2002 Olympic Pairs Free Skate Analysis

by Sandra Loosemore
February, 2002

What follows is a detailed analysis of the free skating programs performed by the top two teams in the pairs competition at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, followed by some personal opinions about the judging. I have to give a disclaimer here: I did not attend the competition in person and have only the tape of the broadcast to go by, and I know very well that things can look different in person than they do on TV.

I'm not going over the short programs in detail here. Berezhnaya & Sikharulidze won that phase of the competition fairly convincingly in an 7-2 decision over Sale & Pelletier that was not at all controversial at the time. The decision might have been closer had not Sale & Pelletier fallen on the ending pose of their program. Since the fall wasn't on one of the required elements, there was no mandatory deduction, but it was still an error and may have swayed a few more judges to vote against them.

Elena Berezhnaya & Anton Sikharulidze

Elena and Anton started out with a section of posing and slow edge steps, not touching one another, that lasted about 10 seconds. Stroking into triple toe loops done close together and with good unison. More stroking into double axels; Anton steps quickly out of his but is still able to pull off the immediately following double toe loop in perfect unison with Elena. They do a brief section of steps down to the end of the rink that includes a brief dance lift and Anton twizzling Elena, then they stroke around the end of the rink to build up speed for their triple twist. The twist is high and fully rotated but there's a slight collision on the catch. Anton sets her down on one foot and they both extend and hold the exit edge nicely.

Next comes a section where Elena does an inside spread eagle while Anton does a spiral. They do this for about 3/4 of a circle and exit the move with both in spiral position. Then more stroking into a throw triple salchow. Elena lands a bit forward but quickly controls the edge which she holds for some time with a particularly strong free leg extension.

This is followed by interweaving steps into a move where Anton is doing a back spiral with his leg extended in front, which Elena holds while she does a regular forward spiral. This flows seamlessly into a forward inside death spiral which they hold for 1.5 rotations after Anton gets into the pivot. He exits onto one foot in spiral position while still spinning Elena low to the ice, and this transitions directly into yet another pivot move where Elena is in shoot-the-duck position. She goes into a brief split on the ice as they finish this, and as she rises Anton twizzles her a couple times for a nice finish to the move.

Then there is another section of intertwining steps where Elena does both outside and inside spread eagles while being supported by Anton. Fairly slow straight-line footwork, then accelerating around the end of the rink into a toe lasso lift which goes immediately to a one-arm support. This lift covers the the whole length of the ice. More intertwining steps and a few strokes into LFO spirals directly into a throw triple loop with a very slight balance check on the landing. This is followed by a back press lift in stag position with a flip-out dismount.

In the next section, they do side-by-side flying camels (2 rotations) dropping into a back sit spin (4). Elena continues to spin in a catch-leg position while Anton exits his spin, skates around, and takes her hand to pull her into a pair combination spin. 3 rotations before the change of foot and 8 after; the back half of the spin is fast and has a very effective position with Anton doing a sideways-leaning position with one leg hooked over Elena who is in a low camel position. They accelerate quickly to do a hand-to-hand lift with a somersault entry and a carry dismount that looked a bit awkward to me. Finally, they repeat the move where Elena is in an inside spread eagle while Anton is in a spiral, this time spiraling inward to end the program.

I would characterize this as a good performance but not by any means their all-time best. Aside from error by Anton on his double axel which was very obvious but not terribly disruptive, there were a few places where they seemed a little off-balance or a little tentative, not quite in their comfort zone. This is a relatively new program for them and I got the sense that they were having to think through every move instead of being on auto-pilot.

On the positive side, I was particularly impressed by how their choreography used creative transitions between the elements to add to the overall difficulty of the program, especially in the death spiral and spin sections. Another big plus for them is that the majority of their connecting moves involved continually changing holds, intertwining body positions, or other pair contact: in the section on pairs judging, the ISU rulebook says that "special attention must be given to choreography, unison, expression, interpretation of the music and intricate footwork, with a variety of partner positions utilizing dance holds". Both of these skaters have very good carriage and extensions, and their choreography emphasizes this as well. On many of their elements, they hold the exit edge an extra-long time with a strong free leg extension as if to emphasize their control over the moves.

Elena and Anton are also especially known for their speed and ice coverage and their effortless stroking and edge quality, which in the past has been enough by itself to lift them ahead of other pairs even when they have made mistakes on their elements -- the tremendous speed they carry makes everything they do more difficult and the judges rightfully give them more credit in the marking. Unfortunately, these aspects of skating do not translate at all well to TV. I've seen them in person in the past and I know how jaw-droppingly fast and smooth they normally are, but it is hard for me to say from the NBC broadcast whether they skated up to their usual standard and how much of an advantage they had in this event.

Jamie Sale & David Pelletier

Jamie and David's program started out quickly with stroking into triple toe loops. Jamie landed hers a little bit before David did, and they were a bit too far apart, so on the immediately following steps David was obviously trying to catch up to her and close the distance. A two-foot glide and more stroking into a toe lasso lift that went to a 1-arm support with a twist dismount; this was a very nice lift. A brief section where David pulled Jamie along as she did spirals and turns and other edge work.

