Looking for gold

VANCOUVER Faces are somber here at the Pacific Coliseum, site of the 2008 BMO Canadian Figure Skating Championships.


Faces are somber here at the Pacific Coliseum, site of the 2008 BMO Canadian Figure Skating Championships.

From the skaters like Bryce Davison and Jessica Dube, the 2007 pairs champions, Joannie Rochette, the reigning senior women’s champion, and three-time senior men’s title holder, Jeff Buttle, who are all seeking to defend their top ranking, to the Skate Canada CEO, William Thompson, you have a sense that they are all here to do some very serious work.

All of them came to the opening press conference on Wednesday morning. And all of them smiled for the cameras, but those smiles seemed a bit forced.

No question that our figure skating elite need to be focused, they face tough competition this week.

As Debbi Wilkes, former Canadian Pairs champion, Olympic and World medalist, and now Skate Canada’s director of marketing and sponsorships told me, “We can’t base our sport on personalities any more.”

On any given day with the new scoring system, any of the best skaters can reach the top step of the podium, she implied.

While judging is definitely “more pleasurable” for the officials looking over their laptops at the skaters performing on the ice in front of them, the skaters all have to be looking over their shoulders. Nothing can be taken for granted.

And certainly a national title is not guaranteed for anyone.

As for Thompson, the top Skate Canada job hasn’t been easy either.

He has had to face up to the massive drop in the Canadian public’s appreciation of the sport.

In a news scrum after the formal feel-good, thank-our-sponsors portion of the press conference ended, he mentioned three factors that triggered the decline in the massive popularity of the sport following the 2002 Olympics.

Media over-saturation, which then led to some just plain bad skating, and finally the scandals that eroded public appreciation of the sport.

The athleticism and artistry of the skaters on the ice today cannot be denied. The reforms inside and outside the sport including the overhauling of the scoring system will hopefully, in Wilkes’ words, cause people to “believe in it more.”

Belief alone will not do it and they know it.

What it will take is for Canada to develop a deep field of world-level competitors.

In the Yukon, the chamber of mines knows that if you want to find gold, silver or any other precious metal for that matter, you have got to put money into training people.

For years it offered a basic prospector’s certificate, which trained people to be the first rung in the exploration ladder.

Their work allowed junior mining companies to invest in further exploration eventually leading to the seniors with the resources to take a valuable prospect on to the actual mine stage.

Skate Canada, says Thompson, recognizes that in its pursuit of gold it has to more effectively build its base.

He recognizes that a formal needs program to keep promising skaters on the ice when financial realities threaten that possibility, must be put into place.

Their performance enhancement program, which is geared towards developing the whole skater, needs “to be pushed lower and be accessed by more skaters.”

Work on injury prevention, the mental aspect of the sport and a host of other ‘thinking outside the box’ approaches along with continued judging reforms are part of the process of building a renewed base for the sport.

Maybe, just maybe, they will find the gold they are looking for in Vancouver in 2010 and put real smiles on a few more faces.