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As a Sport, It Just Doesn't Figure

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
Friday, February 20, 1998; Page D1

Michael Wilbon
NAGANO — I know it is time to go home now because I'm beginning to like figure skaters.

Not figure skating mind you, just figure skaters. And it frightens me.

I ended my Official Winter Olympics Figure Skating Boycott here Wednesday when, against every macho instinct in my body, I went inside the White Ring to watch the women's short program. The first person I ran into was Fairfax's own Michael Weiss, a figure skater who lifts weights and plays hockey and golf and revels in watching teams — not pairs — on any given Sunday. And it was in the middle of talking to Weiss that I began hoping he wouldn't arrive back home until after this column had run because it is my civic duty, even though Weiss is about as cool a guy as you'll meet, to trash figure skating. Somebody's got to do it.

As I was saying the last time we had this conversation, figure skating isn't a sport.

It's a spectacle, it's competitive, the men and women who devote their lives to it are more creative and athletic than many, many world-class athletes.

And so is your prima ballerina, but that doesn't make ballet a sport, does it?

High TV ratings don't make something a sport; if they did Jerry Seinfeld would be Michael Jordan.

Anything solely dependent on judging is not a sport. Anything where the performers have as much use for a choreographer as a coach isn't a sport. Anything that uses the word "costume" instead of the word "uniform" isn't a sport. Any time a man can be awarded a gold medal when he's dressed like a butterfly or looks like a dinner mint (there, I said it) it isn't a sport. Any time another medalist can compete with what looks like the kitchen shears hanging from his armpits, it ain't a sport. (Did you see that Russian guy who wore that black-and-yellow splotched shirt underneath that black-and-white vest that could have come out of Pamela Lee's closet? It looked like a taxi splattered a cow.) Any time your coach wears a fur coat, it isn't a sport; if your coach looks more like Lana Turner than Norv Turner, can't be a sport. Any time people throw flowers at you after your performance, not a sport. Fedoras, fine. Batteries from the right field bleachers, fine. Even octopuses, fine. Roses? I don't think so. Anything Ralph Kramden wouldn't watch is no sport, Norton.

And anything that's been largely decided even before the performance takes place sure isn't a sport.

I was completely shocked to find out at the beginning of these Games — from my dear friend and figure skating maven Christine Brennan — that in figure skating the judges not only watch practice but take into account what happened in practice when judging the live performances! These twits go in and penalize folks for missing jumps or falling or being sick in practice!

Okay, let's apply these rules to a real sporting treasure, the NBA Finals. If Dennis Rodman skips a shoot-around, does that mean the Bulls begin Game 1 against Utah down 4-0 because the judges didn't get to see Rodman's short program earlier that day? Do you know my man Weiss got penalized the other night for being injured and having difficulty with his jumps during workouts? Suppose the judges got a load of Jordan the day before Game 5 last June when he had that 102-degree fever. Can't you just see it now, M.J. hits that last jumper for his 37th and 38th points, the ones that win the game and probably the championship for Chicago, but the judges seated at courtside have taken off three-tenths of a point because they had no idea it was coming since they hadn't seen it in practice!

Do you realize that the judges have this technique called "leaving room," which by definition penalizes the first eight or nine skaters? Since they don't know what the, say, 25th skater will look like, they "leave room" just in case he's the best of the lot. Excuse me, but why do you need to leave room for something you haven't seen if you go to practice every day?

The only people more absurd than the judges are the imperial skating writers who also attend practice — I'm presuming not in fur coats — and stand behind the judges, peering over the top of their glasses writing down stupid notes and going "Um, um, um, that ' of an inch that Tara grew last semester has really affected the way she comes down on that inside edge!, don't you think?" You know who you are, and I love you all except between U.S. nationals and the Olympics, when you should all be lobotomized. The U.S. women's hockey team is beating Canada's brains out in the most exciting thing you've ever seen and those writers are drooling over some 15-year-old's practice double-toe?

So between "leaving room" and attending practices and having come to the competition already knowing who the favorites are, this is nothing more than the World Wrestling Federation. It's fixed. (Don't tell me ice dancing and pairs aren't fixed; the only outcome we're more certain of is "Titanic.") How many times have you heard somebody say, "Michelle Kwan would have to fall twice to lose the gold medal"? Why? If Tara Lipinski or whoever is in third or fourth place and can't go out, skate the long program of her sequined little life and receive the appropriate marks, it's not a sport and it shouldn't be monopolizing the Olympics.

Robert DeNiro gives one heck of a performance, too, and don't think he's not competitive with Al Pacino, but we don't insist on calling that a sport.

Do you know what group is lobbying to be made an Olympic sport?


I kid you not. Bridge. Are we going to soon hear, "And the gold medalist in pinochle is ..."

Rule No. 1: If you don't compete directly against an opponent or a clock, it's not a sport.

Just have figure skating competitions, world championships even, at a designated time of year and have one of those choreographers come up with a sequined statuette for the winners. People will watch like crazy and the figure skating federation could make the networks bid on it like the Oscars or the Emmys.

My favorite quote of the week comes from my favorite athlete of the Games (well, after the "Herminator"), Allison Mleczko, the first left winger I've ever had a crush on. Mleczko, a forward on the gold medal- winning U.S. women's hockey team, said she began her life on skates not as a hockey player, but as a figure skater. But one day it dawned on her, "It's time to trade in the little white tutu for a hockey stick." Amen, A.J., Amen.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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