QUEBEC CITY, Quebec
Covering the “Skate Canada” international figure skating competition this past weekend, I broke away from the action one night to stroll along the quaint, cobblestone streets of Quebec City. It wasn’t long before it dawned on me that there were no signs or banners advertising the event anywhere in sight. Surprising, considering that an athletic competition of this magnitude draws the cream of the crop figure skaters from around the world. The host city typically hypes an event by plastering posters on every street corner. Instead, I saw more signs publicizing yesterday’s NFL showdown between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts….an event taking place in another country. It definitely sent a message about the state of skating in North America.
In a society that thrives on over-stimulation, skating has simply become un-cool. Television viewer-ship is down and arenas are half empty. The vast majority of those who do attend events are women with white hair. Entities appealing to younger demographics now take the shape of ESPN’s ever-popular “X-Games”…which showcases sports like surfing, skateboarding, and snowboarding. Compared to its other action-packed counterparts, like football and basketball, skating operates at a slower pace, and is a bit outdated. Instead of spandex costumes covered in sequins, modern-day athletes favor baggy basketball shorts and flashy sneakers that cost more than my monthly car payment. And performances are often choreographed to classical music, instead of top-40 tunes. This year’s ice dancing theme is folk music. Need I say more? When I was growing up, Olympic skaters Brian Boitano and Debbie Thomas were as “big” as Roger Clemens and Larry Bird in my mind. But today, my guess is that most kids would struggle to name a top ten skater.
It’s not a stretch to compare figure skating to, say, Michael Jackson. Trust me on this one, it’s not as crazy a comparison as it sounds. Both were “hot” in the 1980’s and early 90’s. People wanted to be them. Act like them. Dress like them. And then scandal struck. For figure skating, it was the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan “whack on the knee” saga before the 1994 Olympic Games. As for Jacko, his downfall came amidst child sex-abuse allegations in 2005. Today, neither figure skating nor Michael Jackson have been able to stage a comeback.
But is it fair to figure skaters to simply ignore their sport? I must admit that, at times, my eyes tend to glaze over when I watch skating. But I do respect the athletes, and the rigorous training they must endure to “make it” in the sport. Some, like 2006 Olympian Emily Hughes, even manage to balance skating with studying…she’s a freshman at Harvard this year. How many other competitive athletes at her level do this? Only a select few, like Michelle Kwan, bank big bucks. Most just hope to cover training and travel expenses…many go into deep debt. So why do they sacrifice so much? They do it for the love of the game. How many of today’s athletes can say the same? Maybe it’s time for figure skating to update their sport, so it can appeal to younger generations, who can carry the flame….and prevent it from extinguishing altogether.