The unbearable lightness of judgement – 1992 Olympics ice skating


Sports can be measured in two ways:

1 – Numbers: 100 meters in 10 seconds, 2 meters high, or score more points than the other team in basketball.

2 – Votes: all the artistic sports, judges measure the performance. Gymnastics, Figure Ice Skating, Synchronized Swimming, foresee shows in which individuals or teams perform a series of “artistic” moves. External judges sit outside the court and give a vote based on a predefined list, that associates the difficulty of the move to a number, and a vote based on the artistic impression, a discretional number, depending on each judge’s sensibility.

The Numbers don’t leave any margin of error. A bad team can put up the performance of a life, and beat a good team, even a legendary one (like Germany against Hungary in 1954, though Germany was not “bad”, probably only “weaker”). In the 100 meters, the photo finish will decide with no margin of error who won.

In team sports, though, there is a margin for judgement. The referee will decide whether the play happened in offside or not in a soccer game. Another referee will decide whether the blocked shot happened while the ball was going up or not.

Even today, people discuss whether the 3 seconds of the 1972 basketball Olympic final had to be played three times, or if Andrea Forti’s basket happened within the 40th minute of the 1989 Italian Championship game 5.

However, the judgement sports own a special way to award the winners that depends completely on the sensitivity of the judge.

When somebody’s great, there is no discussion. The 10 awarded to Nadia Comaneci in Montreal in the gymnastics, or the complete 6.0 of the Torville-Dean duo at the 1984 Olympics in Calgary, when they danced Ralvel’s “Bolero” in a way that opened new paths in figure skating for the Dance, stand indisputable as unique marks in history.

Other judgements remain controversial. They usually happen when somebody challenges the status quo and tries new ways, radically different.

The Duchesnay brothers, Paul and Isabelle, in the Dance competition of figure skating, often drew worse votes than the public would have liked. Their performances challenged the common sense of skating of that time, that focused on the great Russian couples, which dominated thanks to a combination of classic Bolshoi-like dance, skating ability and the capacity to deliver passionate, dramatic, performances.

It’s a matter of taste, naturally. Klimova-Ponomarenko, the winners of the 1992 Olympics, delivered an astounding free program, based on Bach’s air on the 4th chord, with Marina Klimova’s long curly and red hair ardently dancing on the ice. At the beginning, Sergei lied on the ice on his back, holding Marina like a torch. What followed was a perfect piece of Russian ice-skating, the two building a love story in the four minutes of the free program.

The Duchesnays developed an energetic program based on West Side Story. Isabelle came from an injury, and her marriage was in crisis, she divorced Christopher Dean in 1993. Yet they gave one of the performances the crowd acclaimed them for: modern, acrobatic, fast, yet with a brotherly intimacy, the subtle game between them, to try to be someone else. Isabelle burst in tears at the end of the performance, letting all her tension flow out.

Which was best? Many would cite the third ones, Maia Usova and Alexander Zhulin, with their Vivaldi’s “four season”. Their last diagonal on the storm of the Summer is an unmatched piece of beauty, the reason why watch this kind of artistic act calling it a sports. They came third, as usual. In that trio, Usova-Zhulin represented a classic approach, one of perfection and beauty, yet of unmatched lightness, as if they were flying and not competing. Maia began as a classic dancer; this was visible in her constant flow, in her going up, in her tension seemingly effortless and the diva-like look, the absolute certainty of her talent.

The judges declared the Klimova- Ponomarenko couple the winners.

The fans, in their hearts, each kept their favorite as winners.