I want to be delicate in crafting this column, for I know those who tune in for Olympic figure skating take it as seriously as any American Idol voter or New York Yankee fan. The slightest stumble — to say nothing of an actual meeting of keister and ice — is enough to spike blood pressure. This is a sport in which a pipe-wielding hit-man made news not that long ago. I know the gravity of the subject matter.
But I have a problem with a sport in which I can’t recognize a winner from a “loser.” The subtleties between Lysacek’s performance and that of 2006 Olympic champ Evgeni Plushenko may have jumped out — like a triple salchow! — for the judges entrusted with awarding medals in Vancouver. But from my couch? Two fine athletes, each able to do with their bodies on ice what I couldn’t do in a swimming pool. And synchronized to music. To crown one Olympic champion — again, in my view — is as subjective as awarding an Oscar or Grammy.
It doesn’t have to be this way. When the International Olympic Committee finally calls, here’s my solution for the figure-skating competition.
To begin with, the field will be drawn up in brackets, like a tennis tournament. National champions will be seeded higher, with an open draw to determine placement of other skaters. As we learn every March, nothing builds fan interest like a good bracket. Only regulation: skaters from the same country cannot face each other in the first round. “Face each other?” you ask. Absolutely, and this is the game-changer in my new figure-skating format. Two skaters on the ice at the same time. Four-and-a-half minutes together, with music they are presented at the time of the draw (allowing skaters, at minimum, three days to choreograph their routines; we’re looking for skating champions, not dancing stars).
This would actually bring competition — an opponent — into the fold. Whether it’s another team, a clock, or even par on a golf course, an athlete needs to be confronting an adversary to truly achieve greatness in sports. Imagine the Olympic field being winnowed down to Lysacek vs. Plushenko in the finals, each to take the ice one last time, forced to perform his best routine of the tournament ... without crashing into his rival. (A bracket format would require more routines to be skated by each competitor. If Olympic swimmers can handle three races in a day, skaters can take on some extra ice time.)
And finally, our new scoring system. Skaters would accumulate points for each jump and each technical maneuver, based on the value as determined by international judges. Unlike the current system, though, the points would show up on a scoreboard as the routines are being performed. “Plushenko takes a 15 point lead early, only to have Lysacek close the gap with back-to-back triple axels!” Can you imagine the drama if Ms. Flatt were trailing the favored Kim with 30 seconds to go in their routine, and the entire world knew she had to hit three flawless jumps to take the gold? I, for one, would be falling off that couch, screaming at my television, “C’mon Rachael! Jump, baby, jump!!”
All the artistry would still be there, all the beauty that makes figure skating so attractive to so many. But it would also feel like sports, where battling something a little more fearsome than a panel of judges is generally part of the mix.
“Jump Rachael! Jump!!”
That said, you can forgive fans at The Racquet Club of Memphis this week if they treat Andy Roddick like he has “MEMPHIS” stitched across the cap he wears on court, indoors or out. The top American player on the men’s tour (and seventh-ranked player in the world) will be making his 10th consecutive appearance in Memphis, his eighth straight as the tournament’s top seed. The last American man to win a Grand Slam title — Roddick won the 2003 U.S. Open — will be defending his Regions Morgan Keegan title, and aiming to become only the third player to earn three Memphis championships (at age 19, Roddick beat James Blake for the 2002 title).
Despite having been the top-ranked American player six of the last seven years — Blake finished two spots ahead of him in 2006 — Roddick hasn’t quite attained the status enjoyed by the likes of Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras, or Andre Agassi. This has much to do, of course, with Roddick’s prime coinciding with those of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Since Roddick won that U.S. Open (his solitary Grand Slam title), 25 Grand Slam events have been played ... and 21 of them have been won by Federer or Nadal.
Roddick has been on the cusp of winning his sport’s biggest event three times, only to fall in the Wimbledon finals all three times to — wait for it — Federer. Last year’s match was among the five or 10 greatest the All England Club has ever witnessed, with Federer prevailing, 5-7, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 16-14. Consider this: the 39 total games Roddick won are a record for a Grand Slam final, and he didn’t even win the match.
