I’m a fan of figure skating, but old school. Meaning: I didn’t really follow the Olympics in Torino and don’t have a clue who plans to compete in Vancouver, but I was obsessed with the Battle of both the Carmens and the Brians in Calgary in 1988 and went just about over the moon when the IOC changed the rules and I got two winter Olympics in two years: 1992 and 1994. There was Kristi and eventually Nancy. And perhaps my favorite of all, Michelle. But before any of these women, there was Katarina. I started thinking about her last week with all the talk of the end of the Cold War, the wall coming down, and reunification.
Katarina Witt is a figure skater who represented East Germany throughout most of her skating career. She stole my heart in 1988 when she went head to head with Debi Thomas in the ladies figure skating championship in Calgary. She won with this performance, which still gives me goose bumps. But it’s another performance that still has the ability to make me cry. Witt is only one of two women who ever successfully defended her Olympic title (1984 and 1988; the other is Sonja Henie). She did not compete in the 1992 games, but due to a change in the rules professional skaters were allowed to compete in 1994. Without any realistic expectations of winning a medal, she instead created a routine that she dedicated to the people of Sarajevo. She won her first gold medal at the winter Olympic games in Sarajevo in 1984, so when she returned to the 1994 games in Lillehammer she skated her long program as a tribute to the people of Sarajevo, who were in the midst of a raging war following the collapse of the Yugoslav federation. She skated to a version of Pete Seeger’s Where Have All the Flowers Gone. While this isn’t the Olympic performance, it’s the same program and better quality:
In 1994 I also got to know Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, an ice dancing pair who also won their first gold medal at the 1984 winter games in Sarajevo. Their long program, which they skated to Ravel’s Bolero, stunned audiences and judges alike — they were the first skaters ever to receive the perfect score of 6.0 from every single judge in the artistic impression category. Due to the same change in rules that brought Katarina Witt to Lillehammer, Torvill and Dean also came back in 1994. They were robbed of the gold that year (imho), but here’s the routine from ’84 that, for many, revolutionized the sport of ice dancing.
And then came Michelle. I barely know where to begin. (My friend Michelle might encourage me to start by telling you about the belt that I once purchased because it was the same beautiful ice blue color of the dress that Michelle Kwan wore during her long program at the Nagano Olympics when she, too, was robbed of the gold medal … but I might be too embarrassed to mention it.) I love Michelle Kwan. I was devastated when thatbitchtaralipinski was awarded the gold medal in 1998. I’m sure Michelle has reconciled herself to that travesty in Olympic history, but I haven’t! Anyway, onward to Salk Lake City in 2002, which we all thought was Michelle’s year. Turns out it was, though not quite like any of us imagined.
Due to all sorts of fishy ice skating rules and things, not to mention a few mistakes during her performance (details details), she won the bronze medal. However, it was during the post-competition Olympic gala that I saw her Fields of Gold program for the first time. Seriously, waterworks. What a triumph it was to watch her, in a season during which everyone favored her for the gold, put her best foot forward and skate so beautifully to a song with such an ironic title. (As a side note, Kwan’s routine helped pluck the singer Eva Cassidy from relative obscurity and, though posthumously, her album Songbird went on to receive gold certification; Cassidy’s parents went to see Kwan perform this routine in Baltimore and presented her with a copy of the gold record.) It seems quaint now, but I recorded the performance using my trusty VCR and would watch it every now and then until one day, gasp, I accidentally recorded an episode of ER on top of it. Thus, I must take this opportunity to thank you, Internet, for giving me my Michelle back.
Finally, who in the world knew that the name “Figure Skating” actually came from the compulsory figures (or school figures) that played a significant role in the overall scores during competitions? Didja?! Clearly I never thought this through (and I call myself a fan) but, wow, what a discovery. While doing some reading for this post I found multiple references to people receiving marks for “compulsory figures,” which under the former skating rules was a score that awarded points for carving specific figures into the ice that were then scrutinized by judges to make sure they were uniform in size, didn’t wobble or have flat edges, etc. Compulsory figures actually gave the sport its name! And they were the sport for a long time, counting for more than half an athlete’s total score. Eventually the short program was added and compulsories counted for less of the total, but were still combined with the short and long programs to determine the winner of a particular competition. Their weight in competition changed over time, and they were eventually eliminated altogether in 1990. Seriously, I may be the last person to figure this out (heh), but blow me down. Things make much more sense now.