Numlock Sunday: Rebecca Jennings on figure skating's failure to stick the landing
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week, I spoke to Rebecca Jennings who wrote “Figure skating is on thin ice. Here’s how to fix it” for Vox’s The Goods . Here's what I wrote about it:
Despite repeated and unrelenting efforts on my part to get all my friends to watch the figure skating anime Yuri!!! on ICE during quarantine, the sport of figure skating is in a difficult spot in the U.S. The Olympics ladies short program in 1994 had 48.5 million viewers and was the sixth-highest rated event in television history, but figure skating has slipped from the national conversation since. In 2014, just 21.4 million people tuned in to any of the 11 days of figure skating at Sochi’s Olympic Games. A similar dip in viewership was seen for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, with viewership falling from 6.8 million in 1998 to 4.5 million in 2018. The professional figure skating scene, once a viable career for many pros in exhibitions, has all but dried up, and the new complications added to the scoring system have turned some viewers off. Not to mention the expense: while other countries send top skaters to publicly-funded academies to shore up their athletic talent, in the U.S. parents have to be affluent to keep their kids on the ice, and in 2013, less than 3 percent of U.S. figure skating member competed above the pre-juvenile level.
I loved this story because it explores not the viral rise of a phenomenon but rather the end of one, how figure skating went from a mass-entertainment enjoyment to a niche sport, and the economic and policy choices that deliberately put it there.
We spoke about the rise and fall of figure skating, why the sport is thriving in places that are not the United States and then a little bit about Rebecca’s coverage of TikTok and why the platform is fascinating.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Rebecca, you are a reporter at Vox, specifically under The Goods. You wrote a story last week all about figure skating, and how it went from a really sensational national pastime and how now it's in dire straits in the United States. Can you get into a little bit about what figure skating was like in the ‘90s and what precipitated its decline?
I actually used this quote from Brian Boitano from a couple of years ago, but he described figure skating in the ‘90s as like rock and roll. I think that's such a good example. Figure skating and rock and roll seem so different, but it really was that big. I think a lot of it has to do a little bit, of course, with the Nancy and Tonya scandal. But ultimately I think we had such compelling American and Canadian skaters to look up to, and they made it look so fun. It was just this era when Americans were dominating on the Olympic podiums, and ultimately all of U.S. figure skating is oriented around that goal, to get medals in the Olympics.
It was really exciting, and beyond the Olympic track we have this other entire industry of retired skaters who would travel around to different cities and perform ice shows. You'd go and the autograph lines would be super long. You’d fill out your little booklet with everyone's signature, it was such a big thing when I was growing up learning to skate in the ‘90s. The rink was always packed. I had a huge group of girls my own age that I would train together with. It was just a really, really lovely environment that you just felt so supported in. And it just felt like we were all dreaming about being Michelle Kwan together. It was really cool.
This story was really interesting because it also felt like a story about sports and capitalism, about what happens when a professional scene deteriorates and then the amateur scene deteriorates. Because in the States there isn't a ton of the institutional support that other countries have for this activity.
Yes, absolutely. I think figure skating is such a good example of that because it's so ungodly expensive. We're even seeing this in youth sports and team sports participation where sports participation is only going up in rich families and it's going down in poor families because it just gets so competitive. In order to maintain a competitiveness, they feel like they have to join these travel teams and go to camps, and just join whatever the expensive part of the sport is. Figure skating has always been like that. There's only one way to be a good figure skater and it is by spending a load of money. I think in America it's always been for privileged kids. We were not rich, I grew up with a ton of skaters who were mostly middle-class, and we all found ways to lower the financial burden on our families and stuff.
But, in general, there's the stereotype — and it's the well-deserved stereotype — that this sport has, because even if you're not super competitive, because the ice time, the private lessons, it's a very individually-focused sport, and in order to succeed you have to do individual training. It's all on the one person. Whereas in other countries there are state-sponsored academies, where if you skate as a kid, they'll pick you up and send you to these academies and you don't have to pay a dime. You are in this very group-focused communal environment where you're competing against this group of people that are just like you. It's a really good way to train people who we want to be Olympic machines, and it really works. That's never going to be something that we do in America because we just don't have these resources, and we don't really want to invest in them on a government level because we love to slash programs that are good for kids.
We like to see them on the podium, but not pay for what it takes to get them there.
Obviously there's that front end problem, but then you have this back end problem where like you mentioned Ice Capades used to be a thing. They used to be a ton of exhibition things. It used to be, like, when a skater is out of the Olympic prime, they would have opportunities. And now that's just not an existing thing anymore.
Yes, I think it goes hand in hand ultimately. There was just so much skating in the ‘90s, and I think that died out a little bit by the 2000s. But I think ultimately what really killed it was partly the recession, and partly just the total takeover of skating Olympic medals and world medals by other countries who had better resources to develop their skaters.
I think it's sad because if skating were to change its rules and allow Olympic so-called-amateur skaters to do professional work, I think we would have less of this issue. But, I mean, it's similar to a lot of sports where you're not allowed to compete professionally or in the Olympics, even if you're technically a pro. But it's such a stupid designation that just creates this binary that isn't really all that helpful.
It's too bad because in skating, if you're not an Olympic champion, then you're just done, and there's nowhere for you to go. You have to create an entirely new life. It's really hard to do that unless you get an NBC commentating deal or you're Michelle Kwan and you can go work in politics. Like Sasha Cohen wrote this really great story in the New York Times, it was an essay about how she had to figure out who she was as a person in her mid-20s because she had only been a skater up till then. And how she was like, "Oh, I have to go get a job." It's really crazy.