Now, it’s hard to feel sorry for a professional tennis player married to the current Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue cover girl. (If Brooklyn Decker comes to Memphis, it will actually be two Swimsuit Issue veterans at The Racquet Club, as Maria Sharapova will headline the draw for the Cellular South Cup.) Roddick’s trophy case is stuffed with 28 titles. And he’s earned more than $17 million before his 28th birthday. He’s been ranked in the year-end Top 10 every year since 2002 (including number-one in 2003, the last year someone other than Federer or Nadal held the top spot). And as far as Memphis is concerned — Federer and Nadal have yet to play here — Roddick is the finest player of this generation. He’s the home team.
RMK tournament director Peter Lebedevs coached Roddick when the Nebraska native was just 12 years old and already armed with a killer serve. “With Andy having become a top-10 player, it’s pretty much a guarantee every year that we’re going to have a premier event,” says Lebedevs. “He enjoys Memphis. It’s nice knowing you have a player of that caliber who wants to play in our event every year, who wants to stay in the U.S. He’s been successful here, and it means a lot to the tournament. He can go anywhere in the world, and he chooses to come to Memphis.”
As for the legacy Roddick will someday leave, Lebedevs feels sharing his prime with Federer has to be taken into consideration. “He doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves,” says Lebedevs, “for as good as he is. He could be playing in the era with the greatest tennis player who ever lived. If Federer’s not there, there are definitely a few more Grand Slams Andy would have. But look at his commitment. A champion is always looking to improve. And he’s doing things to try and get better.”
Roddick’s title defense begins Wednesday night — with a match against Blake — at The Racquet Club.
Before you scoff at the number of less-than-mainstream sports that will make headlines during the Winter Olympics this month, remember this: Almost every athletic endeavor is harder when performed on snow or ice. (I’ll say this: hopping in a bobsled and managing to slide to the bottom of a mountain .0026 of a second faster than your competition is a lost art to me. Seems like gravity decides the gold in that arena.)
We spectators tend to judge a sport in part by measuring how we might handle the challenge: I could never hit Tim Lincecum’s curve ball, but I can shoot free throws better than some first-ballot Hall of Famers. When it comes to the Winter Games, I’d be a mess in every last competition (including that bobsled). I’ve been on skates and skis and stick-handled a hockey puck (on roller blades). And it gets ugly.
I love the way the Winter Games stand out in a fan’s memory. Whether it’s athletes skiing with rifles on their back, a speedskater sliding 50 feet — at 50 miles per hour — on his backside, or a hockey team making us believe in miracles, the Winter Olympics somehow do the memory equivalent of bookmarking our brains. (It may have something to do with February otherwise being among the slowest sports months on the calendar.) Even the settings for the Winter Games are more memorable than their summer counterparts. How often have you uttered the words Nagano or Torino, much less paid attention to the charms and history of these cities? Huge metropolitan centers draw the Summer Games every four years. But for the Winter Games, we all get to call a village our home for two weeks. (Okay, Vancouver’s a good-sized city. I paint with broad strokes.)
The first Winter Olympics I remember were those of Sarajevo in 1984. The ravaging of the war-torn city that ensued only makes the champions of ’84 seem that much more distant. Scott Hamilton was the figure-skating star of those games, with Bill Johnson playing the perfectly American role of underdog and winning the downhill, the most glamorous of all ski races, an event never won before by a Yank.
In 1988, I gawked with my college buddies at the beauty of Katarina Witt. Consider that: freshmen in college putting the books and beer down long enough to see who might be crowned Olympic ice princess. Witt was that gorgeous. This was also the year speedskater Dan Jansen — a favorite in two races — fell twice after losing his sister to cancer.
Kristi Yamaguchi stole the show in Albertville, France, in 1992, becoming the first American woman to win a gold medal in figure skating since Dorothy Hamill in 1976. Jansen returned, but was again denied a medal.