More stroking into their triple twist, which was high and fully rotated, but without much of a "catch" on the landing. (The man is supposed to catch the lady and then set her down on the ice, not merely support her as she lands on her own). Next they do the throw triple salchow, which Jamie lands somewhat forward. She steps forward fairly quickly instead of holding the landing edge, but it looks like it was choreographed that way and was not a mistake.

This is followed by some counterpoint steps that they do without touching; David does a brief spread eagle while Jamie does a small jump and some turns. More stroking into side-by-side double axels -- Jamie's axel technique looks a little wonky, without a good step up into the jump, so once again she does a smaller jump than David and lands a bit before he does -- and then a few steps into double toe loops, and a stop. In this section, after the throw, I timed that they had been skating apart without touching each other at all for at least 30 seconds, until Jamie tapped David on the back to start the "snowball fight" section of the program.

A brief step section done still not touching one another, before they went into a hand-to-hand hold to build up speed for a hip lift with a brief one-arm support then a change of position in the air so that Jamie was rotated around onto her other hip with a two-arm support. This lift had a flip-out dismount and covered the full length of the ice. The problem with this lift, though, is that in both the initial push up and even more blatantly in the second position, David was supporting Jamie with his hand on the upper part of her thigh instead of her hip. The rulebook says that "For all pair skating lifts the partners may give each other assistance only through hand-to-hand, hand-to-arm, and hand-to-body grips" and that "movements (other than small lifts) in which the lady is supported by leg holds entirely off the ice are also prohibited and marks must be deducted". They have been doing this lift the same way for a while and it seems to me that the judges have mostly been ignoring the illegal grip, but according to the rulebook it is an error nonetheless. The deduction is supposed to be 0.1 in both marks. (The rationale for banning lifts where the woman is supported by her legs, BTW, is safety: it would allow the man to lift the woman higher over his head, and the farther away the man's grip is from the woman's center of gravity, the less stable and harder to balance the lift becomes, and the more likely that he will drop his partner.)

Next came circular steps done predominantly in side-by-side positions without touching. I could not tell from the camera angle on TV whether their pattern was a full circle or not. Next some steps in a dance hold with an effective rotational dance lift. Side-by-side butterflies into back sit spins, 10 rotations; David was lagging a little bit behind in the rotation at first but caught up before the end of the spins so that their timing on the exit looked OK.

This was followed by a section of posing at center ice that lasted about 10 seconds until they started moving again and did their forward inside death spiral with a clever swing entry, with David in a spread eagle. Then another section of posing that lasted another 10 or 15 seconds. Steps done without touching one another, throw triple loop good. Pair spirals and some edgy steps into another toe lasso lift with a fairly basic air position and cartwheel dismount, back inside death spiral held for 1.5 revolutions, and a fairly simple and slow pair spin combination ending on two feet to conclude the program.

Overall, I thought Jamie and David skated their program with superior "cleanness and sureness" (as the rulebook says). They had a few minor unison breaks on their side-by-side elements and a balance check on the landing of the first throw, but the pair elements were all well-done. Their carriage and ease of movement is fine, but they don't put a lot of emphasis on extension moves in their program, either as connecting steps or as "ta-da!" flourishes. Aside from the the issue of the legality of the hip lift that wasn't really a hip lift, I'm not sure about the wisdom of doing two toe lasso lifts instead of three different kinds of lifts, since "variety" is one of the criteria listed for the technical merit mark.

What really hurt them was their choreography. While the concept of their "Love Story" program was clever and audience-appealing, and they skated with convincing expression throughout, this program had far too much skating apart without touching. To get full credit in the second mark, there has to be more emphasis on the two skaters moving as a unit, making a common shape with their bodies. Unison doesn't mean two people skating at the same time -- it truly means two skating as one. On top of that, there were two long pauses near the end of the program where they were basically just standing around not doing anything to add to the skating content of the program. I think that when they chose to resurrect this old program they have had for three seasons instead of using the more difficult one they had been skating at competitions earlier in the season, or the one they used to win the World Championships with last season, they were basically giving away all the advantage of the improvements in their unison and ability to skate together as one that they have made in the time since this program was choreographed for them.

My take on the judging

I actually have no strong opinion myself on who should have won this competition. For one thing, I recognize how impossible it is to make definitive judgements when you are just watching a TV broadcast instead of sitting in the arena where you can get the whole picture. My feeling is that Berezhnaya & Sikharulidze had a stronger and more difficult program that is closer to the ideal of what pair skating is supposed to be, but Sale & Pelletier gave the stronger and more convincing performance. Watching the competition live, I thought that Sale & Pelletier had probably done enough that I would have given them the win, but I expected it to be a split decision rather than the blow-out that the NBC commentators were predicting. Going back to watch the competition again on tape to write up these notes, I was more inclined to give it to Berezhnaya & Sikharulidze, mainly because when I was really paying attention to it I was shocked at just how little of Sale & Pelletier's program was skated in any kind of hold.

In any case, I would have been happy with the decision no matter which way the judging panel voted. These are both very capable and exciting pair teams who skated wonderful performances while under a tremendous amount of pressure.

In almost any competition where you have a 5-4 split of the judges, it's a sign that both competitors did some things well and some things not-so-well, and that the judges have differing opinions about which things ought to carry more weight in the scoring. And almost always, both sides have legitimate arguments to make. It's not a sign that the judging system is broken. I strongly believe that there's room in this sport for diversity of opinion. When there's diversity, there's also discussion and learning.

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