A Portrait of Figure Skating

224 pages,
ISBN: 0131851179

The Brier:
A History of Canada's Most Celebrated Curling Championship

by Bob Weeks,
256 pages,
ISBN: 0771573057

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Stars on Ice
by George Kaufman

MANY HOCKEY FANS thought life had ended during the "labour disruption" this season, but in fact Canadians have two other ice enthusiasms that weren't interrupted: figure skating and curling.

Okay, maybe those two pursuits don't exactly stir the Canadian soul the way hockey does. But they do have thousands of devoted fans and participants, and these two new books shed further light on them.

Ice Time: A Portrait of Figure Skating, by Debbi Wilkes with Greg Cable, is a fascinating read, both for longtime fans familiar with the sport and its personalities, and for newcomers needing an instant history lesson. It also identifies a puzzling problem facing figure skating: it is becoming a victim of its own success. Figure skating is taking up more and more TV time and spawning more and more competitions and shows. And yet it isn't really a sport in the traditional sense: there is no league, no discernible season, no standings to follow. Only a blurry line separates amateur and professional skaters, who participate in a hodge-podge of genuine competitions and artsy shows. And the tawdry Tonya Harding episode certainly ripped away the last veil masking the bitter, often cutthroat rivalry behind those frozen smiles aimed at the judges.

If the current state of figure skating is confusing, Wilkes's book goes a long way toward making the picture clear and understandable. She provides, through her own story as a competitor (Canadian and Olympic pairs medallist), a wonderfully human and candid portrait of the "real" sport of skating.

Wilkes is self-effacing enough to bring both humour and humility to her analysis of the sport and its stars. To an outsider, it is almost shocking to read some of her opinions of well-known skaters, especially when she refers to some as having only mediocre abilities.

While die-hard fans will lap up the anecdotes about the skating stars Wilkes got to know as a competitor and TV commentator, the most interesting parts of the book offer a glimpse of the sport's off-ice reality. Coaches and judges indulge in often brutal backroom politics, and the intricate mind-games behind the scenes rival the on-ice jumps and routines for sheer drama.

Without being coy about it, Wilkes zeroes in on another aspect of figure skating that distinguishes it from other sports: its audience. With no head-on competition, no standards to beat, no goals to score, figure skating is left with the vagaries of the judging system. As a result, she points out, some mediocre skaters rise to the top on artistic flair, or "star power." This attracts a devoted cadre of followers, whom she at first mistook as typical sports "groupies." She soon discovered, though, that

Personalities are not what it's about. They are turned on strictly by the sport. Made up mostly of women and gay men ... they study placements, read and gossip about everything ... For them, there is a brutality to the sport that makes it addictive ... the brutality is in the skaters being used as pawns, with little regard in the long term to who they are or what the toll will be.

That toll was never more evident than in the sad story of Wilkes's pairs partner, Guy Revell. The man with whom she skated to the top of their world couldn't adjust to life after Olympic glory; after sinking through the various levels of Ice Capades and its wannabe imitators, Revell withdrew into depression and eventually killed himself. In a wistful final chapter, Wilkes offers an honest and timely assessment of the sport she loves so much. She knows she's one of the lucky ones (her mother refused to let her drop out of school to concentrate on skating, as many of her friends did) in spite of the scars from a difficult childhood, and she warns:

We discard our heroes quickly ... In the skating world things change so dramatically that few people have the time or take the time to get to know the skaters. The skaters don't even take the time always to get to know each other. In the end, the skater is out there all alone.

There's a lot here for all fans of skating, and especially for parents of young skaters on their way up that precarious ladder.

Another supposedly gentle, non-contact sport is exposed in Bob Weeks's The Brier. Although the people attracted to the sport are quite different, and the climb to the top not so regimented as in figure skating, Weeks makes it plain that the grim effects of the toll required to join the ranks of the elite can be sadly similar.

There are two parallel competitions going on in curling: the physical and mental game on the ice, and the party-games off it. The party-hearty lifestyle that surrounds the .,real" competitions can be brutal. The price paid in family life, business opportunities, and health is sometimes high.

The "ideal" elite curler is single, with a flexible, low-demand job and the kind of constitution that allows him to play well with early-morning hangovers. Drinking appears to be as much a pan of the sport as sweeping.

In one unillustrious scene, Weeks recounts the night the Saskatchewan hero Rick Folks spent the night celebrating after winning the Brier, Canada's famous championship event for men. On the way home early the next morning, carrying the tankard trophy along the streets, his stomach churned. "With the perfect aim that made him such a threat with a draw shot on the ice, he upchucked right into the tankard, christening it as only the new champion could." This kind of slangy vocabulary typifies Weeks's style, which I suppose fits the sport he's describing. His subjects don't get mad, they get "pissed off."

Still, curlers and fans will find much of interest here, especially in the detailed history of the Brier. It will take a real fan, though, to follow all the detailed retellings of important and interesting match-ups from the past.

There are also some interesting historical oddities of curling Canadiana, such as the difference between eastern and western curling styles, and the general indifference accorded the sport in Quebec (when that province's team finally won its one and only Brier in 1977, it caused hardly a stir there, in contrast to other parts of the country).

Weeks's conclusion demonstrates the changes the sports is going through. The Brier has gone from being an open, egalitarian national play-down to an increasingly professionalized sporting event with aspirations of competing with the NHL and NBA for fans and TV coverage.

Posters of the Brier winner up on teens' bedroom walls next to Gilmour and Shaq? Don't place a Sport-select bet on it quite yet, but there's no denying the growing popularity of the sport.


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