Yevgeny Plushenko got something right in his remarks after winning the silver at the Winter Olympics.  The New York Times quotes him:

“If the Olympic champion doesn’t know how to jump a quad, I don’t know,” Plushenko said. “Now it’s not men’s figure skating. It’s dancing. Maybe figure skating needs a new name.”

Plushenko is probably right about the name of the sport, but (ironically) not for the reasons he intended.  Plushenko was annoyed at the win of Evan Lysacek, even though Lysacek didn’t perform a quadruple jump, a hallmark of Plushenko’s performances for many years.

First of all, Plushenko is simply drawing an incorrect conclusion here.  He received the same score as Lysacek for the artistic elements of his program (even though a number of reports have suggested that his artistry was inferior and that parts of the program were simply jumps with little effort at a transition).  So Plushenko lost on his technical score, not on artistry.  Despite the fact that he landed a quad, he simply didn’t rack up the same number of technical points as Lysacek.  Surely the win in technical points shouldn’t be determined on the basis of one kind of jump?

However, as I said, Plushenko is onto something here — “figure skating” is not what it used to be.  Quite frankly, it’s not about figures anymore, and it hasn’t really been for over 40 years.Many modern viewers of figure skating are probably not aware that there are actually “figures” in “figure skating.”  Or, rather, there were.  Figure skating used to be much more about technique than it has been in Plushenko’s generation of men’s quads and women’s triple axels.  Plushenko’s emphasis on quadruple jumps to the exclusion of everything else would seem very foreign to the technical skaters of generations past.

You see, there used to be a thing called compulsory figures.  That’s where the sport gets its name.  (Note — a lot of what follows is also described in the linked Wikipedia article.)

Skaters’ technical skill was determined by a set of precisely drawn patterns on the ice.  Until the late 1940s, each skater in competition had to perform 12 figures — 6 on each foot — to an incredibly exacting degree.  They were worth 60% of the overall score, so a mediocre free skater could easily win a competition by having superior technique.  The judges would walk out onto the ice and perform exacting measurements to be sure that a skater had technical control in producing the figures.  From the late 1940s through the 1960s, the number of figures was reduced to 6, since the process of drawing and scoring the figures took a great deal of time.  And yet still more than half of the overall score was based on technique — specifically, the technique not of free skating, but of figure skating.

What happened?  Television.

Could you imagine skaters moving slowly around in precise circles and figure 8s, followed by a bunch of judges standing around staring and the ice and doing measurements on television?  It’s hard to imagine a more boring “sport” to watch.  It would be sort of like watching a musician play scales and then watching a judge sitting around listening the recording of the scales in exacting detail to be sure that they were perfectly even in tone, played exactly evenly in rhythm, etc.

So, as the Olympics and other skating competitions began to be televised, it isn’t surprising that figure skating became less important.  Or, rather, the actual figures of figure skating became less important.  “Figure skating” took a turn into entertainment and ultimately celebrity.

In 1968, compulsory figures went from 60% to 50% of the overall score.  Then, in the 1970s, the short program was introduced.  Compulsory figures went to 40%, then 30%, and finally 20% in the late 1980s.  Finally, in 1990, they were completely eliminated from international competition.  “Figure skating” had lost its figures.

And thus, Plushenko is absolutely correct — “figure skating” needs a new name.  Perhaps “technical yet ostentatious skating”?

I’m not arguing for the reinstatement of compulsory figures into modern “figure skating,” although it would be nice to allow it as a potential event in “figure skating” competitions.  The better solution would be to come up with a better name, as Plushenko suggests.

And yet, I am still bothered at Plushenko’s suggestion, since it appears to be grossly ignorant of the past 40 years of skating history.  Professional figure skating has become the signature event of the Winter Olympics because it draws a huge audience.  But that audience doesn’t really care about the details of technical ability in any traditional sense.  The audience cares about showmanship.  They want to see a good show.  Big scary jumps do make for a better show, but you’re only kidding yourself if you think that the audience gives a damn about how many times you rotate in the air as long as it looks impressive to a layperson.

That’s why, for example, almost all commentators on the Olympics tend to focus on jumps, even though they are only part of the overall technical score.  How often do you hear comments on a great spin or particularly interesting footwork outside of ice dancing?  The jumps are the most dramatic, and that’s the only reason why they’ve become so important.  It has nothing to do with craft and technique, since figure skating long ago turned its back on the most technical aspects of its competition.

Now, there may be some people out there who are reading this and know a lot more about recent trends in figure skating, and they will object to my characterization.  In particular, the new scoring system, created after a scandal where judges were throwing the competitions, emphasizes technical aspects and precision to a ridiculous degree.  And thus, we now have the likes of Washington Post columnists lamenting how we have lost the artistry.

But, as I’ve said, figure skating traditionally wasn’t about artistry.  It was about technique, and it was only through the increasingly dramatic jumping around of skaters in the 1970s and 1980s to pander to larger crowds and television audiences that skating got rid of its emphasis on technique.  Sure, there’s an incredible amount of technique in jumps, but again, that’s not why they became popular.  They are dramatic.

Hence, in the 1990s and early 2000s — a relatively short period in skating history, despite what those at the Washington Post might think — the “great” skaters were consummate artists rather than technicians.  But the earliest great skater cited in the Post is Peggy Fleming, whose performance in the 1968 Olympics was the beginning of the era of rules that moved away from figures.  Although Dick Button gets mentioned as a “commentator,” his career dates back to a time when the sport was very different, and yet he lamented this year that we weren’t going to see the kind of skating “we necessarily like the most.”  Of course, Dick Button would want the flashiness to be rewarded, since he was (after all) the first skater to perform a double-axel and the first triple jumps.

I have nothing against flashiness.  I love artistry.  But let’s not kid ourselves.  Let’s not join either Plushenko, who opines that technique is dead, or those who complain about the new scoring system as too technical.  The reality is that modern figure skating is not about technique beyond those aspects that are flashy and ostentatious, and it certainly has nothing to do with “figures.”  You can hear it in the voices of commentators who complain about “technical” calls for skaters that don’t quite land jumps correctly and judges that are too strict.  They often just want to see the cool jumps (and they know that’s what the audience wants to hear); the technical execution is only secondary.  You’d never hear such annoyance about low scores for a landing after an aerial ski jump.

Basically, it’s about entertainment, and only the technical aspects that complement that goal of entertainment are worthwhile.  But, pace Plushenko, if you’re not willing to be an entertainer, I don’t understand why you’d ever sign up for the current incarnation of figure skating in the first place.  If you really want to care about technique, go back and start skating figures rather than just the latest coolest acrobatics, and then perhaps we can talk what we should call the current Olympic event.