Sport on thin ice

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:30 AM ET

"Ice dance cannot be taken seriously. They all have to be lined up at dawn ... we have to get rid of them all and start over."

-- Toller Cranston, 56

Widely acclaimed as the most influential figure skater of our time, Canadian legend Toller Cranston is also the most controversial.

Now living in Mexico where he produces hundreds of world-class paintings every year, the outspoken Hamilton native is displaying his work all week at Calgary's Artists of the World gallery.

In light of falling TV ratings and crowds of 6,000 at the world championships here this week, Sun sports columnist Eric Francis sat down with the flamboyant dean of skating to find out why the sport is in such a free fall. Not surprisingly, he had lots to say:

SPORT IS TOO WEIRD:

Cranston: "The popularity has dropped off because of its weirdness. You have people like Emanuel Sandhu and Johnny Weir at a very high level who are very good skaters but they're more weird than interesting. You have men skating around with lip gloss, eye shadow and chiffon scarves. Families in North America are going to say, 'My son is not going to figure skate.' People like Brian Orser, Brian Boitano, Elvis (Stojko) or Kurt (Browning) were role models and every family wanted their kids to skate."

SKATING ISN'T AS GOOD:

Cranston: "The reason the ice dancers were dropping like flies in Turin, falling on their a--es and being carried out in stretchers is because they can't skate.

"The emphasis is on all the wrong things. The dynamics are wrong. It has to be like modern dance on ice -- anything goes.

"Skating was as good as it gets at the Olympics in Calgary but the heyday of the sport's popularity was the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan showdown when figure skating was the second most popular sport in the world on TV. Today it's not in the top 10. The sport has become like Strictly Ballroom -- it can't be taken seriously."

TOO MANY RULES:

Cranston: "Now there's extreme paranoia that what happened in Salt Lake with (Jamie) Sale and (David) Pelletier can't happen again. So there's a gridlock of new rules. Do this and you get these points.

"The skaters are rendered impotent re: creativity and personality because it's driven by rules. When

I skated, it was a mixture of sport and art with a tremendous emphasis on individuality and personal touch. The personal touch can't exist if you have all these rules and certain criteria you have to meet.

"The marks used to range from one to six.

"Now there is no high-water mark -- no ultimate level to achieve because it can keep going up and up."

COACHING CRISIS:

Cranston: "The demise of the former Soviet Union saw every serious Russian coach come to the U.S. to make money. They trained American skaters to become clones of Russians. Everyone was from the same cookie cutter."

TOO MANY COMPETITIONS:

Cranston: "When I competed, there were three big competitions: The Canadian national championships, the world championships and, every four years, the Olympics. There are now so many generic and utterly ridiculous competitions that nobody actually knows how they fit into the mix."

NO MORE 'IT' FACTOR:

Cranston: "If you do your triple-bipple and I only do my triple and not my bipple, you win. Something is wrong with that. It takes away that subjective element. That said, the heart is willing -- they want to fix it and I agree with that. But this new system -- the panacea is not easy to come up with. "


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