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Ron Judd's Olympics Insider

Ron Judd, an Olympics junkie and Seattle Times columnist who has covered Olympic sports since 1997, will use this space to serve up news and opinion on the Summer and Winter Games -- also inviting you to chime in on Planet Earth's biggest get-together.

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January 24, 2009 7:56 PM

U.S. Figure Skating: New women's champion crowned

Posted by Ron Judd

Note that we didn't give it away for those of you still waiting to watch the three-hour tape delay on NBC. And if you STILL don't want to know, look away, look away:

It's Alissa Czisny. The leader after the short program, Czisny, skating before home-state fans in Cleveland, showed the sheer grace she's become known for in a free skate program marred by a single fall on a triple lutz in the program's second half. The miscue placed her third in the free skate point totals, but her (uncharacteristically) flawless short program, which gave her a 5-point cushion going into the free skate, was enough to keep her on top.

Finishing second was the seemingly unflappable Rachel Flatt, 16, who skated cleanly in the free skate to finish with 173.78 points, trailing Czisny's 178.06. In third was Caroline Zhang, with 171.08.

Ashley Wagner, the 17-year-old with strong local ties (she grew up spending summers in Seabeck, Kitsap County), was actually the star of the night. Wagner won the free skate competition, but her disappointing 12th place showing in the short program left her fourth overall, 12.73 points behind the leader.

The win was a long time coming for Czisny, 21, who long has been considered by skating insiders, among them Dick Button, as the most talented "pure skater" among the field of American women. Her graceful footwork and positions, picture-perfect spins and impeccable choreography, however, have never been enough to earn a national title. Czisny has seemed star-crossed, struggling at major competitions, especially with her short programs.

In Cleveland tonight, Czisny, from nearby Bowling Green, seemed to believe the mistakes in her free skate had cost her yet another title -- she appeared downcast until she saw her scores, and the number one next to her name, at which point she lit the place up with a smile. Nice scene.

Both she and Flatt will compete for the U.S. in the World Championships in Los Angeles in March.

A change of the guard was inevitable at these nationals, with previous winners Sasha Cohen in retirement (at least for now) and the struggling Kimmie Meissner out with an injury. Next year's U.S. Championships, which will double as the U.S. Olympic Trials, will take place in Spokane beginning Jan. 10. Tickets and info can be found here.


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October 25, 2008 11:35 PM

Hate the skating scoring system? Join the club

Posted by Ron Judd

I've written a lot over the past several years -- both in serious and non-serious ways --about figure skating's new scoring system, which went into effect in the wake of the infamous 2002 Salt Lake City skating-judge bribery scandal.

The new system is incredibly complicated, and detailed -- to the point that even skating technical experts often have trouble explaining its ins and outs even to people who qualify as experienced skating observers.

The problem: The fans are watching a completely different game than the judges, who employ super-slo-mo, super-closeup replays that literally follow every slice of the skate blade and twirl of the arm. A lot of skating insiders -- among them Scott Hamilton and Dick Button -- concede that after two years of trial and much error, the new system is proving, at the very least, horribly confusing to fans.

It happened again twice tonight at Skate America, where once again, skaters who appeared to have skated cleanly finished behind -- often way behind -- opponents who took notable dumps on the ice. The men's free skate, in fact, ended with the crowd standing and booing as their own chosen winner, American Evan Lysacek, was dropped to third by judges.

Alas, this isn't the exception in the skate world today. It's become the norm.

Lysacek as much as acknowledged the problem tonight, saying his only disappointment from this Skate America contest was seeing potential new figure skating fans leave the building in a hail of boos.

"It's a little disappointing to me, because we're trying to get people back in the building," Lysacek said. He could see some of them going home and swearing off figure skating forever, he said.

His only hope, he added, was that "someone" out there would explain to those fans exactly what happened, and why.

But they never will. Because media people in a position to do that, even if they understand the system themselves and had the time and news space to do so, can't possibly delve into the level of minutae required to fully explain. It just doesn't work. Trust me.

So: Lysacek is right. He's just looking for a solution that's more fantasy than reality. You can't make fans adjust to figure skating's current state of anal-retention. Figure skating needs to adjust to them.

That's the very argument I made, an hour before Lysacek ever spoke, when I filed a column for the Sunday printed paper. The old scoring system, for all its foibles, worked for fans, I opined. This one's been on the books for almost three years, and I think the verdict is in: It doesn't work, not for fans, even educated ones.

When a sport is made so complicated that only a bank of computers and and super slo-mo cameras can distinguish winners from losers, it's bound to be quickly clinging to the edge of relevance.

