“O” is for “Olympics”

342px-Olympic_rings_without_rims.svgAlso “Obsession.”

My name is Pamela, and I’m a figure skating junkie.  Or used to be.

Babilonia And Gardner in 1979, photo by Tony Duffy
Babilonia & Gardner in 1979, photo by Tony Duffy

I first started taking notice of the sport at the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, when pairs skaters and reigning world champions Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner were forced to withdraw from competition because of his groin injury. Disappointing as that was to see (and devastating for B&G themselves), I ended up sticking around for the other disciplines. My most vivid memory after their withdrawal was watching lean, elegant Robin Cousins–one of the tallest men in the sport–win the men’s gold for Great Britain, and two young American up-and-comers David Santee and Scott Hamilton place fourth and fifth. And just like that, I was hooked.

The Brians on the Olympic podium, photo by Calgary Sun
The Brians on the Olympic podium, photo by Calgary Sun

I followed the sport faithfully after that, watching Hamilton fulfill his early promise with four world championships and a gold medal in Sarajevo, 1984. After that, I watched two amazingly talented, closely matched male skaters–one American, one Canadian, both named Brian–vie for dominance in the sport over the next four years, a competition finally resolved by a narrow victory for the American Brian [Boitano] over the Canadian Brian [Orser] at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary. (By the way, “Battle of the Brians” = “Best Skating Rivalry Ever”). And I was thrilled when perennial long shot Paul Wylie won a silver medal at the Albertville Games in 1992, skating beautifully to a program set to Patrick Doyle’s “Henry V,” one of my all-time favorite soundtracks.

The women’s competition provided its share of memorable moments and unforgettable skaters over several Olympiads too. Elaine Zayak finished off the podium but not before upping the technical level for the sport by performing multiple triple jumps. Katarina Witt became the first woman since Sonja Henie to win back-to-back gold medals in 1984 and 1988. Debi Thomas became the first black woman to win a world championship and earned an Olympic bronze in 1988. And Canadian Liz Manley stole both Witt and Thomas’s thunder by winning the long program (and a silver medal) at the Calgary Games–skating to music that was not from “Carmen.”

Michelle Kwan, in Lyrica Angelica
Michelle Kwan, in Lyrica Angelica

The 1992 Games swept Kristi Yamaguchi (gold) and Nancy Kerrigan (bronze) to fame, then two years later, all hell broke loose with an attack on Kerrigan (front-runner for the gold at Lillehammer) orchestrated by the ex-husband of her U.S. rival Tonya Harding. The fallout from that ugly incident lasted for years, but fortunately, a fresh crop of skaters, led by the phenomenal Michelle Kwan, took away some of the lingering bad taste. Ultimately, Olympic gold was not in the stars for Kwan, and I winced every time it slipped away from her. But nine national titles, five world titles, and Olympic silver and bronze medals still represent one hell of a legacy, and she’s rightly considered one of the all-time greats.

Pairs and ice-dancing weren’t on my radar to the same degree as the singles events. But I watched slack-jawed with the rest of the world when Torvill and Dean essentially revolutionized ice-dancing with “Bolero” in 1984. And scratched my head over some of the routines that emerged in the post-T&D era. More than the other disciplines, ice dancing seems prone to frequent reinvention–the pendulum is constantly swinging, though you can’t always predict in which direction!

Torvill and Dean in Bolero, 1984
Torvill & Dean in Bolero, 1984, photo by Getty Images

Over the last decade or so, my interest in figure skating has waned, mostly due to decreased coverage of the sport, an increasingly incomprehensible scoring/judging system, and the relative lack of strong skaters to emerge from the ranks, once the “veterans” retire or turn pro. But in spite of all that, once that Olympic torch is lit and the ice rink properly Zambonied, I’m there again–ready to marvel at the skaters’ ability and tenacity, laugh at the sillier costumes and programs, question the judges’ sanity, and applaud or criticize the results.

And the Sochi Games of 2014 provided plenty of the above. From the introduction of the new team competition, to the resurgence of the Russian  pairs skaters, to the cringe-inducing splat-fest that was the men’s free skate, to the well-deserved Olympic coronation of ice dancing favorites Davis and White, to the highly controversial outcome of the women’s competition, figure skating once again provided two weeks of fascinating, on-the-edge-of-your-seat drama.

Davis & White in free dance, photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images
Davis & White in free dance, photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

Tonight, after “16 Days of Glory,” the Olympic torch goes out.  See you in four years!

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