The women's Super Bowl has begun. For the Olympic figure-skating finale, the TV audience and overall media coverage swell to levels no other women's event can match. The viewers tune in to see a more-exalted version of a men's performance. In figure skating, even though the guys can jump higher and faster, their competition is the auxiliary show. Nobody will be watching Kim Yu-na and saying the equivalent of: Yea, she's great, but can she dunk?
We're at halftime right now, the period between the short program and the long. The party planning can begin. I suggest going with a theme tied to the nationalities of the top three qualifiers in the short program. This year, that would be something Korean for leader Yuna Kim, Russian for Adelina Sotnikova and Italian for Carolina Kostner. Or chips left over from the Super Bowl. Ladies' Home Journal isn't watching.
No matter what the Olympic program says, we're not watching "ladies" figure skating. This event already overflows with judgment about irrelevancies -- costume elegance and makeup quality -- that can skew a final score. The competitors shouldn't have to live up to a model set by the British nobility. Unless there's an estate with a manor home awarded alongside the gold medal, just call them women.
For a traditional sports fan, embracing figure skating can be a complicated exercise. It takes a while to get over the indoctrination about strict objectivity and definitive scoring that takes place instantaneously on the field, not along a bank of arbiters, some of them wearing fur coats, while the athlete waits in a kiss-and-cry zone clutching a stuffed animal. You'll feel obliged to mock yourself and the event itself when admitting that you plan to watch skating or, if you're a sportswriter, cover it. "How the *%#$ can anyone tell the difference between a Salchow and a Lutz? Or whether a jump was fully rotated? You have to wait for the replay, and even then, no matter how times Scotty Hamilton explains it, the Salchow and Lutz still look the same.''
Then, after years of internal struggle, the revelation hits: You can love more than one kind of competition equally, and quite passionately. You're not betraying some central tenet of sports fandom. This logic also applies to the differences between men's and women's versions of the same sport, especially lacrosse and basketball, but let's not digress.
The worries about being unable to differentiate jumps mirror efforts to figure out who recovered a fumble in a football game. If there's a pile, nobody really knows who had the ball when the whistle blew. We ignore the fact that it's a mystery and go along with whatever the officials make the call. Someday, I swear, they're going to give a recovery to a player who isn't even in the stadium.
The judges are really the biggest impediment to championing the legitimacy of figure skating. The win is defined not strictly by performance, but by the impressions of people who bear national and cultural biases. The scandals of vote trading -- the Russian judge goes for the French dancers, the French judge agrees to upgrade a Russian pair -- make it even tougher.
It helps to remember the dysfunctions of entrenched sports and how heavily they rely on officials as well:
Boxing -- If there's no knockout, judges render the verdict. Yes, there are specific criteria, but figure skating has similar standards, especially since it reformed its scoring system after the 2002 Olympics. The behind-the-scene machinations? Just picture Don King as a Frenchwoman. In the end, a lot of boxers have to wait for someone else's decision just like the skaters. They never get to hold a teddy bear, but maybe they should.
Football -- Four words: Holding on every play.
Baseball -- The home-plate umpire rules the game, and the hitters and pitchers have to deal with it. The strike zone has become more consistent since video monitoring went into effect, but again, the same thing has happened in figure skating. It's still subjective, and competitors still struggle not to complain about it. That half-pout, half-grimace on Ashley Wagner's face after the judges marked her down in the team competition? Hitters wore the same look whenever Greg Maddux humbled them. Sometimes, they'd whine after a game that the ump gave him a favorable strike zone. To which any sensible person would have to reply: "Your entire team looked at 15 pitches all day. How do you even know what his strike zone was?''
Every Olympic cycle, some columnist, pretending to be a contrarian while spouting stale thoughts from the 1980s mainstream, decides to reform figure skating so that he will deign to watch it and take it seriously. I'm not saying it's always a man, but for the most part, the complaints come from that pool of pundits. Sequins make them crazy. They hate the fact that the skaters need a coach and choreographer. They don't like the music. Nag, nag, nag.
I have to admit the costumes give me pause, because they're so expensive. When expert analysts cite designer names, a sport is probably pricing out talent that, if cultivated, would reinvent the whole game.
And the sequins... what are you going to do? I made peace with them a long time ago, when I decided to let go of defensiveness about skating. After all, I still like football, which has much bigger flaws. I haven't abandoned my whole belief system about sports; I've expanded it.
I still consider Jim Bouton's Ball Four the epitome of sports literature. I re-read passages whenever I want a laugh. I also call up the YouTube video of Shizuka Arakawa's sublime, winning long program at the 2006 Olympics when I need an emotional lift. It works better than chocolate.