Ranking the Rink
Sunday, February 12, 2006
TURIN, Italy -- We adore Dick Button. He lets us sit next to him Friday during a figure skating practice and tells us who's a "little twit" and who has no grace and not to even bother watching the Uzbek couple because "they're not going anywhere."
You go, Dick!
"See that sitting position? That's terrible," he says, watching some pairs skaters try out a death spiral. "If she sticks her can out as if she's -- pardon the expression -- going to the toilet, that's really terrible."
In addition to being the patriarch of figure skating analysts and a two-time gold medalist from more than half a century ago, Button, 76, may be the coolest guy here at the Winter Olympics. He is at once crass and brilliant, invoking composers Verdi and Ravel, leaping from a discussion of the golden mean to the way U.S. competitor Sasha Cohen executes her spiral -- the perfect proportion between leg and back.
He says one high-ranking woman used to skate with her arms so close to her sides it was like she was making "armpit farts."
The big talk these days in figure skating is the complicated new scoring system, which was brought in after the Salt Lake City judging scandal. Button, who considers the new system "constipated," expresses his opinion thusly:
He scratches his nose with a fully extended, rather rude middle finger, and says, "I'm not scratching my nose."
Button has been doing broadcast commentary for this "delicious sport" for decades, but he hasn't done commentary for the Olympics since 1988. This year, he returns to the Olympics broadcast, on loan to NBC from his employer, ABC. He graces us with his trademark bluntness in the pairs competition and on a nightly show on USA called "Olympic Ice."
Button's life, after winning Olympic gold medals back in 1948 and 1952, has been a strange melange of high art and low taste. He went to Harvard Law School and created the World Professional Figure Skating Championships. He also created the so-called trash sport show "The Superstars," and appeared in the movie "The Bad News Bears Go to Japan."
He still skates, but less often after suffering a brain injury caused by a fall on the ice about five years ago. Most of the time, he lives on an old farm he owns in North Salem, N.Y., that has a horse, a cow, ducks, chickens, some stray geese he's taken to feeding, two cats, a dog, a huge turtle that doesn't actually live there but once laid eggs in the swimming pool, a ravenous three-legged pig and -- in his garden -- an oxalis plant he named after the 1994 Olympic gold medalist Oksana Baiul. (He calls it Oxalis Baiul.)
He adores painting and theater. He speaks crudely. (It's important to relax just prior to a competition, he says, and "if that takes getting laid, it takes getting laid.") He orders a sandwich without the bread and then veers toward the dessert counter, grabbing something that looks like a lemon bar and asking, "Do you want one of these disastrous things?"
When he's running late to watch a skating practice, Button nags the young NBC employee who is driving him.