Figure skating fans took to message boards in staggering numbers to support Japanese skaters like Daisuke Takahashi after the March 11 natural disaster. (Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images) Editor's note: Pj Kwong will be chatting live with fans on Saturday April 2 from 2-4 p.m. ET during CBC's broadcast of highlights from this year's Four Continents event. Click here to join the conversation and watch the live stream.
Like it or not, technology is the backbone of life in the 21st century, and figure skating is not exempt.
It's amazing to me to think that, within a few hours of the first earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan on March 11, figure skating fans had already sprung into action, starting discussion threads on various fan sites across the internet.
The tone of the messages was solicitous and caring. Many discussed the challenges faced not only by the Japanese people but also the skaters in the final stages of preparation for the world championships that were to have started in Tokyo the following week. There were updates about the location and safety of Japanese skaters and their families, first-hand accounts from people who were in Japan at the time of the tragedy, as well as speculation as to what would happen to the worlds.
One thread on the Figure Skating Universe website devoted to news from Japan and what would happen to worlds grew to over 85,000 views within days. There was an overwhelming feeling of concern for the skaters and their families, as well as for the Japanese people in general.
I am not surprised by the passion and compassion for skating and the skating family at large that is found on fan sites on the internet. My opinion is borne out of the experience I have had working the iAsk online segment
for CBC's figure skating broadcasts over the last two seasons. This is a segment where I post a question on the Figure Skating Universe
site and then discuss some of the responses on air. The answers are usually thoughtful and considered, and demonstrate the very real and high degree of accurate knowledge offered by today's skating fans.
Who are these fans? To find out, I turned to FSU creator and owner Sharon Paginton in Wales for some answers.Expensive hobby
Paginton started the website in May 1999 where it was originally a forum for Euro-centric ice dance enthusiasts. It has evolved since that time and now includes topics ranging from A(Axel) to Z (Zoueva), with almost 24,000 members from 147 countries.
Most of the traffic originates from (in order) the United States, Canada, Japan, the U.K. and South Korea. Last month alone there were 314,000 unique visits and over 4 million page views. Not bad for a site that started as a hobby, with Paginton paying out of her own pocket for the bandwidth and using free software she found on the internet.
That all changed in 2002, when the traffic from fans was so heavy as a result of all the talk about the Olympic pairs judging scandal that the bill for bandwidth became unmanageable for something that was just a hobby. Paginton wasn't sure she could continue, but the fans had other ideas when she said she wanted to shut the site down, FSU became a subscription-based site with extra benefits, although guests can still visit.
"I think that FSU fills a niche in figure skating," Paginton says.
Paginton acknowledges that she could not run the site alone, and counts on nine others as web administrators across all time zones for help.
"When I came up with the idea, it was because I had been a long-time fan of figure skating, since I was eight, and I didn't feel I fit in the major figure skating forums at the time," Paginton says.
"What we tried to do from the beginning was to treat skating more light-heartedly and not be so serious about the whole thing. After all, it was a very small collection of mainly 'rude European' fans, as we were referred to at the start, and we all had a lot to learn."
Graciously, Paginton goes on to say that she is still learning.No joke
Between the iAsk questions, live chat on CBC's website during the broadcasts, answering emails and posting on Twitter (@skatingpj
), I have my own ideas about who the fans are and what they want to know about. I asked one of the fans who is a regular on the live chats - "Paul in Toronto" - for his opinion on the value of sites like FSU.
"For those not part of the skating industry, these boards serve as a way of keeping up with the news in the sport, including injuries, ISU rules, partnerships, and, when lucky, to have specific questions about a jump or spin being answered," he says. "As not everyone reads the ISU rule books, it is a forum to demystify the sport."
Where fan sites were once the butt of jokes and snide comments, they are becoming more and more accepted as a way of connecting like-minded people. The mainstream press is also starting to notice, using sites like FSU as a barometer of what's going on. In this past year, FSU got mentions in the L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune and the New York Times.
Paginton offers humbly that her site simply "gives people a forum to express themselves."
There has been a lot more fan expression since the tragedy in Japan, and Paginton sums it up this way: "What has happened in Japan is awful, but figure skating comes secondary in this case. In addition to everything else, we feel very disappointed for the Japanese fans, who are some of the best in the world, and who have been looking forward to having worlds for some time and tragically won't be getting the chance."
With so much more to say on this and many other topics, the conversations are sure to continue.
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