As skaters grew more accustomed to having television cameras recording their every step, they also grew accustomed to making the concessions necessary to insure television getting everything they needed to, in turn, make the skater look good. At the 1980 Olympic Games, when a production assistant overslept and missed a mandatory shot of Linda Fratianne arriving for practice, the four-time U.S. Champion graciously agreed to reenact the moment for the cameras.
By 1984, Scott Hamilton was so television-savvy, he called up ABC and said, 'I don't know if you're going to do an Up-Close-and-Personal profile on me, but, I suspect it's possible. I thought of this piece of music sung by Gary Morris, "Wind Beneath My Wings," and it's everything I believe about my relationship with my coach, Don Laws. So, if you were going to do a piece on me, I just want to throw that in." Laughs Doug Wilson, "He was already producing!"
At the 1988 Olympics, the plan was to make Russian Pair skater Ekaterina Gordeeva, the Olga Korbut, media-darling of the show. It was a fine plan, hampered by the fact that Pairs was, and typically is, the first discipline to finish competition. Meaning an immense build-up was impossible. Undaunted, television refused to abstain from their scheme, so that, even though she'd already won the gold, Katya stayed on the air for the duration of the Games, whether she was walking around the village, or simply sitting in the stands.
Another plan that didn't come off quite as it was supposed to was Wilson's coverage of Brian Boitano's Long Program. Wilson was determined to catch the definitive head-turn at the onset of the routine, in all its "Napoleon" glory. But, as it turned out, "I'd planned an opening shot, a first shot of his face, before the head- turn, but, because something happened prior to his going out on the ice, the camera I'd planned to use was not available. I had to use another one, in the left corner. It turned out to be a better shot than what I planned. Which, again, proves that if you really work hard and do your homework, it's amazing how lucky you can get."
For years, whenever producers of ABC's Wide World of Sports were asked by eager athletes, 'how do I get on TV?' their standard response was always, 'Either win or be spectacular.' At the 1972 Worlds, an up-and-coming American skater fulfilled the second half of the command. Director Doug Wilson remembers being so smitten by a little girl with a big pink bow, that he broke precedent and, in the middle of the dance event, "flashed back" to show a ladies' competitor who hadn't won even a medal. Thus giving the world their first glimpse of a teen-age Dorothy Hamill.
Skating and television broke another precedent, when, in 1980, a group of amateur and pro skaters, including Peggy Fleming, Lisa-Marie Allen, Linda Fratianne, JoJo Starbuck & Kenneth Shelley, Tai Babilonia & Randy Gardner, Judy Blumberg & Michael Seibert, David Santee, and Elaine Zayak -- skaters who, under the old amateur and pro rules should not even have been performing on the same ice -- became the first U.S. skaters to perform in Communist China. Apparently, one of Peggy Fleming's television specials had aired there, raising interest in her performing live, and opening a door to the historic visit. The United States Ambassador later told the athletes, that what they did to promote U.S./Chinese goodwill was worth a thousand political speeches.
The 1980 show aired live in China, and was seen by two hundred million people. Among them may have been a three year old Chen Lu, who, after winning the 1995 World Championship, admitted her childhood idol was Peggy Fleming.
One significant TV-inspired reorganization took place in the early 1970s, thanks to five-time U.S. Ladies' Champion Janet Lynn (who earlier, triggered a much smaller effect when her comment at the 1968 Olympics that what she missed about home was McDonald's hamburgers inspired the company to send enough burgers for every U.S. athlete, and, eight years later, become the Games' sponsor).
In 1972, when Lynn competed at her second Olympics, compulsory figures counted sixty percent of a skater's score, the free skating forty percent. Janet Lynn was a brilliant jumper and spinner. And a mediocre tracer of figures.
Her closest competitor, 1972 Olympic Champion Beatrix "Trixie" Schuba of Austria, was a lethargic free-styler. And arguably the greatest figure skater the world had ever seen. By the time the televised portion of the event, the free-skating, rolled around, Trixie was usually so far ahead, all she had to do was remain alive to capture the title. Viewers at home, however, could not understand why Trixie was the winner, when Janet Lynn had skated so enchantingly only moments earlier.
