Figure Skating and Saxophones and When a Sport’s a Sport

Sports, for the most part, is a macho business that exists on a macho concept of one guy being better than the other guy.

If you don’t have that competitive streak in you, you can’t be successful at sports of any kind. The drive to prove that you’re the better man or woman is at the heart of it, or to prove your team is the right team, the better team, the one that has its shit together, while that other team lacks the skill or speed or strength or will to win.

I work with a guy who, like me, writes a blog. Instead of music, his focus is on sports, and specifically Husker football. Forget about Tom Shatel or Lee Barfknecht. If you’re into the Huskers or Mav hockey, read Husker Mike at http://huskermike.blogspot.com or at cornnation.com. Unlike those Omaha World-Herald stiffs who earn a paycheck writing about sports, Husker Mike does it because he loves it and he loves his teams. It shows in every word.

But one thing Husker Mike doesn’t like -- or more precisely, doesn’t care for -- is figure skating. Ironically, it was from one of Husker Mike’s blog posts that I discovered the U.S. Figure Skating Championships were coming to the CenturyLink Center this weekend. It’s amazing that an event so pivotal to that sport would: 1) be held in Omaha, and 2) receive almost no advance publicity whatsoever, to the point where I found out from Husker Mike’s offhand blog comment that Mav Hockey was being pushed out of the CLink for a sport that no one cares about.

In fact, Husker Mike and I have argued back and forth whether figure skating is a sport at all.

His take comes down to a few basic questions: How can figure skating (or for that matter, gymnastics) be considered a “sport” when the winners and losers are determined based on the subjective nature of judges? Here you have a panel of so-called experts whose job is to watch “athletes” perform a set of required skills and activities, compare those actions against a series of standards AND also consider “artistic interpretation.” Hell, even the costumes can impact how skaters are judged (whether the judges admit it or not). It’s all completely subjective and, ultimately, bullshit.

On the other hand, there is no subjectivity in football.

We live in Nebraska. We all know the rules. Points are scored when one team carries a ball over an opponent’s goal line or kicks it through the opponent’s uprights. Artistic interpretation? Judges? The only judgement to be leveled is by the players’ coaches and teammates -- and the fans -- who will decide if the players put in enough sweat in at the gym, paid enough attention at practice, had the heart to do what it takes to win the game AT ANY COST.

And though this doesn't play into Husker Mike's argument, there are those who think that football is a man’s sport, and figure skating, well, it’s fine for girls, but for guys? Because underlying any discussion of figure skating is an overwhelming sense of sissy that comes with the black-and-flesh-colored costumes with the frilly cuffs and glitter and dazzling hand flourishes and the way they cock their heads just so when they strike their opening pose. It's there, it can't be denied.

I have a different view of the sport. I can imagine few things in life as difficult, as physically and mentally taxing, as scary as figure skating.

The International Skating Union (ISU) sets the rules and the guidelines. According to their website, each competition is composed of two separate parts: the short program, which is skated first, followed by the free skate. It consists of seven required moves or elements: three jumps, three spins, and one fast step sequence.

In the end, most people don’t know the rules, or even care. For them, it comes down to one thing: Falling down.

The singles free skate “long program” is four and a half minutes of pure tension played out by one guy or one gal -- alone -- in front of thousands of people, most of whom expect to see failure in the form of someone landing flat on their ass.

The competition involves speed and flight and composure. It involves precision and memorization and skill and an undefinable, unattainable thing called talent, which you either have or you don’t, but whose possession becomes obvious to everyone watching.

And yes there’s music and costumes and artful flourishes, but if you know what you’re looking for, there is fear or confidence on display that you’ll never see on any gridiron.

When I watch figure skating on TV, what comes to mind has nothing to do with sports at all.

I think back to a classroom at Elkhorn High School where a divisional music contest was being held circa 1983. I’d spent a good part of six months practicing a viola solo transcribed for tenor saxophone, whose name and composer I can no longer remember. What I do remember is walking into a room where a judge sat at a desk with a sheet of paper and a pencil. Also in the room was a handful of band nerds, there to see me land flat on my ass, musically speaking.

Unless you’ve performed in front of a judge before -- even if it’s a saxophone judge -- you can never begin to understand what those skaters are feeling as they stand alone on the ice waiting for their music to begin, waiting for their chance to prove -- yes to a judge but to everyone in the arena and to themselves -- that they’re the better man or woman, that they will not fail. And isn’t that at the very heart of sport?



Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com.

posted at 03:52 pm
on Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

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