It’s Compulsory, but Is It Necessary? : For Now, Tedious Competition Counts; Debi Thomas Takes Lead

Times Staff Writer

You wouldn’t tell the Lakers and Celtics that a pregame free throw shooting contest would count toward which team won the seventh game of the National Basketball Assn. championship series.

You wouldn’t tell the Twins and Cardinals that the winner of the World Series might be determined by which team was judged to be the best in batting practice.

In the near future, the International Skating Union may tell world-class figure skaters that they no longer have to compete in compulsory figures to win medals at the World Championships and Olympics. ISU officials will vote at their World Congress in May on a proposal that would grade skaters solely on their performances in freestyle skating.

Former world champion Debi Thomas might have wished for a while Thursday that the ISU had made its decision before this year.


In what might have been the last compulsory figures competition at the U.S. national competition, Thomas faltered on the first of her three figures at the South Suburban Ice Center, enough so that the judges put her second behind Caryn Kadavy.

“I got a little bit angry after that first figure,” said Thomas’ Scottish-born coach, Alex McGowan. “I told her that she was skating like a jelly bean. That’s an English expression. Maybe you would say Jell-O.

“I told her to get angry because I was angry. I told her that even if she lost, she should skate like a skater because I didn’t want a wimp out there.”

Taking the pep talk to heart, Thomas, who is from San Jose, won the next two figures. That gave her the lead over second-place Kadavy of Erie, Pa. and third-place Jill Trenary of Minnetonka, Minn., going into today’s short program at McNichols Arena. Toward the final score, the compulsory figures count 30%, the short program 20% and Saturday’s long program 50%.


“Whoever wins the long program is going to win the championship,” said Carlo Fassi, who coaches Kadavy and Trenary, the defending champion, at the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs. “It’s a freestyle competition now.”

If some ISU officials have their way, all important international competition in the future will be freestyle. According to the proposal, not only would compulsory figures be eliminated but the short program would require nine elements instead of seven and be extended from 2 minutes 15 seconds to 3 minutes.

Also, world rankings would be established to seed skaters into the short program. The compulsory figure standings now determine seedings.

Officials of the United States Figure Skating Assn. say the proposal would have been adopted if the vote had been last summer. But they and Canadian Figure Skating Assn. officials have been campaigning to retain the figures. There is debate about how many voters they have persuaded.


Predicting that a compromise will be reached, Fassi said: “You’ll see the figures again. There may be only two figures, but they’ll keep them in. I think the short program will come first, followed by two figures, and then the long program.”

Peggy Fleming, the 1968 Olympic champion and a commentator here for ABC, disagreed. “It’s inevitable that the change is going to be made,” she said. “We can’t stop that. They’re interesting for the people who do them. I was good at them. But they’re not very pretty.”

Adjectives used to describe them often begin with boring. For spectators, watching the figures is like watching an artist paint but never being able to see the canvas, even after the picture is completed.

Basically, the skaters perform Figure 8s on the ice and then stand by nervously as the judges scrutinize the circles. Then the skaters wait in line to do it again, twice more. At the national championships, figures routinely take five hours. At the World Championships, they can take eight hours.


Still, figures have their advocates. Historians point out that skating competition began in the 1880s with skaters attempting to draw the most elaborate figures on the ice. That is why the sport is called figure skating.

“Figure skating is based upon figures,” said Dick Button, a two-time Olympic champion who also is providing commentary here for ABC. “A hundred years ago, nobody knew about free skating. That didn’t exist. Figure skating was an art form in itself. It was like penmanship to the hand.”

Others have argued that figures to the skater are like scales to a pianist and barre exercises to a ballet dancer. They contend that if skaters do not become accomplished in the basic figures, they will not be able to perform clean freestyle programs.

But the bottom line for many who favor figures, particularly coaches, is the bottom line.


“We’d lose 50% of our jobs, and rinks would lose 50% of their rink time,” Fassi said. “It would be a disaster financially for many rinks. Figures are practiced from 5 until 9 in the morning. That ice (time) is difficult to sell.”

There are also compelling financial reasons for eliminating figures, however. Officials from countries with small numbers of rinks argue that their skaters cannot compete internationally because they can spend only a few hours on the ice. They do not have enough time to become adept at both figures and freestyle skating. Faced with either building more rinks or eliminating figures, they favor the latter.

Not only will the sport become more democratic, they say, it also will attract better athletes, who may not have the patience for figures but excel at freestyle skating.

“You might see some great Chinese skaters,” McGowan said.


But Thomas predicted that, as skaters become more daring in their routines, there will be more injuries.

“There are going to be a lot of people flying around,” skater Christopher Bowman said. “It’s going to be like gymnastics on ice.”

Since the proposal applies only to international competition, countries could still decide to retain figures in their national meets. USFSA officials say that they would decide after the World Congress but that they likely would go along with the majority.

“Maybe there should be separate medals,” Button said. “After all, figure skating and free skating are further apart than the balance beam and the floor exercises in gymnastics. They’re two entirely different things.