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Four Continents Reporter’s Notebook: Can a single HD camera provide accurate replays?

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Vincent Zhou will work as hard as it takes to ensure all of his jumps are consistent and fully rotated – “Every session, every day, every minute” – if necessary, he said on Thursday.

And he made headway here at the 2019 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Anaheim, Calif.: the U.S. silver medalist led after a clean short program, including a quadruple Lutz combination and quad Salchow.

But under-rotations crept back into Zhou’s free skate on Saturday. Three jumps, including the quad Salchow and toe loop, were saddled with a “<” on the scorecard, meaning that the technical panel saw them as at least a quarter-turn short of the required four rotations in the air and sliced some 30 percent of their base value. Another six jumps, including quad Lutz – the most difficult – and two triple Axels, were deemed fully rotated.

Zhou’s program to the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” soundtrack was well-delivered, and he gained good scores on his spins and steps. His season’s best 172.04 points ranked him fifth in the free and he won the bronze medal with 272.22 points.

“The more I show consistency, I guess, the less scrutiny I’ll get,” the 18-year-old said. “But that’ll take a lot of hard work on my side and not blaming others for giving me bad calls.”

Japan’s Shoma Uno won his first Four Continents title with 289.12 points after a spectacular free skate that earned 197.36 points, the highest ISU free skate score ever recorded under the +5/-5 GOE system. Defending champion Jin Boyang of China was second with 273.51 points. U.S. bronze medalist Jason Brown was fourth in the free skate and fifth overall with 258.89 points.

Zhou wasn’t the only competitor to be saddled with under rotation calls on Saturday. South Korea’s Junhwan Cha, second in the short program, had five under rotation calls to place eighth in the free skate and drop to sixth place overall.

Christy Krall, one of Zhou’s coaches in Colorado Springs, Colo., agrees Zhou must continue to work hard for consistency. Still, she thinks many skaters –  not just Zhou – have fallen victim to bad calls from technical panels.

“If you can’t really see the truth, how can you call the truth?” Krall said. “If you are going to measure it, measure it with the best piece of equipment you can.”

Krall, a 1964 Olympian and former coach of three-time world champion Patrick Chan, believes the ISU must invest in better equipment to ensure technical panels have the high-quality replay footage they need to review skaters’ jumps.

“They are not using the proper equipment to measure these drastic calls that can make or break your career,” Krall said. “They need to find the tool that is accurate and not some mystery, because skaters’ lives depends on this.”

The ISU employs Swiss Timing personnel to operate a single HD video camera on the right side of the judging panels’ front-row seats. When technical panel members need replays, they are provided video taken by this camera. Since this replay footage is not available to broadcasters, fans watching via live stream or television are seeing footage filmed by different cameras, from multiple angles.

George Rossano, an aerospace scientist by trade who is also a U.S. judge and technical panel data replay operator, agrees with Krall: the current equipment is too outdated to help technical panels accurately call jumps.

“If a panel isn’t sure, they say, ‘Well, we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt,’” Rossano, who operates the figure skating website iceskatingintnl.com, said. “But if you give that skater points they don’t deserve, you punish everybody else, especially if they are going to call quads.”

Why doesn’t the ISU invest in higher resolution cameras? Could be the cost. Purchasing cutting-edge equipment with higher time and spatial resolution for use at ISU Championships, Grand Prix events and ISU Challenger events could run hundreds of thousands of dollars.

There are counter arguments. Every skater’s jumps, including those who are rarely called under rotated, are filmed by the same HD cameras. And coaches should be careful what they wish for: higher-speed equipment could, in certain cases, expose additional weaknesses in jumps, including rarely called pre-rotations.

Krall, though, says accuracy is paramount.

“If they’re going to measure the sport, they better get the equipment that they can measure it with,” she reasoned. “From the time you can see the toe touch (the ice) to the time it turns around, if you don’t have the right equipment, you’re not going to make the right call. Higher-speed cameras, period, end of conversation. They’ve got the cameras out there to measure things properly.”

Four Continents reporter’s notebook: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3

As a reminder, you can watch Four Continents and the world championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Insightful John Curry Documentary Has NY Premiere

Christie Jenkins
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While British filmmaker James Erskine is too young to have seen legendary skater John Curry (1949-94) perform live, he had seen performances on television and was certainly aware of the artistic influence of the 1976 Olympic men’s gold medalist from Great Britain. After reading an article about Curry’s complicated life, he felt moved to bring the story to the screen.

