FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Olympic Ice Skating

Dec 1, 2010
2010 / December 2010

The first steps I ever took are lost in the fuzzy depths of infant memory. But I can vividly recall how it felt to walk for the first time because, later in my childhood, I replicated the experience when I learned to ice skate.

I was 10 years old, and by then I was supremely confident on my feet. Yet when my parents suggested a visit to the local ice rink, I might as well have been back in a romper suit on all fours.

In a pair of ill-fitting skates, I clung to the metal barrier at the side of the formidable expanse of slick ice. Each time I shifted my weight, one or the other of my feet shot out from under me. The rest of my family zipped around the rink. I couldn’t imagine ever being able to join them.

But just as I had once abandoned crawling in order to take my initial faltering steps, I was compelled by instinct to change my two-handed grip to one-handed and tentatively shuffle around the edge of the rink. At last, I relinquished my grip entirely and allowed myself to glide out across the ice. I fell, of course. More than once. Each time, I picked myself up and tried again. Within a few minutes, I was steady enough to join the flow of skaters around the rink.

Many years later, thanks to that childhood initiation, I was able to spend a memorable hour one snowy evening on the famous outdoor rink at New York’s Rockefeller Center. Like me, most of the skaters were reasonably competent. But as with all human endeavors, a few individuals excelled. They literally skated rings around the rest of us, occasionally launching themselves into spinning jumps.

That was the nearest I’ve come to seeing figure skating in action. On television, it had always struck me as a ludicrous activity characterized by tinny music and garish costumes. I have an ingrained prejudice against any “sport” that requires judges to determine the outcome. Even so, in the flesh I was impressed by the athleticism of the expert skaters, and I began to view competitive skating through new eyes.

At the Olympic level, there are three disciplines: singles figure skating, pairs figure skating and ice dancing. In figure skating, the competitors must complete a program that includes prescribed technical elements (their official names hint at the underlying hazards of skating: the haircutter spin, the broken leg sit spin, the death spiral). Ice dancing is the icebound equivalent of ballroom dancing, with couples performing routines to music.

Skating competitions provide two levels of drama. The first is on the ice, where the skaters attempt to perform their obsessively rehearsed programs without mishap. Then, with fixed smiles and bated breath, they retire to the side of the arena to await the judges’ verdict.

Nine judges award grades on technical elements as well as program components that include choreography, skating skills, transition, execution and interpretation. Ice dancers are also judged on timing their moves to the music. A computer randomly selects seven of the nine scores, deletes the highest and lowest marks and adds up the remaining five marks to produce the final score. The fixed smiles of the skaters give way to natural smiles or tears, depending on the judgment. Triumph and humiliation are dished out in close-up to an international television audience.

Olympic skating is far removed from my first venture onto the ice three decades ago. From the moment we find our balance — on our feet or on skates — we divide into two groups: those of us content to use our newly acquired ability primarily to get around, and those determined to be the fastest, the most graceful, the best.

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