Wrapping up: 2017 ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki

I promise this is my last figure skating post for a long time. You can review all the others by browsing the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships tag. There will be a few more posts, two or perhaps three, on the non-skating parts of my trip to Helsinki and (briefly, on the way there) Reykjavík, which still need some photo editing and a bit of additional research. But in this post I’m going to opine a bit on the spectator-sports aspect of my trip.

This whole plan was hatched just about a year ago. The 2016 Worlds were held in Boston; although I had been out of following skating for a while, the lure of the giant billboard advertisement on the Mass. Pike was too great to resist, and I attended a couple of the events (I would have seen more had tickets been available). In the back of the 2016 Worlds program was an advertisement for the 2017 Worlds in Helsinki, and I considered whether the bad feelings had been sufficiently put to rest in the 27 (now 28) years since I had last been in Finland. I figured that enough had probably changed since 1989 (I certainly had, being nearly three decades older) that it was worth a try, and I didn’t need to make any attempts to contact the people I had known (who hadn’t been in Helsinki anyway). First off I tried to find some people to travel with, so I wouldn’t be doing the whole thing alone. It took several additional months for that to fail to work out, which meant that by the time I was ready to buy my (solo) ticket package, the best seats were already sold out. I got pretty good seats anyway, although for my photography, “worse” seats in a different location would have worked out better. The organizers offered a ticket package including all competitions, public practices, and the post-competition exhibition, for which I paid about €650; I got all of the tickets in hand well before I had any of the other travel arrangements done.

I was not aware of which hotels were being booked by the competition organizers for the officials and competitors, so I booked my own based on online searches for good prices and public transportation accessibility. I decided to stay an extra day after the competition, with the incremental cost of another hotel night counterbalanced by lower airfares for returning home on a Tuesday rather than a Monday. The event itself would eat up nearly all of my time, from morning until quite late in the evening, from Tuesday practices through the Sunday evening ice dance final, so it would be good to leave myself some extra time after the event to decompress, edit photos, and actually see the sights of Helsinki — which I had never done, since my previous time in Finland was spent nearly entirely outside the capital.

The venue: All of the public events for the Worlds took place in Hartwall Arena, a 13,000-seat hockey arena and concert venue located amidst a railyard about half a mile north of busy Pasila stations on Helsinki’s commuter rail, and home of the hockey club Jokerit (“Jokers”) in Russia’s KHL. Signs in the arena were, surprisingly to me, mostly bilingual Finnish/English (not Swedish, Finland’s other official language) or trilingual Finnish/English/Russian. Unlike North American arenas, Hartwall Arena does not allow food or alcoholic beverages inside the seating area, which was a surprise to me and many other North American fans visiting for the first time, but helps explain how seating area was so clean. Unfortunately, the arena is quite far from restaurants or other non-fast-food eating options, and the competition schedule meant that most attendees were trying to cram meals into the 15-minute ice-resurfacing break after every second group of competitors. (Hartwall Arena does not use Zamboni brand ice-resurfacing machines, but rather a Canadian make.) I ended up trying all of the non-beef items on the Hesburger menu, of which I (to my surprise) preferred the “falafelburger”. There was also a Pizza Hut by-the-slice concession, which is just as crappy as the Pizza Huts at stadiums here in the US, and equally overpriced. The restrooms were also entirely inadequate for an event where the audience is over three-quarters female: the long lines from the women’s toilets snaked through the arena’s main corridor and choked traffic while other attendees were trying to get to the concession stands or the exits.

On photography: My seats were in section 103, next to the media pen along the short side of the arena (behind the host and Fuji TV broadcast locations), which meant that I couldn’t see the kiss-and-cry at all and couldn’t get good photographs of the skaters’ faces as they took their opening poses to start their programs — nearly all skaters start their programs looking at judge #1 in the far corner of the rink opposite my seat. This also meant that I really needed my 300 mm zoom lens, and in fact would have done much better with a much faster (big, white, L-series) 400 mm lens — but that would probably have taken me out of the “amateur” category the competition’s photography rules enable, even though I don’t sell my photos, just by sheer bulk of optics. (The rules prohibited use of a monopod or tripod, so my wrists would have been hurting by the end of the day as well!) When you see photos in my galleries showing the skaters up against the far boards, they have been digitally cropped to make up for the lack of lens length, but this comes at a cost, especially since my compact zoom lens has a narrow f/5.6 aperture at its longest zoom, making it difficult to maintain a 1/200 second shutter speed to freeze the action in those jumps and spins. (I shot the whole competition in shutter-priority mode with sensor sensitivity set to “auto” and shutter speed to 1/200, except for a few events where I tried using optical image stabilization and 1/125 second shutter — this didn’t work out because the skaters move around the rink faster than the OIS timeout.)

