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Katarina Witt wonders where the emotion has gone

Katarina Witt boards the Rocky Mountaineer in Whistler, Wednesday Feb. 17, 2010.


At 45, two-time Olympic figure skating champion Katarina Witt can still draw a crowd. She can still engender goose bumps when she walks into a room.

Her gold-medal-winning Carmen routine at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary remains unforgettable, the image of her smouldering eyes and fire-red costume resonating beyond the skating world.

Now, she says wistfully, it's not so easy for figure skaters to make a mark on the world, to become memorable, and she admits that it's breaking her heart to see an element of the sport disappear in a scoring system that was created to be fair and to prevent the judging scandals of the 2002 Olympics.

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It's like putting figure skating into a box, move by move, said Witt, a guest judge at the Battle of the Blades show in Toronto last Sunday and Monday nights.

The German said it has become more difficult to bring out the beauty of the sport because skaters are so busy each second of the program trying to chalk up technical points.

"They tried with the new scoring system to be more fair and, yes, maybe in a way it is more fair because it is more accountable. But figure skating in general is a different kind of sport and you have to accept it. You cannot compare figure skating with swimming where it's about the fastest."

Witt said figure skating has elements to which points just can't be assigned. "I think one of the most important things in skating is emotions. Who touches your heart? Who makes you remember a program for the rest of your life?"

Witt's comments are echoed by Sonia Bianchetti, a former high-ranking official for the International Skating Union who wrote in an open letter a week ago that the performance of a singer or a ballet dancer – or a figure skater – can't be measured by mechanical calculations. It must be judged, and judging is subjective.

Witt said the uproar from fans over judging decisions in the past weren't at all a bad thing; it allowed spectators to become emotionally involved in the event. Now, she said, under the complicated rules of the new system that spit out a score that doesn't necessarily proclaim perfection, television ratings are slipping and audiences are shrinking.

Bianchetti said audiences are now seeing programs that all look the same, with all the same elements – often poorly executed – and the music has become background noise to skaters' endeavours to earn points.

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The last major competition that Witt saw in minute detail was the 2010 Vancouver Games, and she grants she saw two beautiful, memorable programs: by Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and by women's champion Yu-Na Kim of South Korea.

But not everyone agrees that figure skating is headed for doom and gloom.

At first blush on hearing Witt's remarks, William Thompson, chief executive officer of Skate Canada and a former judge under both systems, said: "It's pretty close to complete nonsense."

Thompson said it took some time for athletes to get used to the new system, but now the newest generations have grown up with it and know how to use it. He conceded that the female singles skaters are still struggling.

However, he pointed to skaters such as Kim, former world champion Daisuke Takahashi, current world champion Patrick Chan of Canada, Virtue and Moir, and the Olympic champions from China, Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo, as skaters that delivered plenty of emotion and artistic content.

He does not know why the women have not advanced as quickly as the other disciplines. Perhaps, he suggested, they are still building the skills necessary to do the difficult footwork and other elements that were not emphasized in the past.

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He said the irony of it all is that the programs the skaters are doing now are the type that officials under the old system were calling for: with complex footwork and difficult spins, as well as jumps.

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