When Watching Figure Skating, Judge for Yourself

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Amy Sancetta / AP

Pang Qing and Tong Jian of China, silver-medal winners in Olympic pairs skating in Vancouver

Sometimes it takes a 3-year-old to teach you that you've been a ninny about sports. I've never really enjoyed figure skating that much. Traditionally, I've joined the quadrennial snark parade that accompanies the Olympic event. I've poked fun at the costumes and overwrought facial expressions in the name of "artistry"; I've pictured the judges taking bribes from skating officials right behind the kiss-and-cry curtain.

But on Sunday evening, my wife sent me a message saying that our 3-year-old son was obsessed with the pairs skating short program that was being broadcast on NBC. Every time a skater would stick a landing, he'd yell "Whoa!" at the television. At one point, he looked up at his mother and said, "This is so much fun." After hearing that story, I realized he was onto something. When a man summons the strength to lift a woman and throw her in the air while gliding across the ice, that's an amazing athletic achievement. When the woman spins around and lands gracefully on her razor-thin blades, as fluid as a diver entering the water without a splash, that's an even more impressive feat. These skaters all deserve a little "whoa."

Like most fans, however, I'll never understand all the Lutz and Salchow lingo that the commentators banter about during the performances. Plus, the subjective scoring system that determines the winners and losers is frustrating. How do we know what's really going on? To those fans who have invested their time studying all the tricks and deciphering how the judges compile points, you have my eternal admiration. But when I watch sports, I like to avoid the urge to ram my head against a rink.

So when I took in the pairs skating finals on Monday night in Vancouver, a historic event in which Chinese teams took gold and silver, thus ending a run of 12 Olympic pairs gold medals for the Soviet Union–Russia skating dynasty, I ignored the sheets that detail the names of the moves the skaters would perform. Terms like the double Lutz twist lift, Group 5 toe-lasso lift and fly change foot combination spin are as useful as hieroglyphics. The only one that makes sense is the death spiral, a macabre moniker that describes the move in which the male skater spins his partner by a single hand while her body is almost parallel to the ice. Slip up and yes, the results could be fatal.

I wanted to judge the event for myself and see if the naked eye could separate the superior skaters from the also-rans. Forget about the numbers systems or physics formulas. I was looking to discover which teams pulled together the entire package, mixing sheer athleticism with sublime grace. Which teams would prevent a person from even dreaming about taking a bathroom break during their routines, like the baseball player who compels you to drop everything while he's at bat? In a sport like figure skating, in which there's no finish line to crown a clear-cut winner, you might as well judge with your gut.

Now, I'm not one of those people who places too much importance on costumes. But Daniel Wende of Germany, you cannot bejewel a gladiator outfit. And Roman Talan of Ukraine, no one wants to see your underpants through your white getup. Perhaps it's no coincidence that their pairs finished at the bottom of the 20-team draw. When you watch a skating event closely, it's fun to pinpoint the differences between the best and worst competitors — besides the tendency of low-scoring athletes to skate with their asses. For the pairs at the back of the pack, their spinning is hardly synchronized. Here, the guy is spinning faster than the gal; there, the gal is out-twirling the guy. During the ol' death spirals, the lesser teams tend to dodge the risky part: the woman's head rests comfortably above the ice.

Another tip: Award points for things the judges overlook. For example, near the end of the routine of Polish skaters Mateusz Chruscinski and Joanna Sulej, Chruscinski fell while simply skating along the ice. For a split second, it looked like he was about to stop what he was doing, grab his hair and yell, "You idiot!" Now there's a reaction to which we can all relate. Who hasn't screwed up something they've done a millions times, blown the easy layup, and wanted to scream? Chruscinski refused to stick to skating decorum and keep smiling for the judges. "I was pissed off," he says afterward. "So stupid. I wanted to end with a beautiful finish, and then that happened." On the ice, his partner gave him the evil eye. Was she upset too? Chruscinski smiles. "A little bit," he says. Translation: she was pissed. The pair finished in 18th place, but I moved them up for keeping it real.

Sometimes my judgment diverged from that of the professionals. For example, Vanessa James and Yannick Bonheur from France riled up the audience with a few daredevil maneuvers, including a sequence in which Bonheur dipped James' head near the ice before pulling her up just in the nick of time. Bonheur, however, made one small — but somewhat serious — mistake in my book. After the routine, the crowd gave the pair well-deserved applause. But just as the fans were quieting down, clearly ready to move on, Bonheur raised his hands in the air one more time. Dude, don't milk it.

Still, the pair deserved to score as high as the American teams. Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett, who came in 13th place, were solid, but I wanted to see more athleticism. They spent an inordinate chunk of their routine mindlessly waving their arms around. A few timing issues aside, Americans Mark Ladwig and Amanda Evora, who finished 10th, were truly terrific. They scored significantly higher than the French team, which didn't feel right. Perhaps the judges really do dock you for milking it.

The judges did not goof in picking the medal winners — mostly because the athletes made the judges' jobs so easy. Tumbles by the top German and Russian teams opened the door for the two Chinese pairs. (Germans Robin Szolkowy and Aliona Savchenko won the bronze.) China's Pang Qing and Tong Jian were flawless, turning in that whoa-worthy performance you're glad you didn't miss. However, their fourth-place ranking coming into the long program prevented them from overtaking gold medalists Zhao Hongbo and Shen Xue. The husband-and-wife team was smooth but not as spectacular as their compatriots, who had to settle for second.

Zhao and Shen may have won the gold. But Pang and Tong won the night. And figure skating won at least one more appreciative fan.