As a result, following the 1972 Olympics, a Short Program, worth twenty percent of the score, was added to all skating contests, and the value of figures was reduced, making the final tally: Figures 30%, Freestyle (combined Short and Long Programs) 70%. Over the next eighteen years, as skating grew in popularity, television viewers complained that figures were dull. So, by 1990, the figures were tossed.
Meg Streeter, who has directed skating for FOX, ABC, USA, A&E, UPN, and Turner, and still mourns the loss of compulsory figures, does believe that their elimination provided one benefit. She asserts, "The elimination of figures (made) judging get better. In the old days, if judges wanted someone in particular to win, since figures were the first event out, they could inflate their scores, and the audience would never see it. Because the audience wasn't watching, things could happen that nobody knew about. But, by televising an event you have more feedback as to how the judging goes. When you have a decision that people complain about around the world, it's going to have an impact. Now, judging has improved a great deal. It's more reflective of what's really happening."
Concurs Wilson, "Skating changed because of the size of the audience witnessing it."
By pointing its inquisitive eye onto the sport, television not only increased skating's popularity, it changed the very nature and rules of the game. Figures were just the tip of the iceberg...
LIGHTS, CAMERA, AXEL: HOW TV CHANGED SKATING (PART #1)
In June of 1996, Skating Magazine, the official publication of the United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA), asked their readers to vote on which development had the greatest impact on figure skating in the U.S. in the past 75 years. In last place came the "Harding/Kerrigan" incident of 1994, often cited by those outside of the sport as the turning-point in skating's trans-formation from a once-every-four-years novelty to the second most watched athletic endeavor (after football) in America.
1994 Olympic Silver Medalist Nancy Kerrigan herself, resents such talk, taking offense at the idea that a person being hurt is judged, by some, as "the best thing that ever happened to skating."
And the readers of Skating Magazine agree with her. When asked to name the recent development with the greatest impact on skating, nearly 40% chose "Television."
ABC-TV's director Doug Wilson concurs, "Nothing significant happened in the evolution of figure skating that was not influenced by television. Television not only showed that skating was a sport that had extraordinary requirements, but that it was star-oriented, (with) dedicated, terrific, interesting people. Because in order to be very good in figure skating, you have to be an extraordinary person. The moment a skater steps on the ice, their best friend is TV. We're there to enhance what the skater is trying to say."
For Wilson, that vital process of enhancement is rooted in a strategy he first conceived while watching 1968 Olympic champion Peggy Fleming drawing a diagram of her Olympic program. She was only planning to send it as a Christmas card. But, Wilson realized he could employ a similar diagram to plan out his coverage of each skater's routine in advance. He began inviting skaters to draw him their programs as their music played, and made notes on the timing of their elements.
Unfortunately, Wilson found that what he often ended up with, was a stack of scribbles. When directing Pro Skates in 1983, a lack of time to sit with every skater and review their program compelled him to ask his assistant to monitor the clock and take notes while Wilson watched the rehearsal, and called out his camera-cues on the fly. This improvisation developed into the two-person system Wilson, and every other skating director, uses today.
For him, it's a labor of love. His motto is, "The moment a director is about to display to the person in their living room a Triple Axel that Todd Eldredge has rehearsed 40,000 times for that moment -- then, by God, that's worth attention, it's worth caring, and the value of that better be respected."
But, television doesn't merely observe and record skating. As asserted by the readers of Skating Magazine, television's presence has actually caused a series of revolutions in the sport.
Historians agree that the Pilgrims who arrived on Plymouth Rock would never have even survived their first, freezing winter in the New World if not for the help of the people who would eventually come to be called Native Americans.
In honor of the holiday, FigureSkatingMystery.com looks back (with photos!) at some of the skaters who have paid tribute to Native American culture over the years
And if anyone has pictures of Nancy Kerrigan's "Indian in the Cupboard" routine from the 1997-1998 Pro Season or Sinead and John Kerr at the 2002 UK Ice Dance Championship, please post links in the COMMENTS section below!
Congratulations to World and Olympic Champion Kristi Yamaguchi and her husband, Bret Hedican, on the birth of their second daughter, Emma Yoshiko, on November 16 (she joins big sister Keara).
