A Letter to the Washington Post

by Ellyn Kestnbaum and Sandra Loosemore

Note: we submitted this to the Washington Post as a letter to the editor. They chose not to print it but we thought we would give it wider distribution ourselves by publishing it on the Internet.


April 29, 1996

Letters to the Editor
Washington Post
1150 15th St. NW
Washington, DC 20071

We have been becoming increasingly dismayed by Christine Brennan's status as a celebrity and a supposed "expert" on the sport of figure skating, particularly in the aftermath of the announcement by the USFSA that they would be withdrawing her press credentials.

We believe that the USFSA has a legitimate concern about a conflict of interest between Brennan's promotion of herself, her book, and her own personal agenda, and her supposed position as a serious journalist. On the other hand, we believe that the USFSA mis-handled this situation by attempting to "ban" her from covering future events. We think that it would have been more appropriate for them to make a concerted effort to educate the public about the sport and to specifically address some of the issues Brennan finds so mystifying. Since the USFSA seems unwilling to do this, we, as independent observers, would like to counter some of Brennan's claims.

It is apparent to us that, far from being the expert that she has claimed to be in her numerous interviews and television appearances, Brennan is not particularly knowledgeable about figure skating. Specifically, Brennan has repeatedly made comments about the incomprehensible nature of judging in figure skating. However, it doesn't necessarily follow that the judging truly is completely irrational just because Brennan doesn't understand it herself. Rather, it is evident that she simply does not have as much technical knowledge about skating as the judges, and apparently is not making much effort to learn.

Figure skating is a complex sport to judge. It's not just a matter of counting the jumps landed and assigning points according to difficulty. Judges also consider how well a given jump or spin or spiral sequence is performed. They consider the basic skating skills competitors display between the highlighted elements, taking into account such factors as edge quality, speed and power, and "flow". Does the skater move fluidly across the ice, or continually lose speed and have to regain it with each push to the other foot? Do the footwork sequences and connecting elements use turns in both directions and difficult turns such as brackets, counters, and choctaws, or only the relatively easy forward three turns and inside mohawks in the skater's natural direction of rotation? Does the movement express the rhythm and character of the music? All these factors and more are spelled out in the rulebook so skaters and the coaches know what they're being judged on.

It takes years of training and experience to qualify to judge at the national or international level. The more that we, as fans, learn about figure skating, the more humility and respect we have towards skating judges and their knowledge and abilities. Yes, figure skating is a subjective sport, but no one who really cares about all the nuances that contribute to good skating, regardless of their level of expertise or training, can justifiably claim that their opinion is necessarily correct and all other opinions are necessarily wrong. Even the judging system itself recognizes that there is room for legitimate differences of opinion among the judges as well as the possibility of human error or bias; in comparing skaters with different strengths and weaknesses, different judges may disagree about which strengths to reward. This is why there are nine judges on the panel instead of only one, and the scoring system is based on majority vote.

In her book, Brennan chose to follow several skaters personally through the 1994-95 skating season. One of these was junior lady Jenni Tew. In addition to the human interest aspects of Tew's experiences, Brennan uses her placement in the short program at the 1995 US Figure Skating Championships as an example of bias in judging, of "holding up" an established national skater by giving her the benefit of the doubt while being merciless with a newcomer to Nationals. According to Brennan (p. 238), Tew "had come to Nationals and she had been flawless in her first two and a half minutes" but only placed eighth in the short program, while "two girls who were ahead of Tew -- [Amy] D'Entremont [who placed fourth] and Serena Phillips, in fifth -- had made mistakes." What Brennan fails to note (but checking a videotape of the competition makes clear) is that although Tew did land a triple toe-double toe combination for her first time ever in competition, it was not flawless -- the landing of the second jump was not well controlled and may have merited a minor deduction of 0.1. She also may have earned a small deduction from some judges for the exit of her final spin, in which she had to place her free foot on the ice for balance. There were several nice qualities to Tew's program, including a good understanding of musicality, and her relatively clean performance must have delighted Jenni and her family and coaches, but overall her skating was slower and more tentative than most of those who placed above her.

D'Entremont, three years older than Tew as well as more experienced at the national level, skated with more power and assurance, and some of her elements, notably her double axel and layback spin, were not only the strongest in the junior competition but could rival the quality of the best of the senior ladies. She did fall on her triple salchow and failed to complete her combination, and therefore she earned a deduction of 0.4 for required elements, but the base mark from which this deduction was made, due to the superior quality of the majority of her program, would have been considerably higher than Tew's base mark. Similarly, Phillips's error, underrotating and two-footing the first jump in her combination, probably merited a deduction of 0.2 to 0.4, but the combination she was attempting -- triple lutz-double loop -- was the most difficult attempted by any junior or senior lady, so again her base mark would have been higher.

It's not necessary to look for bias or incompetence on the part of the judges to explain Tew's placement; simply looking at the skating is sufficient for anyone who understands what they're seeing. Brennan gives no evidence that she looked beyond a cleaner-than-expected showing from the skater she was following personally, nor that she understands more than what she's been told about the relative difficulty of jumps and the obvious fact of whether a skater falls or not.

