The 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia are nearly one year away and figure skating, arguably one of the most beloved sports of those games, is searching for its super star. Skating's scandalous heyday (remember Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding?) is long gone and it's even been years since Michelle Kwan competed.
Casual U.S. sports fans are hard pressed to name the male and female winners of the figure skating events in the last 2010 Olympics. (Answer: Evan Lysacek and Yu-Na Kim)
Just last week, during what should have been a great night for the sport, the nationally televised U.S. Ladies Figure Skating Championship results were widely criticized. Last year's champion, Ashley Wagner, won the event again despite falling twice in the long program, and facing Gracie Gold, the 17-year- old from Chicago, who skated a more technically difficult free program nearly perfectly. Fans were so outraged by the results that this week Wagner responded on twitter:
Wow, people can be really mean. It wasn't my dream program..trust me I'm aware, but u can't understand how it feels til ur out there urself
— Ashley Wagner (@AshWagner2010) January 29, 2013
Every time the sport's judging is questioned (recall the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympics when the Canadian pairs team was awarded a second gold medal because of a judging scandal) fans seem to lose faith and parents rightfully worry about enrolling their children in such a costly sport that also has a problematic scoring system. To add insult to injury, you probably didn't even know that the U.S. Ladies Championships were on television last Saturday.
With the absence of a fresh household name it seems that the sport of figure skating is desperately seeking positive publicity. On Saturday, the Film Society of Lincoln Center hosted a 95 minute screening entitled, "Ice Theatre of New York." Steps away from the Metropolitan Opera House and American Ballet Theater, famed skating television commentator, two-time Olympic Gold Medalist and five time World Champion, Dick Button, co-hosted a presentation of video clips of classic balletic skating performances.
Can you remember the last time the NBA or the NFL hosted a high-profile lecture in Manhattan on the relevance of their sports?
Playing the role of the eccentric but beloved octogenarian ivy league skating professor, Button immediately admitted to forgetting his notes for the night in a taxi cab and not understanding the current skating scoring system. It wasn't long before he had the audience in the palm of his hand, with iconic skating performances from films in the early to mid 20th century, starring the likes of Sonja Henie and Belita Jepson-Turner. Between noting the skaters' beautiful edges and perfectly pointed feet, Button added zingers like "I wish Sonja were here today. She would give you an earful."
The most poignant moments of the night occurred when Button reacted to some of his own performances, including an outdoor practice session in St. Moritz and a long ago televised dance alongside Gene Kelly (both wore matching straw hats and canes). While he did undercut his technical ability compared to the top male skaters today, at several points during videos of his own skates Button rested his head in his hands and smiled as the audience was privileged to an almost too private trip down memory lane from the former Olympian.
The second half of the evening was presented by Moira North, Founder and Director of Ice Theatre of New York. North made more of a sales pitch for supporting her organization which was "the first ice dance company to receive dance program funding from the National Endowment for the Arts." She played a highlight reel from the on ice dance company that started in 1984 and also offers performances and free skating clinics to public school children in Manhattan.
Among the skaters presented, Johnny Weir's recent performance for the company to Lady Gaga's 'Bad Romance' seemed to elicit the most applause from the audience. At the conclusion of the presentation there was a panel discussion including Button and 2002 Olympic Gold Medalist Sarah Hughes, who participated in Ice Theatre of New York since she was eight years old.
When everyone was exiting the theater, one twenty-something member of the audience remarked to his friend, "Dick Button should teach that class at a college. I'd take it." With Sochi on the horizon, maybe a TED style skating lecture tour could be the ticket to reviving the sport.
Follow Jessica Reinis on Twitter: @JessicaReinis.