Monday, February 10, 2014

Back to the Future?

A couple of days ago, I read with interest a column by Linda Robertson of the Miami Herald in which she argues that figure skating in America desperately needs "an ice queen" to survive.

It is ironic, I suppose, that such a suggestion should be made this month, 20 years after the Tonya Harding–Nancy Kerrigan showdown in the Winter Games.

Tonya, as I observed last month, was part of a conspiracy to get Kerrigan out of the way so Harding could breeze to the championship in the Nationals and then — presumably — win the gold medal in Norway.

But the plot unraveled, and both were allowed to compete in the Winter Olympics. The buildup for that showdown had something for everyone — Kerrigan was the good girl, Harding was the bad girl. Ratings went through the roof. In spite of the assumptions of many, though, neither won the gold. Kerrigan took the silver.

The general mindset at the time was that women's figure skating was the domain of the Americans — not unlike the general belief that once accompanied women's gymnastics, that it was the domain of Russia and the communist–bloc countries.

Fast forward a couple of decades.

The American women haven't won a gold medal in figure skating since 2002. They didn't medal at all in the last Winter Games.

The general prospects for the 2014 Games don't look so good, either. It isn't all bad. Americans are favored in ice dancing, Robertson reports, and the U.S. team has a chance at a medal.

But "U.S. pairs will be outclassed and, most humbling of all, U.S. men's and women's skaters face the prospect of being shut out of the medals for the first time since 1936."

Robertson writes that dominance in skating is seen as a cyclical thing, and I suppose there is truth in that. Everything does seem to go in cycles, and perhaps this is a natural downturn for the Americans. That isn't good news for NBC, which holds the American Olympic broadcasting rights through 2020.

The Summer Games have a lot of appealing events for Americans — track and field, swimming, diving, volleyball, gymnastics — but the marquee event for the Winter Games is figure skating. Oh, sure, you have some who like to watch skiing and, for awhile, Olympic hockey thrived in traditionally non–hockey markets, but that faded after the U.S. hockey team failed to duplicate its gold–medal success in the 1980 Winter Games.

NBC needs women's figure skating to be what it once was — a ratings bonanza.

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