A more recent example of Brennan's confusion over the criteria used in judging concerns the short program of Rudy Galindo at the 1996 US Figure Skating Championships. In an interview shown on ABC television in March, Brennan stated that "everyone" thought Galindo should have won the short program, and when asked to explain why he actually finished third in that portion of the competition, she could only roll her eyes and say "That's figure skating!" -- with the clear implication that there was no rational explanation for the judging.

While many people who were present in San Jose were no doubt emotionally affected by Galindo's fine performance and disappointed that he did not place higher in the short program, the judges do not and can not base their placements on emotion. A dispassionate examination of Galindo's short program reveals that, although he did skate cleanly and complete the most difficult jump combination of the event, there were other technical deficiencies in his program. Galindo most likely was penalized for an inadequate straight-line step sequence; it did not traverse quite the full length of the rink (as required by the rulebook), and for a good part of that distance he was simply gliding backwards on one foot rather than performing more difficult steps or turns. He may also have received a minor deduction for faulty technique on the takeoff of his triple lutz (changing from an outside to an inside edge); and he skated with noticeably less speed and power than most of his competitors, a factor that would be reflected in both the required elements and presentation marks. It is interesting to note that, two months later at the World Championships, Galindo received similar marks from a different panel of international judges, and probably for similar reasons.

In addition, after US Nationals, Galindo's short program was discussed at great length by skating fans on the Internet -- openly and in a public forum -- and there seemed to be a relatively clear consensus about its weaknesses. We find it very hard to believe that Brennan could not, as a reporter, find anyone knowledgeable about skating to explain these points to her. Whether Brennan's statements and innuendos were a deliberate attempt to mislead the public or just the result of carelessness, we don't know, but it was surely neither expert commentary on the sport of figure skating, nor competent reporting.

More generally, we question whether Brennan has been adhering to professional standards of journalism in reporting on the sport of figure skating.

One problem that is evident in her book is that she does not adequately identify or attribute the sources of her information. She "gets into" people's heads throughout the book, as though she's the omniscient narrator of a novel or popular biography, so there's rarely any way of knowing whether the thoughts she attributes to skaters, coaches, etc. were revealed in press conferences or interviews, or were the products of Brennan's imagination. For example, how did she know what was going on in Todd Eldredge's mind during his long program in Birmingham? This technique makes for a catchy, novelistic writing style but it doesn't enhance the book's credibility.

Brennan also has a tendency to state opinion as fact and to simply overlook facts in order to make a point. One blatant example of this again involves Rudy Galindo. In her book, Brennan makes a flat statement: "He doesn't think the judges will give it to him, ever. And he's right. They won't. But he is not being robbed. He doesn't deserve the highest marks because he is not the country's best male skater, and he is prone to falling at the worst times." Galindo's victory in San Jose obviously disproved this claim, but even without that proof it would have been a highly questionable statement. All of the top male skaters in the country have had problems with consistency in recent years, after all, and at 1993 US Nationals Galindo had already demonstrated that, with a good performance, he could defeat poor performances from Eldredge and other top skaters. Perhaps Brennan not aware of this, and was drawing her conclusion based only on Galindo's subpar performance in 1995. In fact, Galindo was quite ill with asthmatic bronchitis at the time of 1995 US Nationals, which surely contributed to his problems at that competition. His illness was known to skating fans who had seen and spoken with him at the event, and again it had been openly discussed on the Internet. Why was it overlooked by Brennan, who is supposedly a professional journalist, and who was even featuring Galindo as one of the subjects of her book?

Another problem with Brennan's reporting has been that her efforts to appear as a serious investigative journalist and at the same time write breezy, quick-read copy lend her book a sensationalist tabloid tone that presents non-issues as if they were shockers and fails to deliver a reasoned analysis of the implications of genuine issues within the skating community. Her statements in her TV and radio interviews have been even more shallow.

In particular, Brennan has been treating the issue of homosexuality in the skating world as if it were a shocking secret, when it is nothing of the kind. There are gays in every profession, and both people who follow the sport and the general public were aware of their presence in the skating world long before Brennan came along and wrote her book. Furthermore, by discussing the gay skaters and choreographers primarily in the context of AIDS under the heading of "Skating's Tragic Secret," Brennan gives the impression that the gay presence in and contributions to the sport are somehow tragic in themselves.

We hope that, instead of glorifying Christine Brennan as a poor persecuted journalist and accepting her unquestioningly as a self-proclaimed expert on figure skating, the mainstream media will take a more critical look at her credibility and reporting in the future. We also hope that both the USFSA and the press will make more of an effort to inform the public about how to appreciate skating and will rely less on the kind of personality-driven coverage that makes competitive skating a mystery that requires so-called experts to interpret for the masses.

Sincerely,

Ellyn Kestnbaum
Sandra Loosemore


Ellyn Kestnbaum is a recreational figure skater and avid consumer of live and videotaped skating performances from local beginners to world class skaters. She has judged a number of Basic Skills competitions. Ellyn is working on her doctoral dissertation about cultural meanings of figure skating.

Sandra Loosemore is a longtime skating fan and a regular contributor of commentary and reviews to the skating discussion groups on the Internet. She publishes The Figure Skating Page at http://www.frogsonice.com/skateweb/ and is the author of the Competitive Figure Skating Frequently Asked Questions List, a collection of reference and tutorial material about the sport that is regularly updated and published on the net. She is also a recreational figure skater.

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