Last month over the St. Patrick’s Day weekend Canadians were treated to a variety of exciting sports events: Georges St. Pierre defended his welterweight title, Winnipeg edged the Maple Leafs in a ten-round shootout, and the Canucks skated in their throwback Millionaires jerseys.
Lost somewhere in the excitement was Canada’s own St. Patrick. Between the green beer and pay-per-view fights, Patrick Chan earned his third consecutive World Figure Skating Championship title in London, Ontario—and collected Canada’s first men’s Championship gold on home ice since 1990.
National champion pairs Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford skated to a bronze medal and ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir were awarded silver for their program. Kaetlyn Osmond’s top-ten finish earned Canada two ladies entries into the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
But who knew?
While Canadians obviously value other sports over figure skating, it is remarkable how little recognition Canada’s world-class skaters receive. Not only was Chan’s World Championships three-pete far from a water cooler discussion, popularity for figure skating is sliding in Canada.
It was not until half-way through the event that tickets sold out for London’s Budweiser Gardens, which holds just under 7 thousand spectators. The three previous occasions Canada hosted the World Championships—in Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton—National Hockey League arenas were needed to seat figure skating enthusiasts.
In addition to hosting figure skating’s pinnacle event, London was also able to showcase local talent in hometown Olympic gold medalists Virtue and Moir. Chan is from Ottawa and both pairs entries are Ontario-born—if there was ever the opportunity to watch a collection of elite Canadian athletes in one building, this was it.
Ladies gold medalist Kim Yuna was disappointed with attendance, telling Reuters following her final skate, “I just kept trying to think that this was another practice session and I focused on that.”
Unfortunately, figure skating has suffered potentially irreparable setbacks in Canada since its peak in popularity during the 1990s. Judging controversies, highlighted by the scandal following Jamie Salé and David Pelletier’s near-perfect program during the 2002 Olympics, left a stain on figure skating’s appeal.
There was even controversy following Chan’s Championship skate last month, as he was awarded gold despite an error-riddled free skate and a marvelous performance from Kazakhstan’s Denis Ten.
Regardless of how popular figure skating may be at the moment, Canadians still tend to rally behind their national icons. St. Pierre drew a sellout crowd for UFC 158 in Montréal, over 25 thousand watched Christine Sinclair help Canada qualify for the 2012 London Olympics for ladies soccer, and fans flock to anywhere Steve Nash, Milos Raonic, or Brett Lawrie may be present.
However, there is also discussion of whether figure skating should be regarded as a sport. While the topic is generally banter between fans and non-fans of figure skating, Yahoo! Sports writer Dan Wetzel’s article “Why figure skating is not a sport” decree’s figure skating as a competition instead, due to its subjective judging and points awarded for style; “Once it was in the hands of a human judge, it wasn’t a sport,” wrote Wetzel.
Fans quickly arrived to figure skating’s defence in pointing out other sports, such as diving and freestyle skiing, include judges for scorekeeping, and team sports are often swayed by subjective referees.
VIU student Jennifer Fink has a 14-year-old daughter in figure skating and attests to the training and dedication involved.
“At amateur level, my daughter skates about 15 hrs a week [along with] off-ice dancing and boot camp fitness training,” Fink says. “If you judge figure skating by technical skill, commitment, time, dedication, training, it’s a sport…I don’t think a baseball player has any more skill or training than a figure skater.”
Fink also describes the apprehension of watching her daughter compete without a helmet or protective padding that are required with most other sports. Like ice hockey, teeth injuries and concussions are common injuries.
Chan was awarded the 2011 Lou Marsh Trophy, given to the top Canadian athlete, all but declaring figure skating as a sport. The prestigious trophy has been awarded to the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Terry Fox, and Catriona Le May Doan.