BOSTON — When 18-year-old Dick Button won the figure-skating gold medal at the 1948 Olympics in St. Moritz, it was a historic victory in many ways. Button not only defeated the reigning world champion, Switzerland’s Hans Gerschwiler, on Swiss ice, but he became the first U.S. figure skater to capture Olympic gold, the youngest man ever to win and the first to perform a double axel in competition.
After such a monumental performance, Button might have been forgiven if he just went home and rested up for his freshman year at Harvard. But Button dutifully moved on to the world championships, where he struck gold again. Four years later, Button reprised the act, successfully defending his Olympic title — the last man to do so — and then winning his fifth and final world championship.
Over the next four decades, that was pretty much de rigueur for America’s skating greats. The U.S. boasted nine Olympic champions, eight of whom proceeded to compete at world championships the following month. But as worlds get underway this week in Turin, that path is no longer the chosen one. While three of four Olympic champions — China’s Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo in pairs, Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and queen Kim Yu-na — will grace the Italian ice, there will be one conspicuous absentee: Olympic men’s champion Evan Lysacek.
In skipping the world championship, the 24-year-old American represents the competitive ethos of today’s U.S. stars every bit as much as Button did in his era. Instead of returning to the rink for a grueling month of training in pursuit of one last medal to garnish his resume, Lysacek has been on a whirlwind tour of talk shows and A-list celebrity parties. And rather than skating in Italy, last night he was “dancing with the stars” on ABC. His approach can be summed up succinctly: Take the money and don’t skate.
This trend really began in 1994 when the Tonya vs. Nancy soap opera ratcheted up the popularity of the sport to new heights. That year, for the first time, both the ladies’ and men’s Olympic champions, Oksana Baiul and Alexei Urmanov, stayed home from the world championships. Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding didn’t bother attending either. And why would they? Skating stars — especially Americans and women with global appeal — could all of a sudden contemplate a destiny beyond ice shows. There were new and lucrative opportunities on and off the ice: a spate of made-for-TV competitions (“Ice Wars: North America vs. the World”), the siren call of Hollywood, designer clothing and jewelry lines; autobiographies like “Oksana: My Own Story.”
But the airwaves quickly became oversaturated with figure skating. And once the catfight element diminished, the sport returned to being a quadrennial love affair. Even American Olympic champions discovered that they had a very short window to cash in on their glory. Competing at worlds not only cuts into that time, but risks tarnishing Olympic gold with baser medals.
America’s Olympic gold medalists of recent vintage — Tara Lipinski in 1998, Sarah Hughes in 2002 and Lysacek this year — all delivered the performance of a lifetime at the Olympics to upset more ballyhooed stars. All had to wonder what were the chances that lightning would strike twice — and all opted not to find out at worlds. Lipinski and Hughes never competed again after the Olympics, essentially cashing out on top, and Lysacek figures to follow suit. Lysacek is not the only high-profile U.S. Olympian to bow out of this week’s competition. Johnny Weir, a three-time national champion whose graceful stylings and quirky lifestyle have made him a fan favorite, has withdrawn to focus on his new reality series and other entertainment options.
While skipping out on the world championships may make financial sense to the talent, it is hardly a boon to the sport (and may help explain why worlds is being broadcast on Universal Sports rather than the mother ship NBC). And the news is even worse for U.S. figure skating. Worlds are invaluable learning grounds for young stars aiming to be the next Lysacek. The number of spots in future world and Olympic competitions is determined by results at the previous year’s event. With Lysacek and Weir in the American lineup, the U.S. team was sure to land the maximum three places for its men at the 2011 world championships. Absent them, America will almost certainly be reduced to two spots next year in Tokyo.
Lysacek and Weir know what that third spot can mean. Without it, Weir, who finished third at this year’s U.S. championships, wouldn’t have appeared on this year’s most popular reality show, the Vancouver Olympics. And Lysacek, who won a surprising gold at the world championships last year, wouldn’t have even been there after taking the bronze at nationals. Nobody believes he could have risen to win Olympic gold one year later without that world first title in his back pocket.