“The idea of someone who had to win a gold medal to fulfill his artistic dreams seemed to me remarkable,” said Erskine. “Curry had to overcome these incredible odds to succeed on one level, and having succeeded parlayed that success onto another level.

“When that combined with his personal struggles and what was going on in New York in the early 1980s, it seemed to be a story worth telling,” he continued.

Erskine’s documentary film, The Ice King, debuted in the United Kingdom earlier this year. It had its U.S. premiere on Nov. 9 in New York City and is now available on iTunes. Among those in attendance at the premiere were several people featured in the film: Nathan Birch, Timothy Murphy, Cathy Foulkes, JoJo Starbuck, William Whitener and Meg Streeter Lauck.

Credit: Lois Elfman
JoJo Starbuck with filmmaker James Erskine. Credit Lois Elfman

Using archival interview footage, current interviews with friends and colleagues and at times Curry’s own words from letters written to friends and family, it depicts his struggles with the sport’s rigid style for male skaters and his desire to elevate skating’s artistry. It also details his extremely unhappy early home life and his search for love and affection throughout his life.

“I’m really interested in genius and how genius interacts with society and the struggle to express yourself and be permitted to be yourself,” said Erskine. “To reach for any artistic ideal is in itself a great challenge. When you add in somebody who grows up in a society and a family that rejects the right to be themselves, I thought there was great symmetry between the personal and the professional in Curry’s life that was moving and also resonates.”

The film shows bits and pieces of Curry’s amateur skating, which culminated with him winning European, Olympic and World titles in 1976. It delves deeply into Curry’s post-Olympic collaborations with dancers and choreographers such as Twyla Tharp, Peter Martins and Laura Dean as well as his own choreography. The Ice King includes some rarely seen footage, such as “Moonskate,” a melancholy masterpiece created for Curry by modern dance choreographer Eliot Feld.

“We wanted to construct the film around specific performances that were emblematic of his journey,” said Erskine. “He was a man who spent his life expressing himself on the ice. It would be correct to try and parallel that in his life story.”

Lauck’s mother, the late Nancy Streeter, welcomed Curry into their New York home in the early 1970s when Curry was floundering as a competitor. She encouraged Curry to not sway from his vision of bringing artistry to his programs.

“My mother encouraged him in some of the darkest times, and I think that’s where he drew strength. It was that deep faith she had in him that I believe was at the core that helped him bring his dreams to fruition,” said Lauck, who worked in TV production for more than two decades. As she directed skating broadcasts in the 90s and early 2000s, she saw Curry’s influence.

Two-time U.S. men’s champion and Olympic bronze medalist Scott Allen attended the premiere. “The film was a stunning example of the fusion of skating and art,” he said. “There was no higher example of that than John Curry.”

Following his golden season, Curry set about forming his own skating company. After debuting in London, he brought the company to the U.S. in 1978, performing for several weeks on Broadway at the Minskoff Theatre until it abruptly closed after Curry’s emotional breakdown during a show.

Credit: Lois Elfman
(l-r) Nathan Birch, Cathy Foulkes, William Whitener and Timothy Murphy participated in a Q&A after the film. Credit Lois Elfman

Several years later, after getting financial backing, Curry organized a company that spent time in Colorado rehearsing, toured internationally and ultimately had a triumphant run at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. An international tour commenced, but the show was plagued with financial issues as well as Curry’s desire to stop skating.

Three-time U.S. pairs champion, two-time Olympian, longtime professional skater Starbuck performed extensively with Curry, including originating the renowned “Tango, Tango” program choreographed by Martins, then a dancer with the New York City Ballet.

“It was a really special, magical time,” said Starbuck, after seeing The Ice King for the first time. “All of us came together and we were in this beautiful bubble. We got to perform in beautiful theaters with people who loved and appreciated what we were doing. We got to be part of John Curry’s vision. It was a magnificent ride.”

The film also focuses on Curry’s complex and often self-destructive romantic life. One former lover interviewed said Curry was always searching for love, but that often had a dark side.

“We wanted to get the truth and persuade the people [interviewed] about the emotional honesty of the film and that we wouldn’t speak of his private life in a prurient way,” said Erskine, who shared details of the film with Curry’s brother. “It was a sincere attempt to understand him and his world.”

Curry, who was outed by a journalist during the 1976 Olympic Winter Games, was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1987 and developed AIDS in 1991. He returned home to England and spent the final years of his life living with his mother.

Although it is nearly a quarter of a century since his death, his impact continues in contemporary men’s competitive skating, where skaters such as Patrick Chan of Canada, Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan and Jason Brown of the U.S. move audiences with musicality, choreography and exquisite line.