You could make that argument that that's where figure skating is today. And I make that very argument in the paper.

The reality is that there's no way the International Skating Union is going to reverse course on its beloved new scoring system in the short term. Nobody expects that. But it could be tweaked in some helpful ways. One good start: Be a little less willing to reward spectacular failures on the ice. Rightly or wrongly, most skating fans still have it in their heads that a fall is disastrous. But under the new system, attempting a high-value jump still earns points, whether you land it or not. That doesn't fit with the mental image of "success" most skating observers retain from the old system.

Anyone have their own ideas, or just want to defend the overall Code of Points?

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October 24, 2008 10:34 PM

Lysacek, Weir locked in tight Skate America battle

Posted by Ron Judd


EVERETT -- Two times in three years, defending national champion Evan Lysacek has skated on the ice in the Northwest. And two times in three years, he's been ice-skate sharp.

Lysacek, skating to "Bolero," turned in a near perfect short program to cap tonight's men's competition, scoring 81.30 and leading going into tomorrow night's free skate. He received a one-point deduction for a technical error -- he essentially jumped the gun, beginning to skate one second before his music began.

"I knew it right away," he said. "I'm supposed to wait four seconds in that first pose. I waited three. It was totally my fault."

Otherwise, Lysacek was thrilled with his performance, which brought the crowd to its feet for the first time at Everett's Skate America. He nitpicked his footwork on his step sequences, calling it "a little bit cautious." But overall, "I'm pretty happy with the way it went," he said.

Trailing closely behind in second was longtime rival and former U.S. champion Johnny Weir, who skated cleanly and posted a score of 80.55. He stumbled slightly when landing his third jump, a triple flip.

"I'm very happy that I stayed on my feet," he said. "There's a lot to work on. At the same time, it's a strong start. Any score above 80 is fantastic. I'm very happy about that status of my program for October."

Trailing closely in third is Takahiko Kozuka of Japan, the 2006 world junior champion, who skated earlier in the lineup to "Take Five" by Dave Brubek and put on a stunning display of artistic footwork and clean jumps. Kozuka, 19, the son of a competitive figure-skating father and mother, posted a score of 80.10 and remains within striking distance of an upset win tomorrow night.

Major competitions tomorrow include the men's final and the women's short program.

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October 23, 2008 2:07 PM

Live from Skate America: Women's competition cranks up

Posted by Ron Judd


EVERETT -- How strong is the field at Skate America, the first Grand Prix competition of the season?

"Of all six (Grand Prix) events, this is the strongest for women," says Canadian skating great Brian Orser, who coaches top prospect -- and perhaps event favorite -- Yu-Na Kim of South Korea, the two time Grand Prix final champion.

He got no disagreement from Richard Callaghan, the new coach for former world champion Kimmie Meissner.

Coincidentally, Meissner and Kim turned in the two freshest, most complete short programs in a practice session early this afternoon at Comcast Arena, where a small crowd gathered to watch the skaters debut new programs for the skating season.

Both turned in crisp and relaxed practice routines, Meissner grinning through most of hers after landing her first triple-triple combination. Kim looked equally fresh, showing no signs of the hip injury that has troubled her in recent years.

Meissner, now 19 and living on her own in Coral Springs, Fla., for coaching by Callaghan and his former pupil, Todd Eldredge, seems more mature and carefree on the ice -- no small factor when it comes to results, Callaghan said.

"She's happy," Callaghan said. "If you carry that out on the ice, then all the muscles work right for all the jumps."

Also looking sharp in practice was nationals runnerup Rachel Flatt of Colorado Springs, and a bursting-with-energy Mirai Nagasu, skating to a slapstick Charlie Chaplin routine.

The women's short program is at 7 p.m. Saturday. The competition gets underway with pairs and the men's short program tomorrow evening.

Stay tuned for live results here through the weekend.


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May 5, 2008 6:57 PM

Spokane's Olympic ace-in-the hole? Enthusiasm

Posted by Ron Judd

The opponents were bigger and better-known. But the way Toby Steward and Barb Beddor see it, their hometown, Spokane, had an ace-in-the-hole when it came to luring the 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and Olympic Trials: A perfect track record.

Twice before, skating events organized by Steward and Beddor's Star USA had been lured to the Inland Empire. And each time, participants and sponsors went away feeling flush loved -- and financially flush.

Spokane set attendance records when it hosted Skate America, a major, second-tier skating event, in 2002. It set attendance records again when it hosted the U.S. Championships in 2007. The total sales of 154,000 obliterated the former mark, set in Los Angeles in 2002, by 30,000.

