Figure skating getting past controversy

STEVE BUFFERY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:27 PM ET

Skate Canada CEO William Thompson believes that figure skating is heading into another golden age.

Thompson said Wednesday that the sport is again on the upswing partly because it’s an Olympic year, with the Games being held in Canada, as well as the fact that Canada has a strong national team, led by men’s singles star Patrick Chan of Toronto.

He also believes that skating fans are beginning to finally look past the dark days of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games judging scandal.

Given that, Skate Canada and CBC officials are expecting big numbers from this week’s HomeSense Skate Canada International competition at the Kitchener Auditorium, which begins Friday.

“We’re doing a pretty good job in figure skating revitalizing the sport,” Thompson said Wednesday. “There’s a lot more coverage, a lot more interest in the athletes, a lot more media, better TV numbers. The slowest thing coming back is the crowds into the rink.”

Skating has drawn big TV numbers for years, on Canadian and American television in particular, but the sport suffered following the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic judging scandal, when a French judge, Marie-Reine Le Gougne, admitted that she was pressured to give the Russian pairs team, Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, better marks than the Canadian team of Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, despite the fact that the latter’s long program appeared superior.

The controversy resulted in both teams receiving golds and led to the overhaul of the scoring system. But the damage had been done and the sport has been forced to reconnect with its fan base in subsequent seasons.

“I think the new scoring system has dramatically improved the situation,” said Thompson. “We’re still a subjective sport to some extent — the unique aspect of our sport is that it blends artistry and athleticism. But unlike the old days, where there were dynasties, and you could predict who would win, the athletes move around now (after various programs).

“I think the fans now see that it works and they see that it’s fair,” Thompson said.

Three time world champion Elvis Stojko suggested earlier this year that the sport, and men’s skating in particular, had lost its way because the discipline was becoming too feminine, with not enough emphasis on jumps. At the 2009 worlds, neither the gold medallist, Evan Lysacek of the U.S., nor silver medallist Patrick Chan of Canada attempted a quad.

Both, however, are expected to attempt quads at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. That competition will also feature the return of defending Olympic champion Evegni Plushenko, so there is a major buzz building on the men’s side.

The numbers from earlier Grand Prix events this year have been rock solid for the CBC. The pairs free skate competition last weekend at Skate America drew 399,000 viewers.

With Chan, women’s singles skater Joannie Rochette and the ice dance team of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir — all of whom won medals for Canada at the 2009 world championships — entered in Skate Canada, the CBC expects even larger numbers from this weekend’s competition, the final Grand Prix stop.

Skate Canada officials are taking advantage of the popularity of the recent Battle of the Blades show, which matched up former NHL players with retired female skaters, announcing Wednesday that one of the show’s teams, Barbara Underhill and Ron Duguay, will skate in Sunday’s Exhibition Gala in Kitchener. The CBC also announced Wednesday that the Battle of the Blades will return next fall for a second season.

But Thompson credits the athletes, more than anything else, with the renewed enthusiasm around Canadian figure skating.

“We have some great personalities,” he said.


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