Little Emma is just the latest in a skating baby boom over the past few years which includes Scott Hamilton's son, Aiden, Nancy Kerrigan's Brian, Jenni Meno and Todd Sand's Jack, Elizabeth Punsalan and Jarod Swallow's Gavin, Kurt Browning's Gabriel, Isabelle Brassuer and Rocky Marval's Gabriella, Lloyd Eisler's Ethan, Paul Wylie's Hannah, Ekaterina Gordeeva and Ilia Kulik's Leeza, Naomi Lang's Lillia, and Anjelika Krylova's Stella.
I know I'm probably leaving a few people out. If you have more skating babies to add to the list, please list them in the COMMENTS section.
Sunday, November 20, 2005 was the tenth anniversary of the death of two-time Olympic Pair Champion Sergei Grinkov.
A few weeks before he died, I worked with Sergei as an Associate Producer for ABC's "Skates of Gold III" show. At the event, Sergei was complaining of back pain -- when he and his wife/partner, Ekaterina Gordeeva, practiced their program, they left out all the lifts until the night of the show. Katya was concerned that they wouldn't be able to skate the season and was trying to think of ways to simplify their routines. It turned out that the back pain was a symptom of the heart problem that would eventually kill him.
After Sergei died, a majority of the news coverage used as their b-roll footage of Gordeeva & Grinkov winning Olympic Gold in 1994. A friend of mine who produced that coverage said, "Sergei would have hated that. It was his least favorite program because it was the only one where he made a mistake."
A year later, I worked on the 1996 U. S. Professional Figure Skating Championship, where Katya made her debut as a Single skater. The difference between the girl she'd been the previous November and the woman she was that next October proved striking, but not in the way I would have expected. I would have thought losing Sergei might have made Katya more introverted or distant, but it was the exact opposite.
As she explained in her pre-interview before the show, Sergei's death forced Katya to step outside the private world they shared. A world so satisfying and fulfilling that she never really saw a need for anyone else. While Sergei was alive, she'd had no interest in other people, and so didn't realize how many of them were truly her friends and cared about her as a person. It took Sergei's death to make her reach out and fully appreciate both her fellow "Stars on Ice" castmates as well as her fans.
Sergei and Katya's daughter, Daria Grinkova, turned 13 on November 11, 2005. She has her father's smile and her mother's poise on the ice, though she seems to only be skating for fun, not seriously. Also at her 1996 interview, Katya shared that Sergei always dreamed of his little girl learning -- karate!
Her co-writer for the latter is E.M. Swift, who helped another two-time Olympic Champion, Ekaterina Gordeeva, become a best-selling author in 1996 with the publication of “My Sergei.".
“It is not an autobiography,” Swift revealed about the Witt project, “But an inspirational book directed to women, especially young women athletes. The book definitely discusses both Katarina's life while she was competing, her relationship with her coach, Frau Mueller, her thoughts on men, relationships and marriage, and her professional life after her competitive career came to an end. She is a very bright, very creative, very successful businesswoman, in addition to her estimable skating credentials. She has a very soft, domestic side that comes through as well. Katarina and I got together for a day in Boston and a week in Berlin, and during our first day of work she came up with the idea (for the book) that she was entertaining a young figure skater at her Berlin apartment who was visiting her seeking advice on skating, on training, on boyfriends, on parents, on life as a teenaged athlete. This young figure skater would be a fictional composite of several young skaters Katarina knew. The challenge, of course, was to make the young visitor real. I think we eventually succeeded. That was something I was very much involved in, creating a realistic visitor to whom Katarina would offer counsel. Katarina was very much part of that creative process, too, deciding what they would do together, what they should discuss, even deciding on what they should argue about. It was actually a fascinating and very enjoyable collaborative process. We worked seven days for about 6 hours a day. Then I went home and wrote it.”
Though “My Sergei” hit #1 on the “New York Times” bestseller list the week of December 22, 1996, no other skating book has managed to duplicate that feat – or even make the list -- in almost a decade.