It was a remarkable achievement, given that those championships came a year after an Olympics, when interest in figure skating typically wanes, and that they were held in a place as far off the national radar as Spokane.

It's the sort of locally generated enthusiasm that's difficult for national bodies like U.S. Figure Skating to ignore. Impossible, in this case.

"We felt the ultimate trump card was that attendance record," an elated Beddor said by phone this evening. "And to be able to say with confidence, 'Yeah, we're going to beat that number again.'"

Of that, they have little doubt. Nor do they doubt that the impact from the event has the potential, at least, to balloon at an even greater rate. The '07 championships brought an economic impact estimated at $30 million to the Lilac City. And since then, the event has been dramatically expanded. It now stretches for 10 days over two weekends. Senior men's finals and pairs will take place the first weekend; senior women's finals and ice-dance finals will come on the second. (Official reason: Training schedules for the coming Olympics. More likely reason: NBC.)

Most of that weekend competition will be broadcast live from the 10,500-seat Spokane Arena on NBC, which will be promoting it to death to bolster its upcoming coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics. (Stakes are high for the peacock network, which, recall, paid an unseemly amount of money for Olympic rights through 2012, only to see the Winter Games in Turin get squashed in the ratings contest by the likes of "Dancing With the Stars.")

That's the other factor that turns this event from a major coup to a game-changer for Spokane: The competition dates are Jan. 14-24, 2010. The end of Spokane's skating championships comes only 18 days before the start of the Vancouver Games. The focus of the Olympic world, not just the national skating community, will be on Spokane.

"Olympic fever is a real, tangible item," Beddor says. "It will take over. There's no question we are going to see the benefit of that. Obviously throughout the Pacific Northwest. Certainly in Washington state."

Their company has organized events in the past that would have sold well on their own, but mushroomed because of a timing and proximity brush with the Olympics. A Team USA versus China women's hockey match in Boise, just before the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games, for example, drew a standing-room only crowd. Idaho officials estimated that the match, in conjunction with a torch relay passing and other national teams training in the area, netted as much as $100 million in economic benefit.

Beddor and Stewart believe the same phenomenon is possible in Washington leading up to the Vancouver Games.

Tickets are likely to be in high demand. A survey of previous ticket buyers from the '07 event indicated that 97 percent of fans said they'd come back to Spokane to watch figure skating, an almost unbelievable number, says Steward, a former national weightlifting champion who met Beddor, his wife, at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. They moved to Spokane and launched their event promotion business in 1990.

"We're so proud of the Spokane community," Beddor says. "When they get behind a project, there's no stopping them."

But they both stressed that the event has statewide impact. A sizable chunk of its fan base is based on the west side of the Cascades. And a large portion of the event's sponsors are Seattle-based, as well.

Steward and Beddor have long sought to bring a skating World Championships to Spokane. They lost out on a bid for the '09 World Championships, which went to Los Angeles, although that bid was submitted before Spokane had a chance to show its ablilities with the '07 Nationals.

With that focus on the Worlds, they at one point had nearly decided not to bid on the 2010 Nationals.

"But one day we said, you know what, we don't want to be sitting around four years from now and saying shoulda woulda coulda, and letting a 100-year opportunity (the close proximity of an Olympics) slip through our fingers."

They were confident in their bid, even knowing that San Jose, Portland and Providence, R.I., had their own well-backed efforts. They sensed some sentiment among U.S. Figure Skating board members to host the event on the East Coast. So they weren't sure Spokane would get the call until it actually got the call this afternoon.

"It's figure skating," Beddor said with a chuckle. "They're all about the drama, you know."

Washington state suddenly is set to receive more than its fair share of it. Everett recently landed the 2008 Skate America competition for October at Comcast Arena.

Since you asked: Ticket sales begin at 10 a.m. May 31. See details on the post below, or see the event Web site.

And since you also asked: Yes, there is a hometown favorite. Well, honorary hometown, anyway. Skater Ashley Wagner, who finished third at the 2008 U.S. Nationals, is considered a strong contender for the Vancouver Olympic squad. As a military kid, she's grown up all over the world and is now based on the East Coast. But she has spent many a summer with her grandparents in Kitsap County, where her grandfather, Mike James, was a longtime ranger at Scenic Beach State Park near Seabeck.

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April 20, 2008 11:00 AM

Updated: Spokane: In the 2010 Olympic spotlight?

