If It Needs a Judge, Is It a Sport? Or Is It SHOW BIZ?

So, did you really think that stolid, plain Russian girl is the champion skater in the Olympics?

Just ask yourself this question: Which one of the finalists would you pay to see and in what order? The lovely Korean, the soulful Italian, the tight-focus Russian baby, any one of the three American girls and probably some others would make my list before this “champ.”

But I don’t have to answer next week to Vladimir Putin.

Every couple of years at Olympics time, the line between art and sports dims and blurs. It’s all entertainment, of course, but performers and audiences and promoters mess up the categories in pursuit of…WINNERS!

There’s an easy way to tell the difference between sport and art. One produces champions, the other offers enlightenment.

Sports tells a simple tale: After some specific activity with goals and rules, the best competitor is obvious, right there at the top of the scoreboard.

In art, there is no scoreboard, no “best” and no competition, except between life and the universe. Art is an endless quest. Sport ends at the buzzer.

So the Olympics have a split personality: About half the events are true sport and the other half is art being stuffed into a format where “judges” choose “winners.”

A quick-reference rule to avoid confusion between art and sport is the presence of “judges,” which indicates that the results, though merely the subjective choice of these chosen arbiters, merit some lofty authenticity.

I’m not talking about “umpires” and “referees,” presumably qualified neutral parties there to enforce the rules of sport. I’m talking about people who actually decide on who gets the prize.

So, baseball, football, soccer, basketball, hockey, lacrosse and so forth are sports; dramas, musicals, ballets, movies and operas are not.

Swimming races are sport but diving is not. Skiing, skating and riding snow boards is a sport, if the idea is to arrive sooner than the competition, but skiing, skating and snowboarding tricks are… SHOW BIZ.

Which brings us to ice dancing.

Meryl Davis and Charlie White

Meryl Davis and Charlie White

Back off, sports page! Ice Dancing belongs to me!

I grew up with the idealized screen image of Sonia Henie – pert, blonde, compact, spinning beyond dizzy – representing all ice-skating. As a young newspaper reviewer, I had to write about ice-skating a couple of times a year, when Ice Capades or Ice Follies came to town. But I remember thinking of the whole thing as production numbers with hoofers with skates.

It was only when tiny girls and waif-like boys became popular idols and television created the mass formula we now recognize as the Olympics that I starting being uncomfortable with the blur between what I covered and what the sports guys were celebrating.

Real soon, at the summer Olympics, I lost patience with rows of judges holding up numbers after the routines of flipping mites and twisting brown bodies leaving those tiny splashes below the diving boards. It’s all, I would shout, SHOW BIZ!

Secretly, I was concerned that some backflow might poison my beat, something like ballet and opera-singing competitions which divert energies. Barbershop quartets would have their fun over at the hobby show. The amateur hour – even as elaborately promoted as television’s “American Idol” – will always be with us. And sad spectacles like cheerleading contests will fade away when enough girls grow up and realize what time-wasters they really are. But competitive performing might well, I worried, stunt somehow the development of the real thing.

I needn’t have worried. Audiences usually know a good show when they see one, regardless of hype.

And hype was what was happening down the hall in sports.

Ice Dancing sprang up sometime in the 1970s, as I recall, and accelerated the outrage. Suddenly, the cast of “A Chorus Line” – that quintessential celebration of theatre dancers – was wearing skates and zipping about to cheesy recorded music.

The regular ice skaters, boring as they were, at least were accomplished acrobats. They grunted and winced. Ice Dancers tried to sparkle and charm. Forget it, thought I.

And I did, for several Olympics.  I might enjoy the skateboard kids on snow and the ski jumping, but the real winter Olympics, for me, were the sports: Downhill skiing, skate races, anything with “cross” in the title, hockey of course and even curling.

But this year, for whatever reason, my attention was caught by the ice dancers. It’s very possible that the choreographer has gotten a lot better.  Or maybe there’s just a good generation of performers right now. But these kids really know how to tell a little story, project character, punctuate phrases and sell their act. The costuming is pro, the understated lighting is pro and it’s a nice show, even with the cruelly mangled music.

(Wow, what a mess! Chopped and bent to fit the need, projected indifferently and selected at dizzy random. In the preliminary heats, I heard Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, bits from Busby Berkeley 1930s films, several slices of Andrew Lloyd Webber, a big chunk of “Les Miserables” and many mashes of Tchaikovsky. The old Benny Goodman classic “Sing, Sing, Sing” was a favorite in various guises. And fragments of a string piece by what one prominent sportswriter called “two Russian composers”: Rimsky and Korsakov.)

The winners – the immensely appealing team of Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White – could have a nice Broadway revue ready to open in a few weeks if it weren’t for those skates. (And her teenie voice!) But really, all the finalists were terrific. (Well, maybe not the team that put together a number based on madness, a serious misreading of the format’s strengths.)

My letdown came when one of the network’s talking heads remarked that the men ice dancers were not allowed to do tosses into the air of their female partners. That was the province of the ice skaters, due up another day.

OK, OK, though that sounds like the rules back in the days of the Imperial Russian Court, when certain dancers did only certain things. But, if you’re forcing art into competition, you do need rules so that the “judges” can justify their choices.

Meanwhile, though, I’ll tune in now and then to the real sports – bring on those hockey and curling finals – while hoping to spot some other entertainers as engaging as Davis and White.

Putin is welcome to that winning ice skater. He needs something after his hockey team choked.

Leave a Comment