“With Katia's book, we caught lightning in a bottle,” Swift mused. “It was, at its core, not a skating book, but a love story. She was a very compelling, lovely, interesting person the public felt tremendous sympathy toward and curiosity about. And the elements of a great love story were all there. That's timeless. I'm not surprised some of the more recent books on skating haven't been a commercial success, since the sport, in general, has been overexposed. Katarina is a different case, however. She has been in the public eye for the last 21 years. Men love her. Women admire her. She comes from a different culture, East Germany, which people should be curious about. And she was one of the first women athletes who managed to retain her femininity, something that continues to be a struggle for women athletes today. She is a wonderful, extraordinary role model who was years ahead of her time. Indeed, she's as modern a woman as I've ever met--independent, strong, talented, yet vulnerable and feminine. She addresses these seeming inconsistencies directly and compellingly. She's a real person, not some superwoman. I think there's a market for that. There's a lot in this book both for her fans, and for daughters of her fans who are looking for direction in their life. I'm hopeful that the book will find an audience beyond the figure skating market.”
One year at Worlds, some very bored and punchy TV folks sat around discussing which piece of music we could all live without ever, ever, ever hearing again. The top vote-getters were "Malaguena," "Carmen," "Sing, Sing, Sing" and "Tosca." (Runners-up included "Nessum Dorma," "The Nutcracker," "Don Quixote," "Giselle," "West Side Story" and basically any and all Compulsory Dances; if you would like to contribute to this list, please use the Comments button below).
Well, despite the abundance of operatic scores represented above, it looks like skating has inspired yet another potential entry: Warm up your Inner Diva for "Nancy and Tonya."
And if musicals are more your speed, there's always "Cold As Ice." Originally scheduled to open in Myrtle Beach, CA in the spring of 2005, before heading to Boston, MA and then Broadway in January of 2006, it seems to have lost speed, possibly wiping out entirely. But you can still listen to several of the songs!
2002 Co-Olympic Pair Champions Jamie Sale and David Pelletier will tell their story in a new memoir, out from McClelland & Stewart on March 3, 2006.
Though past titles, such as Peggy Fleming's "The Long Program," Ekaterina Gordeeva's "My Sergei," Scott Hamilton's "Landing It," and Rudy Galindo's "Icebreaker," were best-sellers, more recent titles, like Sasha Cohen's "Fire on Ice" failed to generate much buzz. Olympic Champion Alexei Yagudin's autobiography, "Overcome," did not even get an English language release and was published exclusively in Japanese due to U.S. editors' doubts that a book about a male, non-American skating champion would have much appeal.
“Publishers are more and more concerned now about a book's breakout potential and the ability to be marketed in a wide variety of venues,” revealed an insider. “Unfortunately, as the general audience for figure skating -- the ones who tune in only once every four years for the Olympics -- has dwindled, so too has the interest for skating books with limited appeal. Even though Yagudin's story may be fascinating within the sport's inside world, it's not seen as having broad-based appeal to others."
Interestingly enough, the last skating memoir to make a mass-market splash was actually the tale of a skater who never even came close to making the Olympic Team, much less winning.
Kathryn Bertine’s “All the Sundays Yet to Come,” dealing with the author’s years on tour and her battle with an eating disorder, was released in November of 2003, and went on to sell almost 10,000 copies in hardcover.
“The reaction from the skating community has been interesting,” Bertine recalled. “Many skaters have written to me to tell me their stories and say kind words about my book. A few have asked for my advice with body image concerns, either for themselves or loved ones. This has made me feel like I am able to help people, and so in my eyes, my book has been a success of the emotional kind. On the other hand, I have received some adversity in trying to talk to skating clubs. Some clubs think that because I had a lousy experience in professional skating, that I'll talk negatively about figure skating in general. Obviously, these folks haven't read my book because otherwise they would know that my experience with amateur skating was nothing short of wonderful, positive, and one of the best memories of my life.”
On January 30, 2006, World Champion Kurt Browning will throw his hat into the Children's Literature ring with the publication of "A Is for Axel: An Ice Skating Alphabet," a picture book for the 4-8 year old set. (My favorite Kurt Browning memory is from the 1992 Worlds in Oakland, where Kurt stayed in the official hotel lobby, taking pictures and signing autographs long after every other skater had called it quits).
