The 2015 Four Continents Championships: The Good, The Bad And The #NoSheBetterDont

In the post U.S. and Canadian Nationals and European Championships blogs, I introduced a new format for event recaps: The Good, The Bad And The #NoSheBetterDont. To repeat my reasoning behind the brevity, this autumn I spent hours upon hours recapping all six ISU Grand Prix competitions and the Grand Prix Final in detail. Here's the thing. Agonizing over Suzie Salchow's take-off edge on her flip and the level of her spin combination really isn't my bag any more than jamming my hand in a car door is. I wanted to enjoy the competitions for the rest of the season rather than extrapolate the results to death but still wanted to represent all the major competitions with content on the blog as well. After all, whether I'm a big fan of the IJS system or not, there's some spectacular skating going on that I'd be absolutely negligent as a blogger by not talking about... and just as I expected this year's Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Seoul, South Korea did NOT disappoint:

TEN'S ACROSS THE BOARD: Yes, Denis Ten's winning free skate in Seoul was that good it felt like I was watching a good professional competitive program rather than a banal "IJS free skate". Following up on a superb short program, Ten skated one of the finest performances of his career, replete with two quadruple toe-loops (one in combination with a triple toe) and five other triples and convincingly took home the tiara with a total score of 289.46, more than TWENTY FIVE POINTS higher than silver medallist Josh Farris. That's huge! And there was a PROGRAM - an exquisite work of art; a beautiful marriage of music and movement. If he skates like this at Worlds, he just may finally win the World title he probably should have won in 2013. Bravo!


WORLD DOMINATION, MEAGAN AND ERIC STYLE: They're like Pinky and The Brain, those two, only they've BOTH got fabulous brains. "What are we going to do tonight, Eric? The same thing we do every night: try to take over the world". What can I say I haven't said before? These two are on a roll. They have been undefeated this season, winning both their Grand Prix events, the Grand Prix Final, a fourth Canadian title in Kingston and now their second Four Continents title. The best part? The difficulty level they are putting out there in each and every program isn't only scary hard, but it's so intelligently constructed to maximize TES and PCS points (yes, both) that (knock on wood) this just may finally be their year... and guess what? They absolutely deserve it. Their total score in Seoul was 219.48, excellent and even an improvement on their winning score at the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona. That not withstanding, the bobble on the side-by-side triple lutzes showed they were human here. They've just been so flawless all season it's easy to forget that sometimes. It's always good to save something for the grand finale, and I have a strong gut feeling that their performances at Worlds will be their best yet! 

THE FABULOUS FOUR SEASONS: I'll sing it from the rooftops if you get me a sturdy ladder to climb up there. I love Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje's programs this year and as far as material goes, I prefer their material this year to any of that of any of their competitors in Seoul. Fluid and transitional from one element to another in the free skate with beautiful, deep edges, their "Four Seasons" free dance really is a piece of work in the best possible way. Coming from behind in the short dance, they twizzled to victory in Seoul with an impressive score of 109.15 in the free dance, four points ahead of Chock and Bates and nine more than the Shibutani's. The judges gave them the nod both in TES and PCS scores in the free dance, along with level fours on their curve lift, twizzles, straight line lift, rotational lift and combination dance spin from the technical panel. Although on paper their Personal Best Free Dance score came in Barcelona at the Grand Prix Final at 109.80 and this program fell just shy at 109.15, I see improvement building with every performance of this program and it's going to be damn tough to beat it at Worlds I think.

NUMERO UNO?: At only seventeen, Japan's silver medallist Shoma Uno has been around doing his thing for a few seasons now. The last three years, he has finished in the top ten at the World Junior Championships and though he won the Junior Grand Prix Final in style, the depth of Japanese men's skaters is just so great that I wasn't expecting him to make quite the splash he did in Seoul. In the short program, for example, he completely removed any doubt on my part. Not only did he finish second ahead of skaters with years more senior experience, but he posted the second highest PCS score in that part of the men's competition in doing so. There's quite a bit to like about his skating. He gets down into the ice with his knees and has really excellent speed and his jumps are huge, but there were some little things that I still think need to be worked on, for instance the monkey bar arm swing in that spread eagle going up into the triple axel. He's got years ahead of him to work on jump technique and some of the in-between's, but this kid's not just going places, he's already pretty much there. Fifth place is nothing to sneeze at.

