Jason Brown may have been sixth in the Olympics but he’s first in my heart
I’ve never competed in figure skating; at this point, I can probably barely stand up on a pair of skates. But my mother — who also cannot skate — is such an avid consumer of figure skating that I grew up watching every competition, and as a result, I can name the jumps, the spins, the scoring rules, the world’s top skaters and their rivals, all off the top of my head.
One of the standouts this year is Jason Brown — the Jewish 27-year-old from Illinois who performed his free skate to selections from the soundtrack of “Schindler’s List.” He didn’t make the medal podium, placing sixth, yet his performance was gripping, flawless and graceful, with seamless transitions between elements and precise, flowing arm motions.
His creative choices are, however, controversial.
Even though I was in elementary school, I remember the pairs skating controversy at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, when a Canadian pair skated a flawless program, yet lost the gold to the Russians, who had stumbled during their free skate. The subsequent scandal, which revealed that judges might have cheated, triggered an overhaul of the scoring for figure skating in an attempt to give a deeply subjective sport an objective scale.
Today’s scoring system assigns a base point value to every move, which can rise based on execution; that’s one half of the skater’s overall score. There’s also an artistic score, but it counts for less.
As a result, figure skating has become increasingly focused on athletes competing to land harder and harder jumps, adding more rotations and cramming their harder jumps into the back half of their program, when they’re worth a bonus.
When Brown was named to the Olympic team after placing fourth in the U.S. Nationals, my mother was shocked. He had no chance at medaling, she pointed out, because none of his programs feature a quad — any of the jumps featuring four rotations — which have become de rigueur in men’s figure skating.
She was not the only one to notice. “The only deficiency in this short program is that there is no quad. But everything else is masterful,” said Johnny Weir, a former Olympic skater and one of NBC’s commentators, sounding apologetic. “We have to talk about the quads because this is a very high level competition, but he takes you to a different place.”
Yet, even without the quad, Brown beat out plenty of skaters who do compete with the largest jump. His short program, to “Sinnerman” by Nina Simone, was spirited, expressive and full of modern dance elements. Despite being one of the oldest skaters in the Olympics, he’s also one of the most flexible, making his spins and footwork sequences elegant and flowing. And most importantly, his joy is palpable; as he raced across the ice in his short program, he had a huge grin on his face, and when he saw his score — a personal best — he was palpably elated, even though it only put him into sixth place.
Brown isn’t the only one who skates with artistry — Nathan Chen, who won gold for the U.S. in the men’s individual competition, skated a dramatic and beautiful short program in addition to setting a record-breaking high score due in part to his impeccable quads. But his free skate, which also dominated the competition score-wise, felt like it was so full of jumps that there was little room for creativity between them, even if he’s certainly capable.
Brown, on the other hand, used his finesse to add what Weir referred to as a “ghost quad” in his free skate — meaning he scored so highly on his artistic elements and perfect transitions that it was almost as though he’d done the hardest jump.
Skating should be “more than just an athletic endeavor,” as Weir said after Brown’s free skate. “To skate like that requires so much energy. It’s a prolonged experience to have that breath and that movement, that motion, that fluidity, which is so much harder than a quad, yet it’s not scored in that high way that a quad or a triple axel would be.”
My roommate, watching with me, had been complaining that no one was “telling a story” with their programs, but she was hooked by Brown.
“Art comes first for him,” said Tara Lipinsky, NBC’s other commentator, and an Olympic gold medalist. “Every artist has a canvas. Michelangelo used the ceiling of a chapel, Shakespeare a page. Jason Brown uses the ice.”
In a way, skating has become a numbers game, and a savvy competitor knows the jumps are the best strategy. But as someone who has watched skating my whole life, I miss the creativity and beauty that often gets lost when pure athleticism takes center stage.