GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA – It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say that the skating world misses Tonya Harding. The U.S. Figure Skating Association banned her for life after her motley crew of hangers-on bashed Nancy Kerrigan’s knee in 1994, launching one of the most bizarre sports stories ever.
But oh, does American skating miss the attention that Tonya and Nancy generated. When the women’s competition begins Wednesday at the Pyeongchang Olympics, Mirai Nagasu, Bradie Tennell and Karen Chen will be trying to get the U.S. back on the Winter Games podium for the first time since 2006. They are not expected to contend for the gold medal; that distinction falls to a pair of Russian teenagers, Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova.
Should the competition play out that way, it isn’t likely to help the sport’s withering popularity in the U.S. American skating icons such as Peggy Fleming, Brian Boitano and Dick Button blame the downturn on a lack of rivalries, a dearth of recognizable personalities, an inscrutable judging system and an overemphasis on jumps.
They still will be watching Wednesday’s short program and Friday’s free skate. But the sport has much work to do, they said, to swing back toward the days when more than 126 million people tuned in to watch Tonya and Nancy skate in the short program at the 1994 Winter Games.
“To be honest, I don’t watch very much skating any more,” said Button, a two-time Olympic gold medalist. “There is no theater about it.
“I no longer see the flair of Peggy Fleming, or the personality of Dorothy Hamill, or the beauty of Katarina Witt. And do you understand the marks? I don’t. I’m not a happy camper in the world of skating today.”
The last American woman to medal at the Olympics was Sasha Cohen, who won silver in 2006. The 2010 Winter Games marked the first time since 1964 that a U.S. woman was not on the Olympic podium. The drought extends to the world championships; the U.S. women have one medal since 2007, Ashley Wagner’s silver in 2016.
No U.S. woman has had sustained international success since five-time world champion Michelle Kwan’s run from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s. Two of the country’s most recognizable skaters did not even make the team for the Pyeongchang Olympics; Wagner finished fourth at the U.S. championships and was not chosen, and Gracie Gold did not compete this season.
With so much change, said Boitano, the 1988 Olympic gold medalist, people do not develop a strong rooting interest, and the rivalries that generate buzz fail to materialize.
“There are so many different people at the top of the sport,’’ said Boitano. “Back in the day when a Debi Thomas was winning, or a Kristi Yamaguchi, people knew who they were.
“We have a real depth of talent with our women skaters, which creates a very interesting competition. It just doesn’t create a lot of rivalries, and you really need those rivalries to propel the sport to a different level.”
Boitano said the current judging system is more fair, but even he doesn’t understand it — and the retirement of the old 6.0 system, known and loved by fans, stripped skating of an important piece of its identity. Fleming and Button agree that the emphasis on jumping has detracted from the sport’s elegance and grace.
This week’s competition is expected to come down to Medvedeva, 18, and Zagitova, 15. Medvedeva, the two-time defending world champion, injured her right foot in November and missed the Grand Prix Final. She was beaten for the first time in two years at the European championships, when she finished second to Zagitova, her training partner.
Medvedeva won the short program in the Olympic team competition last week. Nagasu also added some drama by landing a triple axel, becoming the first American woman to do so at the Olympics.
Fleming is eager to see what the Americans can do, but she anticipates it will take time — and a special talent — to recapture interest.
“It seems like there’s just a lull in the talent and the consistency and the level of skating that’s going on today,’’ she said. “To bring it to another level, maybe it needs to be somebody who challenges the norm, a real original. But it’s tough to find that talent.”