I've got Midori Ito spinning about in my mind.
You remember Ito. She was the 18-year-old Japanese figure skater who kept leaving the ice at the Calgary Winter Olympics like a bumblebee loaded with too much pollen, spinning three times in the air, landing and then soaring again. Here she comes...there she goes...whoa!—almost made it into orbit that time. After completing each flawless triple jump, she would beam as if it were the first time in her life she had accomplished the feat. She thoroughly won over the crowd and stole the free skating show from the dueling Carmens, Katarina Witt of East Germany and Debi Thomas of the U.S. For figure skating fans, Ito was one of the highlights of the Games.
Ito didn't win a medal, however; she had placed a lackluster 10th in the compulsory figures, which accounted for 30% of the scoring. But she won't have to improve that aspect of her skating before the 1992 Games in Albertville, France, because the International Skating Union, the sport's governing body, recently voted to phase out the compulsories in international competition over the next two years. As a result, Ito is Witt's heiress apparent.
The elimination of the compulsories is a monumental revision in the sport. Not many spectators will miss the compulsories, but then not many spectators ever saw them. They are tedious to watch. During this first segment of the three-part competition (the other parts: the short program and free skating), each skater would trace three figures—variations on the figure 8. This could take as long as eight hours to complete at a championship; the majority of that time was consumed by the judges, bent over with their rumps in the air, inspecting the marks left on the ice by each skater's blade—tracings almost indiscernible from a distance of more than a foot.
Scoring could be widely divergent and, often, politically inspired. The whole exercise added a certain mystique to the sport. To become proficient in compulsories, a skater must practice them day after day for years and years, and the only people who ever see the results of these efforts are the coaches, the judges and the skaters themselves.
It was the coaches who were most vocal in their support of the compulsories, for teaching figures is an art in itself and learning them helps make skaters better all-around. One of the reasons it is so expensive to train a world-class figure skater—$25,000 to $30,000 a year—is that two to three supervised hours a day must be spent trying to master figures. This is not the territory of phenoms. The most experienced skaters are invariably marked highest in the compulsories.
"You watch," predicts coach Carlo Fassi, whose past pupils include Olympic champions Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill and Robin Cousins. "Our champions will start getting younger, so that they will soon be children, as in gymnastics. There will be 15 other Itos in the next Olympics. All they will be able to do is tricks."
Tricks—i.e., triple jumps, double Axels, combination jumps, death drops—have contributed to the surge in popularity that figure skating has enjoyed on television in recent years. But Fassi's point is a good one. One of the appealing aspects of figure skating as compared with gymnastics is that its ladies' champions are not little girls. Puberty doesn't signal the far side of the hill. Maturity and experience count for something—most tangibly in the execution of the compulsory figures. Midori Ito was a winning freestyle skater; Katarina Witt was a winning figure skater.
Still, there's no getting around the fact that the compulsory figures were the hieroglyphics of sport. The tedious repetition required for compulsory figures, not to mention the added expense of the extra hours of ice time and coaching fees, has probably dampened the enthusiasm of many novice skaters. Despite its spectator appeal, figure skating in the U.S. hasn't been growing at the participant level. For the last six years the number of skaters registered with the U.S. Figure Skating Association has remained steady at 30,000. Nevertheless, the USFSA voted against abolition of the compulsories. One reason is that America has an abundance of coaches able to teach the compulsories, a fact that has enabled the U.S. to produce more than its share of Olympic medalists.
The guess here is that more kids will turn to figure skating now that the compulsories are on their way out. More families will be able to afford it. Ice time at rinks, another limiting factor, will open up. Practice hours will become less grueling. A different type of kid, a more athletic one, will begin to appear on the ice. And coaches will find that they can make up for the loss of income that the end of compulsories will cost them by working with more students.
And Midori Ito? She had best be alert, because somewhere there's another leaping sprite with her eyes set on the gold in 1992.