There's the rules from the International Olympic Committee, but in this article you really go into what the ISU — the global skating organization — and even U.S. skating has done or failed to do. There have been a number of incidents, they had to overhaul the scoring completely, there was credible allegations of fraud at one point. The other thing that I found really interesting you wrote that they banned backflips, and it seems like it's weird that the sport would ban doing cool stuff on the ice.
Yeah. I think the backflip, a lot of figure skating people on the internet got mad at me for that because they're so sick of seeing the backflip as just this thing to talk about, whereas it wasn't really that controversial when it was a thing. I don't know.
Things like the backflip just reflects this very traditional sport and this very conservative sport, where even growing up, the idea of having modern music was something you just didn't do. Everyone's skated to ballets, to broadway overtures. Jazz, barely anyone's ever skated to jazz. It's also just not great skating music. You really only hear overtures and ballets, whatever. Same with your presentation: little girls have to wear makeup and these dresses that all go with the same aesthetic because the judges really are looking at you as though you're like this version of a bigger skater that we love to see.
I think Nancy Kerrigan is a really good example. Judges hated Tonya Harding, but they have to give her the points because she could do jumps that no one else could. I think that is the cliche example, but what you look like, and what you can do on the ice, and how your body looks doing it is really important in figure skating. It always has been. I think things like the backflip or any think too acrobatic, that's always been really frowned upon.
It's so interesting just watching how top-down it can be, which makes sense when it's a sport that's judged by judges and not a specific arbitrary numerical thing, right?
Yeah, for sure. It's very top-down. I think that's the center of my point, is that this is a system where the only way to succeed in figure skating is being judged by these judges, and within these organizations that continue to perpetuate the same thing that no one cares about anymore. It's not working for the sport. There have to be other avenues of success and culture that don't revolve around standing on top of the Olympic podium.
You wrote about some of that at the end, how TikTok has really broadened out a lot of ways to get in touch with people with new interests, and skating is one of them. That there have been people who have used that as a platform, where maybe the goal isn't Olympic gold, but it is getting folks interested in skating potentially.
Yeah. I loved writing that section because I got to talk to a bunch of people who just started posting on Instagram or TikTok or whatever. They found these huge groups of people. Because kids don't care about figure skating anymore, barely anyone skates anymore, so I think to just come across it and see how cool it can be and how it isn't just like the boring thing that you sometimes watch every four years during the Olympics.
I love watching figure skating in the Olympics, but I think approaching it the way that Michelle Hong especially does is making it so approachable in a way that skating almost never is in the public imagination. I think to see other people maybe wanting to learn how to do little backward wiggles and whatever, and she's helping them do that, is really, really cool to see.
I enjoy your coverage of TikTok in general. It's one of my favorite features that you have. I basically read every article that The Goods come out with. Do you want to talk a little bit about some of what your beat's been in the past year? I know that you've been really leaning into some of the coverage of TikTok, this emerging network.
Yeah, for sure. I've been at the company for six years. But only in the past two years, maybe three years, have I really just completely nailed down on the internet culture beat. I remember the TikTok thing came because I was pretty early to it, and I was obsessed with all these cringe videos that I saw. I downloaded it because I just wanted to laugh at these cringe videos. As long as I scrolled, the more I was like, "Oh my God. There’s some actually really good stuff on here." Its algorithm was really fast at getting to know exactly what I wanted to watch. I was really fascinated by it. I had never had an experience like that on an app. I had to beg my editors, I was like, "We need to explain this. I'm telling you. I think this is going to be really big?" None of them had ever heard of it. They were like, "Oh, okay," and I was like, "Just trust me."
I wrote a ‘what is TikTok’ explainer when a lot of other people were starting to do that. Ever since then, I found myself just using it all the time. I'm exposed to so many things that I never would have seen on any platform where I had to create it myself. I don't love the fact that these algorithms are learning things about me, but I love the fact that they do a good job out of it.
I've been really interested in how — TikTok especially — has just completely changed the way that normal people engage with each other and with social networks, because on TikTok anybody can just randomly go viral in the matter of hours. Suddenly you're just a normal person and you happen to film something funny, and then you're on the screens of literally millions of people. I would just watch people deal with the fallout from that, and how they leveraged it into careers as influencers or how they didn't, and how it really fucked with their mental health. This is really interesting because you cannot do any of those things on any other platform. You can have a viral tweet, but who cares? And you can't really go viral on Instagram. It's just your friends, same with Facebook. With YouTube it takes years to build YouTube followings. On TikTok it's literally overnight.
Just the way it brought so many people into this world of influencers and how it changed who is and isn't an influencer, I thought was so fascinating. Basically my entire beat has been tracking this changing economy of influence, fame and celebrity, and how these things are shaping culture. I don't only focus on young people, but I think young people spend so much more time on TikTok and on their phones and are more keyed into this. One of my things is that being a kid is boring and so you have to spend a lot of time online, so I think that they are driving a lot of what will end up happening with these platforms. That's pretty much my beat.
I think it's super interesting because, again, TikTok is where literally anything has potential to go viral. Whereas, like you said, YouTube is an industry thing at this point. Really, if you don't spend three grand on a camera, you're going to have a lot of difficulty competing with some of the other folks on YouTube.
Exactly. TikTok is very much more democratized in the sense that anybody can make a good TikTok, not everybody can make a good YouTube video. It requires a lot of skill and a lot of know-how.
Where can folks find you?
They can find me on Twitter and Instagram. I have a really shitty TikTok that no one should follow. But Twitter, and Instagram, and email.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.