The Winter Games made a quick comeback in 1994, the new schedule now alternating the summer and winter Games every two years. And in his final race — the 1,000 meters — Jansen became an Olympic champion. Bonnie Blair won her fourth and fifth golds in Lillehammer, Norway, but Jansen is the skater who bookmarked my brain 16 years ago. Try waiting six years to honor a lost sibling. (As for the shenanigans between a pair of rival American skaters in ’94, I’ve officially placed that memory chapter in the blessedly tiny tabloid section of my noodle.)
Tara Lipinski made me feel old before my 30th birthday when she won figure-skating gold in Nagano in 1998 ... before her 16th birthday. Apolo Ohno emerged in 2002, along with a new sport — short-track speedskating — that brought some NASCAR (and the possibility of crashes around every turn) to the Winter Games. Then in 2006, in Torino, Italy (a city I called home for a magical year of my youth), Shaun White and his snowboarding rivals made the fabled Winter Olympics a modern extravaganza in every sense.
A new memory bookmark will be made later this month from the scenes in Vancouver. As unlikely as it is that I’ll be able to relate to the bookmark-worthy performance, it’s just as certain the event — and the new hero — will last a lifetime.
But my favorite is the father-son angle. It may be the most obvious, but from the view of one son (and father), the connection Archie and Peyton Manning will have this Sunday will be the element I remember, regardless of the outcome.
My first football hero was Roger Staubach, the quarterback who played in four Super Bowls -- and won two -- with the Dallas Cowboys in the 1970s. He was a comic-book hero come to life, leading late-game comebacks against the evil Redskins and Giants, and with a star on his helmet, no less. But I heard for years -- from my dad -- that if circumstances had been different, and Archie Manning had been wearing that silver helmet for 11 years instead of the gold of his New Orleans Saints, it would be a Manning poster I had on my bedroom wall.
After achieving cult status as a college quarterback at Ole Miss, Archie spent 11 years leading a Saints franchise best known for the paper bags its fans would start wearing by early October, one season after the next. The best club he quarterbacked was the 1979 Saints, and they went 8-8. Remarkably, Archie reached two Pro Bowls as the quarterback of a team that went a combined 15-17. He remains the Saints’ alltime passing leader (21,734 yards), though his record as a starter for New Orleans was a turn-your-head-away 35-91-3.
Archie’s second son, Peyton, was born in March 1976, a blessed year for the elder Manning in more ways than one. (He had to sit out the season with an injury as the Saints went 4-10 behind Bobby Douglass.) By the time Peyton was old enough to care, Archie had been traded to Houston, and later Minnesota, though the Manning family continued to call the French Quarter in the Big Easy their home. For Archie’s kids, the Saints were always the home team.
Cut to the present, and Peyton is the Hall-of-Fame-bound, four-time MVP, leading his Indianapolis Colts to Miami. He’ll try to become the 11th quarterback to win two Super Bowls. To do so, he’ll have to beat, of course, the New Orleans Saints, everybody’s second-favorite team since Hurricane Katrina all but destroyed the city in 2005.
My dad didn’t live to see the Saints finally reach the Super Bowl. But he lived long enough to recognize that Peyton is a superior quarterback, one better than his father, and better than most men ever to have tossed the pigskin. Dad would love Archie’s view on things this week. As quoted in the February 1st issue of Sports Illustrated, Archie eliminated any doubts over where his heart would be come Super Sunday: “I’m rooting for my son.”
Which makes this angle so poignant. Imagine the millions of fathers (and sons, and daughters) who will be watching this Sunday, picking a team to cheer for, looking for the latest hero on football’s biggest stage. Some will don blue and white and hope for a second Colt championship over the last four years. Many others will find some black in their closet and scream “Who dat!” every time the Saints so much as gain a first down.
But every last father watching Super Bowl XLIV will have a moment when he imagines his own son -- and yes, even his own daughter -- playing in so grand an arena. And he’ll know how he’d be rooting. For one Sunday, at the end of one football season, every father will feel much like the great Archie Manning.