Curry’s concept of ensemble skating and dance on ice continues with artistic skating companies such as the Next Ice Age, founded by Birch and Murphy, both of who were members of the cast at the Metropolitan Opera, and Ice Theatre of New York.

Birch and Murphy recently revived the piece that closed the film, “On the Beautiful Blue Danube,” which Curry choreographed for the Next Ice Age in 1990, as well as other Curry programs, “Tango, Tango” and “Skaters’ Waltz.” Curry never wanted anyone to restage his work, which they honored for decades, but The Ice King inspired them to show these programs to the world once again.

“It’s been wonderful,” said Birch. “The best thing of it is actually studying the dances themselves and the way he moved.”

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Weaver, Poje take their chances with Thank You Canada tour

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The Thank You Canada figure skating tour kicks off in Abbotsford, British Columbia on Friday night, the first stop on a 27-city swing stretching across 11 Canadian provinces and more than 4,500 miles.

Most of the participants, including tour co-producers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir; Patrick Chan; Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford; and Kaetlyn Osmond, are members of Canada’s gold-medal winning team at the PyeongChang Olympics. They are joined by three-time world champion Elvis Stojko, winner of Olympic silver medals in 1994 and 1998, and Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, two-time Canadian ice dance champions and reigning world bronze medalists.

“We’re so lucky as Canadian athletes to have received such support over the years,” Virtue, who also won two individual Olympic ice dance gold medals with Moir, said on CTV’s Your Morning. “This has been on our radar for a long time, to do a tour to sort of give back and say thank you in our own way.”

“The timing feels right, now that we are not doing any amateur skating this season,” Moir added.

The timing is also right for the long-retired Stojko. Chan, and Duhamel and Radford, formally announced their respective retirements from eligible competition soon after the PyeongChang Games. Osmond, the reigning world champion, is not competing this season.

That leaves Weaver and Poje. The couple is skipping the ISU Grand Prix Series this fall, but plan to return to competition at the 2019 Canadian Figure Skating Championships, held in Saint John, New Brunswick, from January 13-20. There, they will likely face a fierce battle for the Canadian title with Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, who bested them at the event last season (though Virtue and Moir won).

Forgoing the chance to compete their programs in front of judges and technical specialists could be a dicey strategy, given the ever-shifting International Judging System (IJS), which had intricate changes to required ice dance elements issued during the off-season. Having just won their first world medal since 2015, Weaver and Poje risk losing some of the momentum they fought so hard to build.

“That’s a very good point and the absolute first thing we thought of,” Weaver, 29, said. “However, momentum is kind of a funny concept, because it’s not really a tangible thing. We were given this opportunity to tour Canada in 2018 with the Olympic gold medal-winning team. This opportunity now is priceless. We are going to show our competitive programs on the tour, we’ll be out there many times across the country, so we see this as a definite asset.”

The couple opened their season with a win at the Autumn Classic International in Canada last month. Their programs, including a tango rhythm dance and a free dance to “S.O.S. d’un terrien en détresse” from the rock opera Starmaniaa tribute to their late friend, Denis Ten – were well-received, but as is typical early in the season some of their element levels needed improvement.

“We really wanted to push ourselves to come to (Autumn Classic) and get what we needed for feedback, and now we have three months before our next competition to really develop the programs,” Poje, 31, said. “But going out on tour and performing (the programs) every night is really a great asset for us. Instead of performing them only three times maybe in a (fall) season, we perform them many times.”

Weaver and Poje won the Grand Prix Final in 2015 and 2016, and then went on to place fifth and third, respectively, at the world championships. Last season, they failed to qualify for the Grand Prix Final after placing second and fourth at their Grand Prix events.

“We won the Grand Prix Final twice, we’ve not made it countless times, it really has no bearing on the rest of the season most times,” Weaver said. “You win some, you lose some. You still need to bring it when you need it.”

“We figured, if we have a great product, let’s get out early, let’s put our feet down and say, ‘We’re not going anywhere,’” she added. “We’re going to build our repertoire in a different way (on tour), as well as live in a different way and then come back to competition.”

Plenty of practice time, including regular consults with ice dance technical specialists, is part of the program.

“We will not be dilly-dallying, we are very, very organized,” Weaver said. “This presents a unique challenge for us, one we’ve never done before, I don’t know if anyone has ever done it before. We’ve scheduled our down time with (technical) callers, with our coaches. The producers of the show know we are competitors and that is our main goal, so it’s a give-and-take with the show. It’s a risk, but it’s one we are ready and excited for.”

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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