After skating, a unique Olympic event: crying
For sheer spectacle, the Olympics offer the opening ceremony, the closing ceremony and dozens of medal ceremonies in between. For sheer awkwardness, they offer the kiss-and-cry area.
After performing, figure skaters retreat with their coaches to a spot just off the rink to wait for their scores, sometimes for several minutes. With cameras in their faces and microphones picking up every sound, a scene unfolds unlike any other in sports, often filled with anxiety, tears or exultation — or all three.
The raw emotion of the kiss-and-cry scene has become so compelling that it commands a level of stagecraft rarely seen off the field of play. Last week, viewers had a front seat for Evan Lysacek's sob session after the men’s short program, in which he skated cleanly to set up his gold medal performance two days later.
"I kept wanting to say, 'Stop it, just stop it,'" his coach, Frank Carroll, said. "I'm very stoic in a way, very disciplined, and I think, when the ski jumpers, when they win, they don't start to cry. Let's put it this way: I don't like figure skaters to cry."
But, in case one does, broadcasters like NBC, which will cover the ice dancing free skate Monday and the women’s final Thursday at the Winter Games, are happy to capture the moment. No doubt it has played a role in figure skating’s status as a ratings powerhouse for the Olympics.
"For the skaters, it could be a few minutes of torture,"said David Michaels, a senior producer for NBC's Olympics coverage and the network's director for figure skating. "It's good for us.
"It's such a big part of our coverage now. It's gone from a blue curtain and a bucket of flowers on the side to plastic ice sculptures and crazy sets. It's become a big design element that everyone works hard to figure out."
Michaels said that the event organizers were in charge of designing the kiss-and-cry area, but that NBC reviewed those plans. The network often adjusts the lighting to make it look more realistic and less like a TV set, he said, adding that one of NBC’s cameras is attached to a small crane that swoops into the kiss-and-cry from above.
When the Olympics were first televised worldwide in the 1960s, the set was much simpler, with no formal place for skaters to wait for their scores. A reporter and a camera operator would often catch them as they stepped off the ice.
At the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., the off-ice area was spruced up with foliage, producers said. By the 1984 Sarajevo Games, a formal area with a bench appeared. The 1988 Calgary Games unveiled a major set, with a designed backdrop and lights.
Though different producers have different recollections of the way the kiss-and-cry area got its name, the gist of it is that someone at a network said: "This is the place where the skaters kiss, this is the place where skaters cry. It's the kiss-and-cry!" By the early 1990s, the name had stuck, said Doug Wilson, the longtime producer and director at ABC who orchestrated that network's figure skating coverage for more than 40 years.
The opportunity to turn figure skating into theater was there for the taking, Wilson said.
"The value of the kiss-and-cry is basic: find out what the marks are," he said. "But the real value is that you see these people with their guards down. It's a very special time. Most people don't think about it, but if you add up the total amount of airtime that the kiss-and-cry gets relative to the skating, it's a large percentage."
Clutching stuffed toys thrown to them from fans, some skaters look stunned. Some are deliriously happy, or at least pretend to be, as they wave awkwardly into the camera or say hello to people at home. Some use secret gestures to convey messages to friends and relatives. Others have learned to quietly grumble through clenched teeth, so they seem to be smiling.
Some talk to themselves. At the 1993 world championships in Prague, Nancy Kerrigan of the United States let her emotions loose after a poor free skate, saying she could not believe what happened — in a dozen different ways. She ended her soliloquy, "I want to die."
At times, the situation becomes so tense that the coaches and athletes appear to be on a blind date gone bad. The performance does not end when the skater leaves the ice.
Carroll, 71, who has coached at 10 Olympics, said he tries to refrain from speaking to his skaters because microphones are everywhere.
"My friends at home say I've got to smile more, but what am I supposed to say? Oh, wonderful, she just lost her national championship. Great," he said. "You want to talk about what is good and bad, but you end up saying things that have no meaning."
Some national skating federations put their skaters through training for the kiss-and-cry. Mark Ladwig, who skates with Amanda Evora in pairs, said he had attended a U.S. Figure Skating training program in which skaters participated in a mock kiss-and-cry.
"The videos showed people fidgeting, playing with their mouth, and showed which girls were sitting here like this, very unladylike," Ladwig said as he parted his knees. "For Amanda and I, we make sure that everything is crossed and that we look like proud Team USA members. We're a very technical sport, but we're a sport of aesthetics, too."
Ladwig and other skaters say they are never told what to say — or what not to say — in the kiss-and-cry but are reminded that every moment is being watched. Perhaps no one knows that more than Jeremy Abbott, a two-time United States champion.
At the 2008 national championships, he saw his score and cursed. After his performance at nationals the next year, he proceeded to make shooting gestures, into the camera and into his head. Then he screamed, "I love kung fu!" because he had been inspired by the movie Kung Fu Panda.
"I was just being a cheesy guy, not trying to be disrespectful or anything," Abbott said. "U.S. Figure Skating told me that they got complaints, so I had to tone it down."
Dick Button, a two-time Olympic champion and longtime skating commentator, said the kiss-and-cry was made for unscripted moments like those.
"It's television, honey, come on," Button said. "It's what makes television."
Written by Juliet Macur, New York Times