12
Feb

With Team Skating, It’s Now Kiss, Cry, Squeeze In

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Originally posted on NY Times by By Mary Pilon

SOCHI, Russia — The figure skating arena for the Sochi Olympics, known as the Iceberg, can seat 12,000 people. When the new team competition is being held, it seems as if they are all piled into the famously awkward kiss-and-cry area.

Long a cherished, finger-biting scene on telecasts, the kiss-and-cry zone holds skaters and their coaches captive beside the rink, with cameras in their faces, as they nervously wait for, and then receive, word of their fate from the judges. The population, if not the drama, in this unusual corner of the sports universe has exploded, as a result of the new Olympic format in which each country puts forward several skaters — in ice dance, pairs and men’s and women’s singles, competing in short and free programs. The highest score at the end wins.

Suddenly, figure skating’s moment of high anxiety looks like a competition for most awkward family photo. 

Clad in black and adorned with silver sparkles, Ashley Wagner performed Saturday to “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” by Pink Floyd.Ashley Wagner Helps U.S. Advance in Team Skating EventFEB. 8, 2014

“This event’s multiple kiss-and-cries looks like one of those tricks in spring breaks in Florida where college kids try to see how many can get into a telephone booth,” said Dick Button, an 84-year-old television commentator who won two gold medals back when there were telephone booths.

Figure skating ratings have slumped in recent years, and a revamped scoring system has perplexed lay fans. The team event is an effort by the International Skating Union, the sport’s governing body, to attract more fans as newer, hipper X Games-inspired events appeal to more and more people at the Olympics. The drama of the smaller-scale kiss-and-cry has made for exquisite — and exquisitely uncomfortable — television over the years, and organizers apparently expect that putting more bodies in the frame will result in more interest in the sport.

The Olympic event has a precursor: the I.S.U. World Team Trophy, which takes place every two years. The team event had “already been tried and tested at I.S.U. events,” said Selina Vanier, a spokeswoman for the skating union.

When the team competition concludes Sunday, NBC’s prime-time audience will see overcrowded sets of skaters who come with cowbells and teacups, team doctors and teammates. There are tears and laughs, and barely enough room for everyone.

Strangely enough, the group kiss-and-cry harks back to the sport’s earlier days, said Doug Wilson, a longtime producer and director at ABC who oversaw that network’s figure skating coverage for more than 40 years. Wilson said that a previous generation of the sport had a team event, but that smaller, older arenas did not have space to accommodate the larger kiss-and-cry area.

“Sochi could plan ahead to avoid last-minute spatial concerns, of course,” Wilson said. “As a viewer, seeing all the team reactions has been freshly entertaining because, until Sochi, we never saw the teams together in a competitive scene.”

The team kiss-and-cry setup is a row of 10 rinkside booths, one for each country, at one end of the Iceberg Skating Palace. (Button called the arrangement “superfluous.”) Each country’s posse gathers in front of a camera while its score is announced. Whooping or whining ensues.

While they wait, skaters fiddle with smartphones, wave flags at fans in the stands or chat with their entourages.

Each country’s skating federation generally determines the kiss-and-cry guest list. On Saturday night, for the ice dance short program and pairs free program, many of the boxes included team members, coaches and choreographers. The United States figure skating team was joined by its team doctor and physical therapist.

The skaters are not complaining about the expanded moment of raw emotion. Charlie White, an ice dancer on the American team, said he and his partner, Meryl Davis, had been excited about the arrangements since “we heard about it and the opportunity to really come out and do something unusual in the sport of figure skating.”

There have been unusual moments, indeed. Marina Zoueva, who coaches skaters for Canada and the United States, dashed out of the Canadian booth after Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir stepped off the ice and shed her Team Canada jacket just as her other students, Davis and White, started their program.

In Ukraine’s booth, Siobhan Heekin-Canedy and Dmitri Dun sat with five people behind them and a coach to their side, a burst of blue and yellow team uniforms and flags behind them. On their faces was pure disappointment: They placed ninth.

The Germans brandished a large bell, clanging it and yelping rodeo-style when Nelli Zhiganshina and Alexander Gazsi took the ice. “It’s nice to have people around,” Gazsi said. “It’s more fun.”

At times, Italy’s and Canada’s booths held nearly a dozen people, perhaps a new Olympic record.

“Every time we skate by, we can hear them,” said Anna Cappellini, an Italian ice dancer.

“I don’t really understand the rules of how many we should be,” she added. “But the more the merrier.”