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Facing the music: The honest beauty of figure skating

Posted: Monday, October 27, 2008 | 04:58 PM

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For a guy who has spent much of his broadcasting career following the national obsession of hockey, the switch to calling figure skating has been a mighty leap.

On the surface, it’s easy to make the assumption that Canada’s more gentile ice-bound pursuit is as much art as it is sport. One might even be forgiven for drawing the familiar stereotype that figure skating is suited more to performers than it is to competitors.

Then again, it’s all too attractive to jump to conclusions these days. And I’ve learned that to allow myself to do that in this case would be to do a great injustice to something that is more open and honest than we all give it credit for.

I’ve suddenly become aware that there is nowhere to hide in figure skating and there are no clichés to fall back on at the end of the day. There is no claiming, as the failed baseball or a hockey player can, that “…we gave it 110 per cent,” or that “…we’ll play it shift by shift and one game at a time.”

Letting it all hang out

No, in figure skating, all the faults are there for everyone to see. There is one competitor on the ice at a time - two at most if you account for the pairs and the dance teams. And it doesn’t matter if you’ve landed every ridiculously difficult jump or fallen flat on your face, you have to skate to the boards and then sit in something called the “kiss and cry” while everyone waits for you to be judged.

In a very real way, figure skaters let it all hang out as part of their everyday reality and you’ve got to respect that.

You’ve also got to give credit where it’s due and admire the honesty of a world champion like Jeffrey Buttle. He came into our CBC Sports studio on a Saturday afternoon to explain why, at the height of his career and with a home Olympics only 15 months away, he was calling it quits and retiring to join the professional tour.

“I thought about why I wanted to stay in it for Vancouver and I thought I can’t do it just because I like the city the Olympics are in,” Buttle offered. “I couldn’t realistically say I was staying because I wanted to commit to trying to win.”

In other words, Buttle was admitting that his future was more about the performing than it was about the victory. That strikes me as a pretty truthful thing to reveal.

Maybe he got sick and tired of answering those questions about when he was going to get the “quad” and took the pressure off. After all, he had won the world championship and an Olympic bronze medal, now he owed it to himself to skate the way he really wanted to - with flair and artistry and in the absence of the required tricks that so often encumber what we really love about figure skating.

Good on you Jeffrey Buttle.

Could you see Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky being that revealing in front of a national audience at anything but at a press conference they had staged themselves?

I don’t think so.

And then I paused to consider the Skate America performance of Craig Buntin. Teamed with Megan Duhamel, Buntin finished fourth in the opening Grand Prix event of the season. At first blush, not much of a result if you’re a Canadian sports fan.

'It's only pain'

But consider this. Buntin was just off major surgery to correct a shoulder separation and tendon tears as well as a rotator cuff problem. This was a procedure that had been delayed to allow him to compete at the world championships this past March - something the best doctors advised him not to do.

Lifting his partner Duhamel over his head and twirling her around was a major feat for Buntin both prior to and in the immediate aftermath of the surgery. You might expect that he’d just pass and wait to completely recover.

You’d be wrong.

“It’s the story of my life,” Buntin admitted to me the day before he skated. “It’s only pain. I’ve told myself to be a man and to get through it.”

You’ve got to love that kind of fortitude.

If we were talking about a hockey player we’d say here was a guy, “…who has the guts to grind it out in the corners.” I say, Craig Buntin plays his game on the same kind of ice rink and shows at least as much grit and courage if not more.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned about figure skating at its highest competitive level. It’s tough to do and nobody out there relies on anyone else to cover up certain inadequacies. What you see is what you get and everyone in the building and watching on TV knows it.

That’s refreshing, even for a guy whose covered a lot of hockey. Figure skating, it seems to me, is beautiful because it is so complex but also exceedingly simple.

They skate to music.

They also face the music every time they hit the ice.

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