Meryl Davis and Charlie White made history yesterday, becoming the first U.S. pair to win gold in ice dancing at the Winter Olympics. To an American audience that loves watching ice sports, the victory carries the potential to expose a new generation of fans to the event -- and reopen the debate of whether it's really a sport.
Every four years, ice dancing comes under intense scrutiny, largely overlooked by American viewers with more national interest in figure skating and hockey. One camp fervently defends the athleticism ice dancing requires, noting that timing, control and rhythm are skills needed in many sports. The other side disparages the event for its campy, sequined costumes and cheesy soundtrack of musical theater and classical “best of” numbers better suited for the lobby at the Bellagio than an international sporting competition.
But the most damning argument against ice dancing as a sport is the incredibly subjective nature of its scoring. Compared with figure skating, which has seen its own share of judging controversies (which catalyzed the overhaul of the scoring system across ice sports), there are far fewer technical elements, meaning a score is heavily dependent on the interpretation of artistry. That’s not to say sport and art are mutually exclusive, nor does subjective scoring automatically negate the athletic requirements of a sport. If that were the case, nearly every snow sport, including ski jumping and the new slopestyle events, would be disqualified.
The problem is mostly one of perception. The dangerous and extreme nature of snow sports lends their athletes a legitimacy ice dancers don’t have. Ice dancing is also a paradoxical victim of its outlandish yet subtle nature. Between the outfits and the music, the forced smiles and feigned romance, athletics mostly take a backseat to theatrics. And when technique and stamina do come into play, it’s often too subtle for a layman to decipher the milliseconds of synchronization that separate a gold-medal performance from a silver. It’s also really hard to take a so-called sporting event seriously when the deciding factor between winning and losing is something called a “twizzle,” no matter how difficult they are to pull off.
Ice dancing can further separate itself from other equally mocked Olympic events such as rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming by capitalizing on the one, universal aspect shared by all sports: money. Davis and White are in prime position to expose ice dancing not just to new fans, but their dollars, too. The pair boasts the longest and most prominent list of sponsors in U.S. ice dancing history, counting Visa, Proctor and Gamble, Kellogg, Ralph Lauren, and AT&T among their major backers. With an emphasis on speed and challenging lifts, their skating style also favors athleticism over artistry -- angering ice dancing old timers as well as the Canadian press -- so this might be the perfect opportunity for ice dancing to shake its image of style over substance.
Now, if only it can shake the sequins.
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