Thursday, May 5, 2011

Skaters put Japan above themselves

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Selflessness in sports doesn't bubble to the surface very often anymore, but when it does, it can show up where you least expect it.

Say, figure skating. Now there's a sport with its share of divas, and we're not just talking about the women. Attend a figure skating news conference and you'll hear almost as much about the skaters' clothes, hairstyles and music as you will about their jumps and spins.

Then, throw in notorious characters from the past like Tonya Harding and the French judge who tried to fix the pairs competition at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, and you'd have to think skating would be near the bottom of the list of sports that would inspire us with their sense of perspective.

But then came one terrible day in March. This year's World Figure Skating Championships were a week and a half from beginning in Tokyo when Japan was devastated by an earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear fallout. Within days, it became clear that the most important event of the season in skating was not going to take place as planned. It was another 10 days before the skaters, whose meticulous training regimens had been timed precisely for the end of March, learned that the worlds would in fact be held not in Japan, but in Moscow — and five weeks later than originally planned, at the end of April and beginning of May.

Can you imagine the whining and complaining? We're conditioned to expect nothing less from most of today's self-centered athletes, and why not, because it really is all about them, if they say so themselves.

But then something unusual started happening. Figure skaters were speaking out, all right, but they were saying the strangest things.

"What's going on in Japan right now is just unfathomable," U.S. ice dancer Meryl Davis, the reigning Olympic silver medalist, told "You watch the footage, and in comparison to what they're going through, figure skating, medals and all of that doesn't really mean all that much."

There was Olympic ice dance gold medalist Scott Moir of Canada, on a conference call with reporters: "It's a terrible tragedy what happened in Japan. It kind of makes you take a step back and realize how little the skating world is."

"Skating is nothing, nothing in this," U.S. men's national champion Ryan Bradley told "It's just a tiny thing in this huge catastrophe."

Even multimillionaire Kim Yu-Na, the 2010 women's Olympic gold medalist who might as well be a rock star the way she is treated in South Korea, was quoted on Facebook saying that concern about further damage in Japan was "more important than a competition." And she was coming back to train specifically for that competition.

This week, the rescheduled world championships are underway in Russia. A sport that likely will forever boast the sixth-highest-rated show in television history — the women's short program from the 1994 Olympics in Norway, featuring Harding and Nancy Kerrigan— has now been relegated to having its world championships televised only on tape delay, on cable's Universal Sports. Most people probably had no idea this international competition was even happening with all the other events going on this week: the NFL draft, the scheduled launch of the space shuttle and that wedding among them.

Some might look at this and say the sport of figure skating has taken a mighty fall. But they might not be right.

"We don't have any labor strike," said U.S. ice dancer Charlie White, Davis' partner. "We don't have any problems with drugs at the moment. Hopefully we can maybe be like the clean version of sports, the one that doesn't have so many politics at the moment. People maybe will want to turn to us. It is a very busy time of the year. A lot of things are going on. Hopefully we're not too ignored."

Seventeen years ago, figure skating gave us one of the worst displays of sportsmanship in history thanks to Tonya Harding. And now, this: "The skating world is such a small world; we all know each other very well and we all want what is best for each other," Bradley said. "That is a great thing we are going to see at this world championships versus any other."

It's almost as if the sport knew it owed the world something good.

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