Olympic figure skating could expand its audience and foster greater respect for the athletic achievements of its competitors with one simple rule change: No more costumes. Everyone puts on a uniform.
Let’s stipulate from the jump that figure skaters are indeed athletes, and very good ones. It takes extraordinary commitment and physical prowess to propel oneself off an icy surface high enough to rotate one’s body three times in the air and to land upright on a quarter-inch blade. And to do so gracefully and repeatedly in the course of a four-minute program.
Yet alone among Winter Olympic sports — and virtually alone among all sports — figure skaters wear individual costumes. Costumes supposedly are integral to the sport, as they reflect the spirit of the accompanying music and the skaters’ physical movements. The sport not only encourages costuming but rewards it in rather subjective ways. And so the eye-popping variety: At this year’s Olympics (so far), competitors have worn sequins, tassels, boas, formal wear and a glammed-up bondage look. One guy dressed up as some kind of Imperial Russian naval officer, apparently ready to skate into the Crimean War.
Fans of ice skating love this about the sport, of course. Along with the music, the gliding and jumping, the costumes add a theatrical element that seems to lift figure skating beyond ordinary sport and into a realm of dreamy fantasy. It is part gritty competition, part entertainment spectacle. This is why the skating events are always showcased in primetime; the audience is massive.
Fair enough. But this sort of frippery is part of the reason why non-fans dislike figure skating, too. Where some viewers swoon over the graceful twirling in ballerina-like costumes, haters see . . . the Ice Capades, a dressed-up entertainment spectacle that can’t possibly be about the things that sports are supposed to be about.
The haters also hate something else about ice skating — the judging. In a typical sports fan’s mind, no sport can be a sport unless its winners and losers are separated by hard objective criteria — points plainly scored, or times, heights and distances that are better than the next guy. They are suspicious of human judgment as the standard for determining athletic superiority.
They are right about this, but only to a point. There have been a series of Olympic vote-rigging scandals that have damaged figure skating’s credibility in the same way that performing enhancing drugs have damaged other sports. Some academic studies suggest there’s still bias in Olympic judging. But judging, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily corrupt; many sports (diving, gymnastics, snowboarding, etc.) do it without scandal or complaints that a competition was fixed.
The process can be more rigorous, and one place to start in skating would be in the most subjective area of all: assessing the overall artistic and aesthetic impact of a performance. And here is where costumes have a pernicious effect. Why should an utterly variable, extracurricular element — an athlete’s choice of his or her getup — make any difference whatsoever to his or her results? Is skating a fashion contest or a test of who’s the best skater?
Before you answer that question, consider women’s gymnastics. The sport is easily the most popular among viewers of the Summer Olympics for many of the reasons figure skating captivates those watching the winter games. On the floor exercise, female gymnasts must combine a series of spectacular tumbles and moves into a technically accomplished and aesthetically pleasing whole. Just as in figure skating, the competitors perform to music.
But no one wears a puffy shirt or sparkly halter top to game up their scores.
It's hard to argue that this has hurt anyone’s appreciation of the athleticism and sheer entertainment value of gynmastics. Indeed, the absence of fashion statements also underscores the athleticism and intensity of the competition in a way that ice skating’s sequins and tulle merely camouflage.
No fan of Olympic ice skating would cease to be a fan of Olympic ice skating if the sport did away with its dress-up corner. But a lot of people who dismiss the sport as not sport enough might have one less reason to dislike it.
For those who’ll miss the toy-soldier outfits, chin up. The Ice Capades will surely be in town soon.