Posted by Ron Judd

Does Spokane have an inside track to host the 2010 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships -- a mondo sports event that doubles as the Olympic Trials for the 2010 Vancouver Games?

A major voice in the figure skating world thinks it should. The Chicago Tribune's Philip Hersh, the dean of America's figure-skating journalists, already has put his vote in for the Lilac City in his "Globetrotting" blog. U.S. Figure Skating officials are just starting "site inspections" of potential host cities, Hersh writes, opining:

They are wasting time and money on a no-brainer:

The championships belong in Spokane. No need to visit anywhere else.

It is one of four undisclosed candidates for the event, and I have learned Providence, R.I. and Portland, Ore., also are apparently in the running.

(USFS chief executive David Raith did not answer messages seeking the identity of the mystery guest.)

Two years ago, Spokane put on the best U.S. Championships of the nearly two dozen I have attended -- including Portland (2005) and Providence (1995).

The city was more jazzed to be host than any other I have seen. There were even posters about the championships in bars too funky for even a thirsty sportswriter to patronize.

Spokane's attendance was 154,893. Portland's was 117,000. Providence drew 56,856.

This is what I wrote after the event in 2007:

"Take a city with good facilities, a highly competent organizing committee and no major league professional sports, and it doesn't matter how relatively small or isolated it is.

"Spokane's motto might as well be, 'Gateway to Idaho.' By 2005 estimates, it is the 99th largest city in the country, in the middle of the 108th largest metropolitan area.

"Yet it drew 25 percent more spectators for the skating nationals than any previous host, a group that includes much larger places such as Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia, Dallas and Atlanta.''

It's a big endorsement from a big voice in the Olympics world. Knowing Hersh, we can attest that his motivation is simple: He loves the sport, and he -- and everyone else -- saw Spokane embrace it like few other cities in the country when it hosted the U.S. Championships in '07. We quote:

Figure skating needs a boost. The next two years are critical, with the 2009 worlds in Los Angeles and the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver -- only 410 miles from Spokane, so you could see sellouts in Spokane as the road map to sellouts in Vancouver.

The folks leading Spokane's effort for the 2010 nationals say the interest for the second time around will be even greater.

No reason not to believe them, since they exceeded every expectation for 2007. They should nickname the place, Spo-can-do.

We add our voice to what should become a growing chorus to proclaim Spokane the obvious choice for the January, 2010 event. And if figure skating officials use Hersh's strong recommendation to get their compass pointed back to the center of the Inland Empire, we'll take only small credit for introducing him to some of the city's charms.

The selection of Spokane would vault Washington state, suddenly, to the epicenter of the U.S. figure-skating competitive world. Everett already has landed another major contest, the 2008 Skate America, coming in October to the Comcast Arena. (Sort of makes you wonder who's in charge of Seattle these days, doesn't it?)

Spokane's coronation, of course, is far from a done deal. The selection geniuses are the same people, Hersh notes, who awarded last year's Skate America competition to Reading, Pa., "one of the most lugubrious cities in the country."

But if you're trying to land a big-time event like the figs nationals, Hersh is a guy you want in your corner.

UPDATE: U.S. Figure Skating's Events Advisory Boad will recommend a host city for the Jan. 13-24, 2010 event on May 1. Contracts are scheduled to be in place by November 1.The U.S. Figure Skating Championships generate an economic impact estimated at $20 million.

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Blogroll and links

www.olympic.org: The official International Olympic Committtee site, with news releases, a searchable Olympic medals database and other archival information.
www.nbcolympics.com: Olympic news site from one of the Games' primary sponsors.
NBC Olympics columnist Alan Abrahamson's column/blog
Chicago Tribune Olympic sports writer Philip Hersh's blog
www.usolympicteam.com: U.S. Olympic Committee's athlete web site.
www.aroundtherings.com: Ed and Sheila Hula's Olympic News Service (subscription).
www.wcsn.com: News service with audio, video and text coverage of Olympic sports, during and between Olympics. Free, but charges for live video feed subscriptions.
www.beijing2008.com: Beijing Organizing Committee Web site.
www.vancouver2010.com: Vancouver Organizing Committee's 2010 Winter Games site.
www.london2012.com: London 2012 Summer Games site.
www.sochi2014.com: Sochi, Russia's 2014 Winter Games site.
www.chicago2016.org: Candidate city Chicago's summer 2016 bid committee site.
Olympic swimmer Tara Kirk's highly entertaining WCSN blog
Bellevue Olympian Scott Macartney's WCSN alpine ski-racing blog
Other WCSN Olympic athlete blogs.