JASON BROWN AND THE MATH RACE: Ahhh, the ever important quad. With the way some folks go on about it like it's the be all end all, you'd think it was all about the jumps. Oh wait! It is these days, isn't it? I give Jason bravery points for going for the quad in Seoul, and God knows I don't think anyone with a reasonable bone in their body would wholeheartedly expect anyone to land a four revolution jump on their first attempt in competition. He went for it in the short and ended up in ninth with a downgrade and negative GOE's from all nine judges. An underrotation on the triple axel didn't help his cause there either. In the free skate, he "played it safe" if that's what you want to call attempting two triple axels and six other triples including a triple flip/triple toe combination, and with a near-clean skate, again reminded us of what makes his skating so truly special: the fact he's presenting us with a program and a moment. I look at things with an artist's eye, not a mathematician's eye... and to me, I'd much rather watch a skater skate clean than go for the quad and miss. Chasing results in this system is always going to prove elusive but skaters like Brown are the bright lights that are gaining new viewers for the sport. I'm not hating the player here. I'm definitely hating the game. It's unfortunate that the sport has become a rat race that's driving any skater to put technical content in their programs for points and it's this kind of stuff that endlessly frustrates me about this judging system. As two time Olympic Gold Medallist Dick Button aptly said in Newsweek: "when a judging system rewards a fall over creativity and flair, what else do you expect?

FIRST WORLD #PASODOBLEPROBLEMS: At the Grand Prix Final, Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje had a healthy six point lead on Chock and Bates and an almost ten point lead on 'the ShibSibs', but in Seoul the tables turned as the Americans gained the upper edge in the bullfight. Although Weaver and Poje still earned the highest PCS score of the short dance at this event, their TES score in Seoul was actually 0.01 lower than Gilles and Poirier, who finished fourth. One thing to keep in mind is the fact that the fluke fall at the end of Chock and Bates' paso in Barcelona cost them some points, but Weaver and Poje got dinged for a level two on their twizzles and steps and that cost them here. If you're looking at the whole package - and that's kind of what I do - they had the edge by a mile. Things are just getting a little close for comfort though among the top dance teams... and although it's exciting, I can't say I share the international judge's enthusiasm about Chock and Bates as a team. Tessa and Scott versus Meryl and Charlie recast this season is not. Weaver and Poje's technical strength and equal strength as partners just seems to me to be a cut above. 

PANG AND TONG'S BIG COMEBACK: After stepping away from competition following a fourth place finish at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Sochi, two time World Champions and 2010 Olympic Silver Medallists Qing Pang and Jian Tong made an unexpected and unceremonious return to competition in Seoul. Considering they've won this event five times previously, on paper they certainly had the potential to play spoilers put in actuality these seasoned veterans faced some serious competition not only from the obvious favourites (Duhamel and Radford) but from the other two Chinese teams participating as well. There's a lot to appreciate about this team - big throws and a huge triple twist included - but as nice as it was to see them back out there, Shen and Zhao they are not and even though I fully expect them to be a little more prepared at Worlds, PCS score advantage aside I'd be surprised to see them on the podium in their home country next month despite their bronze medal win here. Call it a hunch. I don't know what I was expecting from this team at this competition, but I didn't quite get it.

LABOURING LADIES: An absolutely charming character named Clairee Belcher once said "Well, you know what they say: if you don't have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me!" Not my style though. The ladies free skate at the Four Continents Championships wasn't exactly an example of everyone skating at their best to put it mildly. Between underrotations, downgrades, edge calls, falls and step outs, of the nineteen ladies competing only one skater managed to escape the technical panel unscathed, and that was Canadian Champion Gabby Daleman. who still somehow only managed to finish sixth in the free skate and seventh overall with a total score of 167.09 despite her only 'mistake' (if you want to call it that) being a doubled second triple lutz attempt. As usual, I was at odds with the PCS scoring in the free skate as well despite the errors we saw from so many of the ladies, especially the strength of the four at the top as compared to others who blundered. Take the PCS score of Rika Hongo for instance. She earned 56.27. Although she managed to stay on her feet with underrotation calls on the triple toe and triple Salchow on the back half of two of her three jump combinations, the program and skating skills arguably weren't even close to being on par with skaters like Daleman, Chartrand and Cesario in my opinion... but you know how it is. Polina Edmunds' win was a nice surprise to me and good on her for staying on her feet when others didn't, but if you take the skating we saw at Europeans from the medallists (even Radionova who you all know I'm no fan of) and compare it to this event, there's just no comparison. I think Ashley Wagner made a very wise decision by forgoing her spot and focusing on Worlds and this event (including the PCS judging) just cemented my belief that Worlds is going to be a showdown between Russian and American ladies skaters.

