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Art or sport? Figure skating strives to be both

Rachael Flatt's free skate would have the best athletes in any sport gasping for air, their leg muscles spasming in pain. Seven times she launches herself into the air, doing three quick turns before landing on a blade no thicker than a pencil.

Mirai Nagasu's program, meanwhile, would draw raves from art critics. Every movement from the tips of her fingers to the blades of her skates is fluid and light, as if she's dancing across the ice, and her spins have one breathtakingly unique position after another.

"One is a great athlete, one is an artist," Nagasu's coach, Frank Carroll, said after Flatt and Nagasu's 1-2 finish at last month's U.S. championships. "They're nothing alike."

Figure skating has long struggled to balance the art that makes it so captivating with the athleticism that makes it a sport, and the current judging system has only heightened the debate. With everything — jumps, footwork, spins, transitions, expression — now quantifiable, some complain that artistry is being sacrificed in the effort to crunch every last decimal out of a program.

Indeed, the big tricks — quadruple jumps for the men, triple-triple combinations for the women — can produce medal-winning scores. But do them without intricate footwork, fine edge quality and beautiful spins, and a performance seems hollow, little more than a blueprint.

"That debate has been going on for years," said Canada's Joannie Rochette, the world silver medalist. "Personally, I like to watch a performance where you can see artistic with athleticism together.

"Everyone has a different definition of what art is and what athleticism is," she added. "The most important thing is that you enjoy your own skating, and then other people will enjoy it, too."

The current scoring system was implemented after the Salt Lake City pairs judging scandal in hopes of reducing cheating. By assigning numerical values to every jump, spin and section of footwork, it gave judges an objective way to evaluate at least some of what skaters were doing.

The fear, though, was that it would turn skating into a jumping contest. The base level of a triple toe loop, for example, is higher than that of any spin, spiral or footwork sequence. Do a bunch of jumps and do them well, and even a first-grader can understand that math.

"I was one of the men afraid it would become a jumping contest, like men's gymnastics," said Jeff Buttle, the 2008 world champion and 2006 Olympic bronze medalist.

In fact, it's been quite the opposite. Buttle and reigning world champion Evan Lysacek both won their world titles without even trying a quad in either the short or long programs — a complete reversal from earlier in the decade, when Tim Goebel did three quads in the free skate alone to win the bronze at the 2002 Olympics.

The risk, many skaters had decided, was too big. A quad, if done well, can earn a skater big bonus points. Fall or do it poorly, though, and you're out of the medals hunt.

There also isn't the time to devote to the quad like there once was — during the program or in training. It takes many, many hours of practice before a quad is consistent enough to put in a program. But with every other element being counted, a skater can't afford to focus so much energy on just one thing.

It's the same for the women. Mao Asada is the only top woman even trying the triple axel these days, and quad sightings are as elusive as Bigfoot. Even triple-triple combos, which Kristi Yamaguchi was doing back in '92, are no longer a must-have.

"We work on the quad, we practice the quad, but it's never been the main focus of my career," Johnny Weir said at last month's U.S. championships, explaining why he doesn't have one in his program. "It's a beautiful, wonderful thing when you can do it, but I'd rather skate a clean program and show something that's beautiful and excellent."

That attitude, though, doesn't sit well with all skaters. Brian Joubert has been at the center of dustups at the last two world championships for bemoaning the lack of quads among the top men.

"The competition was completely different. It was more fun, more exciting, and I think we have to change it," the 2007 world champion said in March, nostalgic for the days when the quad was king.

Which brings us back to the art vs. athleticism debate.

The big tricks are enjoying a resurgence this season. Reigning world champion Kim Yu-na has been doing triple-triple combos the last few years to keep pace with Asada, her longtime rival. Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko and Turin runner-up Stephane Lambiel are back, and quads have long been a staple of both of their programs.

But this still isn't freestyle skiing.

When Plushenko broke his own world record for the short program at last month's European championships, it wasn't simply because of his jumps. His spins went on for what seemed like days and were so perfectly centered the tracings looked as if they'd been made by a protractor. His footwork was exquisite.

When Jeremy Abbott won his second straight U.S. title, some people might not have even noticed he'd done a quad. Everything, from that quad to his footwork, was of the highest class, done with ease and elegance.

"When I saw him skate, I was so happy," Buttle said. "He married (art and athleticism) together. It wasn't about that one jump; it was still about the whole program."

But there are plenty who are concerned the system is stripping the sport of its beauty and individuality, and creating formulaic, cookie-cutter programs.

"It's turned everyone into robots out there doing the same spins, the same jumps," Weir said. "I don't think it's the most beautiful thing for figure skating. We've lost our individuality and our chance to be artistic."

Some have figured it out, though.

As choreographers — and skaters — get more comfortable with this system, they are finding that balance once again.

Abbott, for example, did a quad at the beginning of his long program at nationals at virtually the exact same spot on the ice as four other guys. But nothing in his program remotely resembled anyone else's.

Lysacek spent weeks this fall tinkering with his programs to change the entrances into his jumps, doing them out of steps or spread eagles. Not only does that bump up his point total, it makes his programs more unique.

"I'm trying to do layer upon layer," said top choreographer Lori Nichol, who has done Lysacek's programs for years. "I'm trying to appeal to those that I know have spent the hours and time and really understand the incredible difficulty of some of the things we're doing on the ice. And then I try to do it so that anyone can enjoy it. I think of what my mom's watching and think of what my neighbor's watching.

"How do I make this program enjoyable for them?"

Figure skating never will completely solve the art vs. athleticism debate. Skaters will always come in different shapes and sizes, with different abilities and strengths. And you can crunch numbers on everything from jumps to interpreting music, but you will never be able to tell someone how to feel about what they've seen.

But there is some common ground.

"I think good skating is the answer, and I think doing great performances is the answer. You have to have a complete package," said Carroll, who also coaches Lysacek. "It's like baking a pretty good cake. It doesn't matter how much flour you put in if that's all you put into it."