Two courses of action are open to a fellow who bumps into Dorothy Hamill at a party. He can do the natural thing, which is to fall in a dead faint at her feet. The lady can smile you silly. Or, if the fellow is suave and debonair, he can make charming small talk, such as: "My boss wants a story about the judging of figure skating, but I don't understnad any of it. Hellppp!"
"Nobody," said Dorothy Hamill, "understands it."
Whoa. You're Dorothy Hamill with the Hamill haircut and the Hamill gold metal and the Hamill million dollars from the Ice Capades. You can skate and smile at the same time. And you don't understand the judging of figure skating?
"All I know is that it all turns out pretty fairly in the end," Hamill said. "A lot of times I didn't skate well -- and won. Other times I skated unbelievably well -- and didn't win."
Life's mysteries include the price of a gallon of gas, the genuine-true-real color of Ronald Reagan's hair and, as we know from these Winter Olympics, the judging of figure skating.
Americans in the audience booed up a storm when a British judged awarded Charlie Tickner a 5.0 score (6.0 is perfect and 5.7 or 5.8 is nice enough to keep a gold medal within reach). Though everyone saw that Tickner, the best in the United States men, badly missed a jump, that 5.0 punishment seemed excessive.
And when Linda Fratianne was placed third Wednesday after the women's compulsory figures, her coach, Frank Carroll, suggested that Middle European judges seemed to favor German skaters over his world champion.
And right there -- in that world "seemed" -- is the fog that shrouds the judging so completely that even a Dorothy Hamill can't figure it out. The judging is done mostly subjectively. What is beauty in the eyes of one beholder may be a piece of trash in another's. There are people who wouldn't walk through fire to see Ann-Margret. It takes all kinds.
And when you have nine judges from all kinds of countries doing subjective judging with fame, glory and a shampoo contract hanging on the 5.8s, inevitably there arises the foul odor of preceived bias. Soviet judges have outrageously favored their skaters. Not only did they raise the scores of Soviets and their satellite folks, they also lowered scores of skaters who thought Lenin was a bed sheet. They were so blatantly biased that they were barred from all international judging in 1978, reinstated only after promising to be good.
The same thing goes on in gymnastics and diving, too, for as in figure skating the performances can not be measured by a clock or counted on a calculator.
"You can't put computers on a skater's feet," said Barbara Roles, the coach of Lisa-Marie Allen, American's second-best women's skater behind Linda Fratianne. "If you don't like a decision, you just accept it and keep hoping you overcome it."
But doesn't it make you mad? Fratianne, the reigning world champion, won the recent U.S. national championship although many observers thought Allen outskated her. How did that make the coach, Roles, feel?
Barbara Roles answered by twisting her sweet little hands into tiger claws, scratching at the air. She also snarled.
"Mad" said a fellow bad at charades.
"It was like they decided 'we can't have anybody on our Olympic team better than our world champion,'" the coach said.
She was mad. Roles speaks kindly of Fratianne. She says Linda works hard. But of her pupil, Roles says Lisa-Marie Allen is "spontaneous, a terribly exciting, gorgeous and wonderful skater -- at times." The coach thus effectively portrays Fratianne at the opposite side of that subjective coin, a hard worker, for sure, but one who brings no fire to the ice.
And fire is important to the judges, especially in the freestyle program when the skaters -- men and women alike -- can do anything they want. They trace lines slowly in the compulsories, trying for the perfect circle. In the next step, the short program, they must execute seven specific moves, all leaps and spins. The nine judges, up to here, are guided by years of seeing these tracings and leaps. Their judgments are as near to objective as they ever will get because the nine are all working from a common pool of experience.
But here comes the part that baffles our smiling Dorothy. The compulsory score counts 30 percent of the total score and the short program adds 20 percent -- leaving half the total to be decided in the freestyle program where the skaters are judged both on technique and "presentation." "Presentation" in a figure skaters' world is the way the skater looks, how the music sounds, how the smile glows.
"It's subjective thing," said Norah Kirby, once the Canadian singles champion and now a talent scout for the Ice Capades. "Different judges have different likes and dislikes and that's want you're subjected to."
The nine judges for each skating event -- singles, pairs, ice dancing -- come from the nine countries whose skaters finished highest in that event in the previous Olympics. These countries choose a judge from their top levels. As to how those judges then arrive at their decisions, we must ask around, because they are ruled off-limits to the nosy press.
"There is just a difference, and you can see it, between someone who does it," said Dorothy Hamill, "and someone who really does it."
What's the difference?
"I don't know. But it must mean a lot. The color of your dress, your music, your personality, creativity, even your reputation must mean a lot because it is, really, an art."
Roles said the laymen at home in front of the television can tell the good preformances from the bad.
"Something that's really good, they'll feel it," she said. "There's usually a lot of charisma, a lot of sharing with the audience. It's just, 'Wow!'"
It's Miss America on skates, is what critics of ice skating-as-sport have said. Everyone pastes on a smile, dresses in pastels with spangles and does cutesy footwork. The men do the same thing, only wearing darker colors. That's why the men now wear stretch pants, to avoid the flapping-in-the-breeze look of the slacks of old, and why Linda Fratianne had cosmetic surgery on her nose.
Which is true, in a way. The judges can not deny emotion. So if they like a skater's music, perhaps unconsciously they will give that skater a break in judging technique. If they hate the skater's outfit -- say Charlie Tichner shows up in plus fours -- he could be Nureyev on skates and yet see 4.7s on the scoreboard.
Still, it is unfair to pass off skaters as poachers in a sports' world of daredevils and slam-dunking giants. Watch the height of Charlie Tichner's spinning jumps. Watch the iron control of Linda Fratianne on landing from a double axel. However elegant a Julius Erving is, he moves no more smoothly than Robin Cousins of Enland in a triple toe loop.
"The compulsories are dull, but they are the foundation moves of figure skating," said Don Perrin, once a national-class skater and here a press steward. "And from that foundation, the great ones build a skyscraper."
And the judges, however damned they are, recognize a skyscraper when it falls on them. Dorothy Hamill, after all, was at rinkside today in a fur coat that looked like it cost $7 million, give or take a dollar or two.