SAVING THE BEST FOR LATER?: Obviously, as a Canadian I'm always going to be rooting for the home team, and it was kind of hard to watch all three of Canada's men's skaters finish outside of the top ten especially after Weaver and Poje and Duhamel and Radford's wins and all of the Canadian pairs and dance teams finishing in the top ten. It's not like they skated badly though by any stretch of the imagination! The field of talent was incredibly deep at this event. Although Nam Nguyen was eleventh, Jeremy Ten twelfth and Liam Firus fourteenth, they are all outstanding skaters with the potential to greatly improve upon those results when it counts most in Shanghai. 

HISTORY REPEATING: Taking a page out of the Dame Shirley Bassey songbook, "it's all just a little bit of history repeating". In late December, I posted a blog called "I Can Do Better: Talking About IJS Skating's PC(S) Culture" which commented on the program we see on the ice versus the way that program is scored from a PCS mark perspective. I'll quote it right here: "Sarah Kay once said that 'artistry is important. Skill, hard work, rewriting, editing and careful, careful craft: All of these are necessary. These are what separate the beginners from experienced artists.' In the men's short program at the 2014 LEXUS Cup Of China, Uzbekistan's Misha Ge skated cleanly, performing a triple axel, triple lutz/triple toe and triple flip. His musical interpretation and choreography were without question better than most of the men out there in that particular competition and yet his PCS scores were ALL lower than China's Han Yan, who faltered on all three jumping passes he attempted in his program and skated with poor posture. The interpretation of the lively music 'If I Were A Rich Man" from "Fiddler On The Roof' looked half hearted and reliant mainly on transitional footwork and little kicks. Even under the guise or premise that IJS would duly reward his Transitions/Footwork separately from the other parts of the PCS score, it's hard to make an argument how a flawed Yan could earn just shy of ten points more than Ge with a program that was  in my opinion both technically and artistically inferior... which should have clearly reflected in the final three marks allocated for Performance/Execution, Choreography/Composition and Interpretation.

3Han YANCHN79.2139.4339.788.217.717.758.048.070.00#8
4Richard DORNBUSHUSA77.2338.9838.257.717.327.647.797.790.00#9
5Alexei BYCHENKOISR76.9643.7033.266.686.366.756.796.680.00#3
6Nam NGUYENCAN72.8538.3934.466.796.717.076.966.930.00#7
7Misha GEUZB69.4633.2836.187.046.867.437.397.460.00#6

It's about comparing apples with oranges though and while I get that subjectivity is always going to be a challenge that skating will always face, as the sport's audience we need to always reserve our right to say "I Can Do Better" if artistry is something as fans we personally value."

What happened in Seoul in the men's short program you ask? Han Yan again missed one of his jumping passes and Misha Ge completed all three. Despite an 0.11 edge in the 'Interpretation' category, Yan again topped Ge in the PCS score, with higher scores in four of the five categories. Yan finished third, Ge eighth. Explain this one to me because I'd love to wrap my head around it. I do know this. I can still do better... and if you don't think stuff like this isn't costing the sport viewers, I'd love to sit down over a cup of green tea and explain to you why I feel otherwise. 

EXCLUSION: There's a LOT to be said for participation. Article 38, paragraph 7 of the ISU Constituion and Rule 107, paragraphs 1 to 9 of the ISU General Regulations refers to minimum TES scores required to allow skaters to participate in ISU Championships. I've copied and pasted the table to give you an idea of the numbers we're talking about here. They aren't unachievable by any means but they do certainly lead to exclusion at ISU events like Four Continents which have traditionally offered opportunities for skaters in 'developing figure skating countries':

Minimum technical scores (TES)
DisciplineSP / SDFS / FD
Ice dance1929

In Seoul, only four countries (Canada, the U.S., Japan and China) had competitors in all four disciplines. South Korea was the only country to even have competitors in three. A total
of nine (yes, NINE) ISU members (South Africa, Puerto Rico, India, Indonesia, Mongolia, North Korea, Singapore, Thailand and New Zealand) didn't have a single skater in attendance and you know that these TES minimums had something to do with that. For many skaters in developing countries, Four Continents is these skater's 'Olympics' and would be an excellent growth opportunity for them. If you're just going to cut half of the skaters after the short program anyway and get rid of qualifying rounds, I don't see what the harm is in allowing them the opportunity to go and LEARN from skating against some of the world's best. I'm reminded of Père Henri's wonderful sermon from the end of the movie Chocolat: "Listen, here's what I think. I think that we can't go around... measuring our goodness by what we don't do. By what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude. I think... we've got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create... and who we include." Cinquanta doesn't get it... not by a long shot. 

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