Friday, February 26, 2010

Triumph of the Heart

Last night's women's figure skating conclusion at the Winter Olympics was not as emotional as I expected it to be, but it was emotional enough.

Perhaps it would have been more emotional if Canada's Joannie Rochette, carrying the burden of her grief over the sudden death of her mother less than a week ago, could somehow have leaped past her two main rivals, Korea's Kim Yu–Na and Japan's Mao Asado.

But their performances were simply too great, and the top three after Tuesday's short program remained the top three after the long program. When last night's competition came to an end, Kim Yu–Na received the gold medal, Mao Asado took the silver and Rochette captured the bronze.

I suppose Rochette would have broken down if she had been awarded the gold — and someone almost surely would have said that her mother's spirit had intervened on her behalf. As it was, she earned a medal, which had been her and her mother's goal, but she didn't win the competition against two superior foes, which would have implied supernatural influence.

Personally, I'm not sure how I feel about talk of deceased relatives interceding in earthly activities. It seems to me that, if such a thing were true, it would not have been possible for the global economy to turn as sour as it did, leaving millions without jobs. There would have been too many dead parents stepping in to prevent their children from being terminated.

But that, I suppose, is a different discussion.

Certainly, Rochette's performance was courageous. As I watched, I couldn't help but think of my own experience when my mother died and I had professional obligations to meet before I could allow myself to grieve. Before and after her performance on Tuesday, Rochette appeared to be an emotional wreck, but she put everything on the shelf while she was on the ice and skated brilliantly. I wasn't competing in the Olympics so there weren't millions of people watching me, but I didn't have to have that in common with Rochette. I know how personal loss can weigh on someone.

By last night, I guess Rochette had had a little more time to adjust to her loss. There were moments when she had to dab her eyes, especially when the medals were being awarded, but she did not seem as emotional as she had two nights earlier. She completed a complex program and received a score that represented a personal best. We'll never know if any of the judges gave her a little leeway in light of her personal pain, but her performance merited a medal.

I've been wondering how she would have done if she had been competing using the scoring system that was in use in the days when many of the legends of figure skating competed in the Olympics.

In the old days, figure skating was different. Competitors still had to do well in the short and long programs, but they also had to do well in the "compulsory figures" (also known as the "school figures").

If you're under 30, you probably have no memory of that part of the competition — which is probably just as well. When modern figure skating enthusiasts think of competition, they probably think of thrilling leaps and spins on the ice. The compulsory figures were the direct opposite. They were the slow, tedious carving of patterns in the ice with one's skates — the "basics" of figure skating.

The judges stood to the side and watched as the skaters went through the procedures, then made precise measurements of the figures before arriving at their scores.

In my mind, I always equated it with having a deep sea fisherman demonstrate his worthiness to be hired for a fishing crew on the basis of his ability to tie basic knots.

For TV viewers, it was marginally more exciting than watching paint dry.

It was possible, I guess, for a figure skater to not do well in the compulsories and still do well in the competition, but, until 1968, the compulsories were worth 60% of a contestant't final score. Thus, it was necessary to at least do well in the compulsories to have a chance at a medal.

The influence of the compulsories began to decrease as television became more prominent. By the time Dorothy Hamill won the gold medal in 1976, the compulsories were worth less than half of her final score. And when Kristi Yamaguchi won the gold in 1992, the compulsories were no longer part of the Olympic competition.

But, if you look at the attached video, you will see that the compulsories required a great deal of concentration. And, since the compulsories typically were the first segment of the competition, it is reasonable to assume that, if they were still part of the competition in 2010, Rochette and the other skaters would have been scheduled to do them on Sunday, which was the day Rochette's mother died.

Instead, though, Rochette had time to prepare for the short and long programs. She didn't have to focus on school figures when more pressing matters were on her mind.

And she — and her homeland — were rewarded with an Olympic memory for the ages.

No comments: