Is this the future in sports? It certainly could be an option, as an American figure skating competition will pit skaters head-to-head on Friday -- virtually.
When Olympians Jason Brown and Karen Chen join a handful of other U.S. figure skaters for Friday night’s Peggy Fleming Trophy, the athletes won’t be sharing the same sheet of ice.
In fact, as skating fans watch them perform on a livestream, they will have already competed at various rinks across America.
The virtual event, billed as one of the first of its kind in figure skating and joining the likes of athletics and other sports to go digital, could be the way of the future in the COVID-19 reality the world is now facing.
“As an athlete, there is always anticipation surrounding new events. Not only is this different, but it’s the first virtual competition I’ve ever taken part in,” Brown, the 2015 U.S. champion and bronze medalist in the team event at Sochi 2014, told the Olympic Channel.
“I’ve always been taught to train as though I’m in an arena, and to run my programs with the intention of projecting to the ‘audience’ even though they aren’t there while I train. So, I guess I’m trying to do the same now.”
As the International Skating Union (ISU) is set to announce the fate of the sport’s Grand Prix Series in early August for this coming autumn, the Fleming event brings the sport to fans in a new and innovative way, while still pitting the competitors against one another.
And while sanctioned ISU competitions – if they went the virtual route – would only give competitors one chance to skate each of the short and long programs, the Peggy Fleming Trophy allows the skaters to submit their final product after several tries (if needed).
“It’s mentally and physically different than a normal competition where I train myself to think ‘you only get one shot, make it happen,’” said Chen, the 2017 U.S. national champion who finished 11th at PyeongChang 2018. “The nerves are similar, but also a bit less than at a (normal) competition. (But) under this more casual situation, my usual competition adrenaline that helps me compete didn’t really kick in.”
Named for 1968 Olympic champion Peggy Fleming, the event is in its third year, though for the first time is being held virtually.
Entrants will have skated and recorded their respective programs at their training rinks, with submitted videos sent to organisers and assessed by an international panel of judges which is watching remotely.
The three minute, 30-second programs are a hybrid of the traditional short and long programs in skating, with a focus being put on artistic expression and overall performance, with four jump elements, three spins, a step sequence and a “signature move.”
The signature move “allows each skater to present an iconic, or new and original move, jump or spin which is tailored to each skater’s unique personality, creativity and imagination,” said a statement from U.S. Figure Skating. “Judging guidelines allow creativity and expression to take center stage.”
“The competition celebrates the sport of figure skating,” said Fleming in the statement. “Balancing artistry and athleticism, each skater will present a complete and compelling composition which showcases their skating skills, personality, creativity and imagination.”
With a proclaimed focus on artistry and creativity, the men and women will face off in one division. The top finisher will receive US$3,000 in prize money.
“At first, I did not know what to do because I never skated for just a single camera,” said Tomoki Hiwatashi, the 2019 junior world champion. “My choreographers and I always skate so everyone in the crowd can watch. As I got used to it, it got fun and I really enjoyed making this program. I think this is a very good experience.”
Could this be a model for the ISU to consider for the Grand Prix or other high-stakes events? Could be. There were, however, issues with the Inspiration Games in athletics last week, though Olympic gold medallist Allyson Felix said she commended the effort in a time of limited sporting events.
"I don't think there's anything that can compare to (competing in front of a live crowd), but I love this sport so any chance to get out here and run… I’m all for it," she said in a post-race interview.
“If this is the new norm for next year, you've just got to be ready,” added Inspiration Games competitor Andre De Grasse, a Canadian who has three Olympic medals to his name.
Sporting bodies around the world are proceeding with great caution in an attempt to hold live events, many without fans. With that in mind, figure skating, athletics, swimming and any racing sport – such as skiing, cycling, triathlon or sport climbing – as well as judged sports, like gymnastics, surfing, skateboarding and artistic swimming (among many others) could explore virtual options.
“Depending on how everything pans out, this format could potentially be implemented for other competitions,” said Chen, who attends Cornell University. “However, I believe that there would have to be a significant amount of trial and error to find not only what works best for everyone, but what also is the most fair.”
“I always have butterflies whenever I have to compete. It isn’t as intense, but I still feel the butterflies when I step out onto the ice to perform,” said Starr Andrews, a 2022 Olympic hopeful for Team USA. “I definitely think this format can be used for more competitions. At the same, time Grand Prix events are really big in our sport and are really fun to go to and compete at.”
Added Brown, who has seven Grand Prix medals to his name: “I think the Grand Prix Series can run virtually. It will be strange, but unprecedented times call for unprecedented events! While we had the opportunity to film our performances more than once, I do think that for the Grand Prixs it would be ideal for skaters to have the pressure of knowing that they have only one shot to send in their short and long. Maybe even designating a specific time and day that a skater needs to 'compete.'
Also, there would need to be some sort of live part of the event (whether one judge is watching live or someone is monitoring the performance). Honestly, once the videos are sent in and compiled, I think that the production side of the event can have fun with packaging the event to make it entertaining and engaging.”
Joining Brown, Chen, Hiwatashi and Andrews in the mixed-gender field of 18 skaters are up-and-coming Americans Camden Pulkinen, Andrew Torgashev and Courtney Hicks among others.
The competition will stream live on U.S. Figure Skating FanZone at 7pm Eastern Time (U.S.) on Friday, July 17th and should be available to audiences worldwide.