“I had written a synopsis for an animated special which sat languishing in the hard drive for a few years after the project failed to materialize,” recalled Cousins. “(Then), I showed a friend the synopsis and she immediately decided it would be a great children’s book. A few days later, she phoned and asked how long it would take to change the format? She told me I had a meeting with a publisher in ten days, and they were expecting a manuscript! The meeting was with the owner of The Book Guild and nine months later we were on bookshelves! It was a great process and I am very pleased with the results. I did a reading, and found the children enthralled, which was great to see.”
Illustrations for “Adventures in Frostavia” were by provided by two of Cousins’s colleagues from “Holiday on Ice,” Linda and Pavel Albrecht.
“She is Australian and he is from the Czech Republic,” Cousins related. “They met during the tour, married and left the show to set up an illustration workshop in Australia. My book is the result of phone calls and e-mails while they awaited the arrival of their first child!”
“Adventures in Frostavia” features a forward by Olympic Dance Champion Jayne Torvill, and Cousins reported that, “There are hopes for more books in a series, but I am not holding my breath. I am happy the book is out there. We shall see what transpires. Plus there is now interest again in an animated version for next winter!”
Since 2003, I've written Figure Skating Mystery novels featuring a television researcher surrounded by tiny prima donnas, obsessive parents, abusive coaches and exhausted production people.
From 1995 to 2001, I worked as a television researcher (for ABC, ESPN, NBC, TNT) surrounded by tiny prima donnas (many), obsessive parents (most), abusive coaches (some) and exhausted production people (all).
Sounds like perfect material for a comical mystery series. And it certainly is. Except for one teeny, weenie little problem. One day (when my kids are grown), I may want to return to the wild and wacky world of television skating production. And that option would probably be more likely if I didn't slander, libel or offend any of the people I might be working with, in my books.
So, as it states so clearly on the copyright page, the characters I write about bear no resemblance to anyone living or dead. Which is true. I have never lifted, whole-hog, a real-life human being and simply changed their hair color and moniker in the name of fiction. My books truly are fiction. They just happen to be based on many, many aspects of many, many people. Some complimentary, some not so much.
Though, Sonja Henie aside, success in film has been elusive for America's skating stars. Olympic Champion Carol Heiss Jenkins starred in Snow White and The Three Stooges, while two-time Olympic Champion Katarina Witt had a co-starring role in Ronin.
Skating Sweethearts have tended to better with television guest-starring roles. Including but not limited to:
Peggy Fleming on the “Fantasy Island” episode: “Skater’s Edge,” “Newhart” (“Jumpin’ George”) and “Diagnosis: Murder” (“Murder on Thin Ice”).
Dorothy Hamill on “Fantasy Island” (“The Winning Ticket”) and “Diff’rent Strokes” (“A Family on Ice”).
Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner on “Hart to Hart” (“Silent Dance”), “St. Elsewhere” (“Heaven’s Skate”), “Beverly Hills 90210” (“Fire and Ice”) and “Diagnosis: Murder” (“Murder on Thin Ice”).
Scott Hamilton on “Frasier” (“Frasier Has Spokane”).
Katarina Witt on “Frasier” (“High Crane Drifter”), “Everybody Loves Raymond” (“Recovering Pessimist”), “V.I.P” (“New Val’d Order”) and two episodes of “Arliss.”
Kristi Yamaguchi on “Everybody Loves Raymond” (“The Dog”).
Oksana Baiul on “Arliss” (“Fans First”) and “Strong Medicine” (“Accidents”).
Nancy Kerrigan on “Saturday Night Live” and “Boy Meets World” (“Wrong Side of the Tracks”).
Michelle Kwan in “Sabrina: The Teenage Witch” (“Sabrina: The Teenage Writer”), “Family Guy” (“A Hero Sits Next Door”), "The Simpsons" and “Arthur” (“Crushed”).
Tara Lipinski on “Touched by an Angel” (“On Edge”), “Sabrina: The Teenaged Witch” (“Jealousy”), “Veronica’s Closet” (“Veronica’s Sliding Doors”) and several episodes of “7th Heaven.”