Monday, February 13, 2006

I love Dick!

American figure skating legend Dick Button has returned to the air on NBC for a final time as a commentator on the Olympics. On ice himself, since the last time ABC aired the Winter Olympics way back in 1988, it is refreshing to hear him analyze the current crop of skaters and the mystical new scoring system decreed by the IOC after the Salt Lake City pairs debacle of 2002.

The Washington Post ran an interview with Dick in the February 12 Style section (Ranking the Rink And Vice Versa, With Dick Button by Libby Copeland) that, I must admit, took me aback as much as making me laugh. Somehow my image of Mr. Button as the sophisticated man in the tuxedo offering up his skating expertise to the rest of us is quite at odds with some of his comments recounted here. On the other hand, these are somewhat more expected:
In addition to being the patriarch of figure skating analysts and a two-time gold medalist from more than half a century ago, Button, 76, may be the coolest guy here at the Winter Olympics. He is at once crass and brilliant, invoking composers Verdi and Ravel, leaping from a discussion of the golden mean to the way U.S. competitor Sasha Cohen executes her spiral -- the perfect proportion between leg and back.

...He adores painting and theater. He speaks crudely. (It's important to relax just prior to a competition, he says, and "if that takes getting laid, it takes getting laid.") He orders a sandwich without the bread and then veers toward the dessert counter, grabbing something that looks like a lemon bar and asking, "Do you want one of these disastrous things?"

...When Button is pleased, he is as generous as he can be tough. One skater is "balletic," another is "marvelous." He praises skaters who have "ice sense," who know where in the rink to place their tricks. He dismisses those who "do a long edge into the lutz and jam it into the corner." When we leave the rink, he has us stand on one leg on the sidewalk and we attempt to achieve Cohen's perfect proportion and posture. We do not.

Button is disheartened by young skaters who seem to have time only for competing, who neglect their studies, who don't understand the importance of being well-rounded. And he is saddened by what he sees as an emphasis on tricks over graceful skating. The gym where Button works out has a rink and sometimes he watches young people on the ice trying to do fancy moves.

"They don't basically know how to skate," he says. "You know, nobody's teaching them stroking. And speed. And -- see the way these people are? Now just watch a minute and I'll show you."

A couple has hit the ice to practice for the pairs competition. We watch for mistakes, but all we can see is impressive speed and elegance. Button sees something else.

"See? That's not beautiful. That's just cut-cut-back. You have to be kind to the ice. You have to caress the ice . . . Skating is all about flow, edging, the beauty of the motion."

He pans their "dinky steps," their "forced" bows. He sees the performance the way a hunter catches sight of animal tracks in the forest. The rest of us see only the trees.