Figure skating culture like no other

BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:22 AM ET

Assignment: the Canadian figure skating championships.

Or, how to visit another planet without ever leaving Mother Earth.

This is one very curious sport. For instance, there are four main events here -- none of which has a skater dominant enough to be declared the favourite. The only certainty is that there isn't a teddy bear worth its stuffing that is safe within miles of London, Ont.

The first thing one must understand about figure skating is that they no longer do, well, actual figures. They stopped doing that more than a decade ago. Too boring. "When you go to a piano recital, you don't start out by listening to someone do the scales," Gayle McClelland, director of development for Skate Canada, said.

So, I guess it, ahh, figures. But, then you see a young dance team scurry for the Labatt Centre's exit after a practice; she's looking very Britney Spears; he's lugging an inflatable plastic doll.

Don't ask. Some things it is best not to know. I'm thinking it's this sport's version of the tackling dummy. So to speak.

It is arguable that one has stepped into sport's twilight zone when artistry and fashion is valued as much -- sometimes more -- than athleticism. It is the one place in all jockdom where geekiness (and we mean that in the nicest way) is not merely tolerated but celebrated.

The sport has even introduced a whole new scoring system where a delicately turned ankle and a deft spin can trump a macho leap.

Smelling salts for Mr. Stojko, please.

Speaking of whom, the neighbourhood toffee pull has more name recognition than the current Canadian skating scene, which might explain why the arena for qualifying sessions had so many fans they could've introduced themselves to the skaters by name.

It was so subdued you could've heard Emanuel Sandhu drop a quad from here to the next Olympics.

But, then, it is still early. At least, that was the gist of a news conference yesterday where Skate Canada CEO Pam Coburn promised that excitement is imminent, and with a team record 15 medals on the Grand Prix circuit this winter, her skaters will again soon steal Canadian hearts.

"Our goal in 2006 is to win four medals combined at the Olympics and worlds," Coburn said. Hold it. I think Sandhu's blood pressure just blew up again.

But never mind. Some of the best parts of figure skating happen in the stands. Take the teenaged groupies overheard in heated discussion about the lovely fashion sense of Jeffrey Buttle's finely sequined, torso-hugging top.

Talk like that about Tie Domi and someone's ending up with a black eye. Guaranteed.

At the Indy 500, or almost any other auto race, there will be women shamelessly doffing their tops. Yesterday, in the bleachers, women were shamelessly knitting tops. What this thing needs is a good wardrobe malfunction. Where's Shae-Lynn Bourne when you need her.

Pearl one, knit one; stop, clap; knit one, pearl one ...

BEST JEWELS

And, speaking of fashion, figure skating is the only sport where the competitors put their best jewels and clothes on, instead of taking them off, before they compete.

Then there is sport's golden rule: No crying allowed.Except, of course, in figure skating?

Not only is crying allowed, they have an official "kiss and cry zone." Sandhu got early use out of this after his qualifying skate when he noted: "I was really quite p----- off and angry. Wouldn't everybody have a field day, wouldn't it be funny if I didn't qualify?"

No actual Sandhu teardrops. Guess he's saving it for the big moment. You know, like a real pro.

Figure skating also has what is called "the mixed area" where reporters meet with skaters and sometimes eye contact is actually made. Anyone who has had to interview pro athletes on a daily basis will know there's usually about as much chance of that happening as Gary Bettman getting an invite to the Goodenow family picnic. On this occasion, Buttle was explaining his fall on a triple axel -- an indication that the classical music to which he is skating isn't the only thing in his program that's baroque.

BRUTALLY SELF-EFFACING

More so than any other elite athletes, figure skaters seem capable of being brutally self-effacing. Take for instance Sandhu's coach, Joanne McLeod, who has given up trying to figure out her enigmatic protege. "It's not so much consistency as it is who he is." In other words; one day he's a world beater, the next he's going to trip over his emotional baggage. What you see is what you've got. The guy is 24 years old and he's not likely to change.

That kind of honest, open discussion doesn't happen in most pro sports. For instance, Barry Bonds is one of the few people on earth who can strut whilst sitting down and, to have him tell it, wouldn't recognize a steroid if it bit him in the butt.

In football, fans throw snowballs and epithets and moon the players. In figure skating the only thing that's going to take your eye out is flying floral tribute -- which can't be all bad.


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