have any bearing on the scoring. All that matters is the skating.
Or at least that’s all that should matter. Until that happens, figure skating will be a combination of schmaltzy performance art and musical theater that happens to feature very gifted performers. There’s nothing wrong with that, but everyone (including the participants) should be honest enough to call it what it is.
’Skins Watch: In this article about Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith, Smith speaks out against “bigotry in American sports” — a category that, in his mind, includes the ’Skins name (from Brad Iverson-Long). ”¦ David Kuruc was reading this children’s book about dinosaurs playing football to his son and noticed that one of the teams is called the Redscales. … Latest newspaper to call for the ’Skins name to be changed: The Great Falls Tribune.
Baseball News: Mets prospect Cory Vaughn, a Type 1 diabetic, plays with an insulin pump in his back pocket. … Decal supplier David Sulecki informs me that several Cardinals players will be using bat knob decals featuring their alma maters’ logos or their flags of national origin. … Hmmm, why did Buck Weaver have holes cut in his cap? And was he wearing a red, white, and blue belt? (Both of those from Robert Marshall.) … Mets pitchers are taking a wait-and-see approach to those new protective caps. … Thirty-seven years ago yesterday, the Blue Jays’ first equipment manager was setting up the team’s inaugural uniforms for the team’s first spring training camp. “Note the split ‘Toronto’ lettering, which wasn’t actually used until 1989,” notes Todd Radom. Indeed, the Jays’ first road uniforms had “Toronto” with solid lettering. Fascinating to see that they had a split-lettered version ready for use but apparently thought better of it. … The Marlins have dropped their facial hair ban — which, frankly, I hadn’t even known about (thanks, Phil). … New flag-desecration jersey for Michigan State. … Yesterday’s Ticker linked to a story about the Mets using lowercase letters on some of their NOBs. Here’s another story on that same topic, but this one is much more thoroughly reported — highly recommended reading. ”¦ A high school player bought a new glove and found a wedding ring inside of it (from Josh Claywell).
NFL News: Didn’t see this one coming: The Buccaneers will be unveiling a new logo and helmet tomorrow, but the changes won’t be drastic. … Mike Ditka thinks Lions QB Matt Stafford should stop wearing his cap backwards (thanks, Brinke). ”¦ Someone on eBay is selling some amazing old NFL color slides (thanks, Phil).
College Football News: Whoa, dig this: The 1937 U. of Chicago football team wore the wishbone-C on top of their helmets! Never seen that before (awesome find by Tris Wykes).
Hockey News: The Binghamton Senators wore Olympic-themed uniforms the other night (from Jamie Owens). … Valentine’s Day jerseys a few nights back for the Oshawa Generals (from Jason Perrier). … The Mississauga Chargers went Pink in the Rink the other day. … Check out this Cornell hockey player wearing what appears to be a football helmet in 1974 (great find by Tris Wykes). ”¦ Here’s a 1988 hockey uniform catalog from the Finnish company Tackla (from Rob Yasinsac). ”¦ Someone on eBay is selling some amazing NHL color slides (thanks, Phil).
Soccer News: Australia’s new World Cup kit is a beauty (thanks, Phil). … Interesting article on why the German soccer team wore green as its away color. “The prevailing myth is that Germany wore green as a ‘thank you’ to Ireland for being the first team to play the Germans after World War II, but apparently that’s not the case,” explains Chris Marsicano. … If you’ve been dying to see dogs Photoshopped into soccer jerseys, today’s your lucky day. … Jacksonville’s new NASL team will be called the Armada.
NBA News: The NPR show Marketplace did a segment on NBA sleeves (from Tom Mulgrew). … Also from Tom: Really nice slideshow of Bill Russell through the years at the bottom of this page. … Kenyon Martin is the latest NBA player to speak out against the sleeved jerseys, although he didn’t exactly provide the most intelligent critique (thanks, Phil).
College Hoops News: Small note at the bottom of this page indicates that Boston College is adding a “DK” memorial patch for longtime media rep Dick Kelley, who died last week (thanks, Phil). … Also from Phil: Throwbacks on tap tonight for Syracuse.li
Olympics News: Ukrainian athletes want to wear a blank armband in memory of the Kiev riot victims, but the IOC has put the kibosh on that. … Good AP story about the Olympic sponsorship regulations. … Craft, the small Swedish company that outfits the Dutch speed skaters, is having a very good Olympics. … Good story two of the Team USA equipment managers — one for hockey and one for skiing. … This is fascinating: Sochi is filled with camouflaged security stations. … Can’t get enough of these skeleton helmet photo galleries. …
Grab Bag: New lacrosse helmet for Michigan (from Matt Powers). … Thanks to a new sponsorship arrangement, pro golfer Zach Johnson will start wearing the John Deere logo. … New cycling logo for the Tour de Paris. … New logos for the Eau Claire, Wisconsin Health Department and a Cicinnati-area business association. … At least one UFC fighter isn’t happy about the prospect of standardized uniforms. … A Mississippi high school band is trying to raise money for new uniforms. … New logo for the state of Colorado. … Check out this customized lacrosse mask (from Connor Wilson). … Here’s a gallery of “outrageous” (whatever that means) ice dancing costumes (from Yusuke Toyoda).