I found from my location that I was often using my camera just to magnify the skaters at the far end of the rink, even with no intention of taking a shot, but this was also pretty uncomfortable, watching with one eye closed and nose pressed to the back of the camera. The actual work of editing 1,400 photos a day (what my 32 GB SD card can hold in Canon raw format) after each day’s competition was quite taxing, hence the delays in publishing so many of these photos. (I still haven’t edited the rest of my photos from Tuesday’s practice, and after a quick review of what I have, decided that I probably won’t bother.) One positive to come out of this process was that I gained a lot more experience with some of the features of Adobe Lightroom that are intended to make this sort of work go faster, and by the third day was making reasonably good progress by batching together all the “motor drive” photos where perspective, exposure, cropping, and subject matter are or should be nearly the same. There’s no easier way to eat up your camera’s storage than by putting it in “drive” mode and holding down the shutter button! I tried, when editing the pairs photos in particular, to select shots and crops that clearly showed hand position and pose changes during lifts and spins, even if that meant more butt and crotch photos than I would prefer.

Pairs skating gets no respect. The first discipline to complete at the World Championships is pairs. Attendance at the pairs free skate was disappointingly light (more on that in a bit), and the TV coverage at least in the U.S. is minimal when they even bother to show it at all. The competition schedule puts the pairs free skate on a Thursday night (the short program is Wednesday evening) when many people are disinclined to stay out late or even stay up late watching it on TV, which is a shame because pairs skating has all the best moves. Sure they don’t do quadruple jumps like the solo men do — but back in 1990 there was only one man in the whole world who had done a quad in international competition. Meanwhile, the pairs skaters do the attention-getting lifts, twists, and throws that, as a fellow spectator described to me, are the elements that consistently get schoolchildren excited about the sport. Putting some more effort into promoting the pairs events, even if it meant giving away tickets to fill up the stands, would be a worthwhile endeavor for the ISU and the skating community generally. Unfortunately, of all the countries competing in figure skating, only the Russians (and the Soviet Union before 1992) actually treat pairs skating as a serious discipline worthy of talent development — which is how they developed a thriving export market in unpartnered pairs skaters. In most other countries (Canada may be a partial exception, but note that their number-three pair is half Russian), pairs is viewed more as something singles skaters can do if they’re not good enough to make their national team in singles — and of course, they’re tiny enough (for women) or strong enough (for men) to be physically able to perform the pairs elements.

This does highlight the whole problem of treating these athletes as representatives of their nationalities rather than as individuals (which is effectively the difference between “amateur” and “professional” skating since the International Olympic Committee relaxed its strict anti-professionalism rules in the early 1990s). The silver-medal pair from this year’s competition was Aliona Savchenko (a Ukranian woman) and Bruno Massot (a French man) — skating for Germany, where Savchenko has lived since she moved there to train with her former skating partner, Robin Szolkowy. But the results of this year’s Worlds are directly used to determine the number of competitors each nation will be allowed to enter in the 2018 Winter Olympics, which (unlike the World Figure Skating Championships) has no numerical qualification score for athletes. (By the way, I still think Savchenko and Massot should have won.)

Some concern about diversity: Figure skating is still, by and large, a sport practiced by privileged white and East Asian people. There are a few skaters in the competition from the MENA region, and some second-generation North African skaters in the various European nations’ teams, but the representation of Black people in skating has not gotten significantly better since the days of Surya Bonaly two decades ago.

On the other side of the ledger, the International Skating Union is currently dependent to a significant extent on the Japanese audience to support competitions like the World Championships. Of the ISU’s ten worldwide sponsors, seven are Japanese companies, and five of them do no significant business outside of Japan. Probably about half of the seats at the men’s and ladies’ singles events and at the practices were occupied by Japanese fans who had traveled all the way to Finland to see their athletes perform, and the in-arena advertising was in Japanese for that audience. Aside from the host broadcaster, the only ice-level TV broadcasters were Fuji TV. There is of course nothing wrong with marketing to a loyal and wealthy audience, but this does raise the question of what would happen if, due to retirements, injuries, or sustained poor performance, the popularity of figure skating were to decline significantly in Japan. Would the ISU be able to make up the shortfall? Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the primary audience for figure skating was continental Europe, and the primary advertisers were European leisure and consumer brands like SPAR, Intersport, Carlsberg, and Metaxa; could the ISU find sufficient sponsorships if they lost any of the current Japanese-market sponsors (Kinoshita Group, A-com, Japanet, Kosé, etc.) Compare, if you will, the degree to which the International Olympic Committee is dependent on, and responsive to, the billion dollars they received every other year from NBC

No love for ice dance? In a word, “meh”. It’s entertaining enough, but I don’t have the vocabulary, visually speaking, to have an idea what a good (or excellent) ice dance routine looks like. I bought the all-event package, so I got the tickets to both the short dance and the free dance, but I honestly couldn’t tell the difference among any of the top ten couples. In every routine, the audience would start applauding for no reason that was evident to me. I couldn’t even tell what counts as a mistake (beyond falls); one couple got a formal deduction for no reason that I can see. There’s really nothing that I can identify that is more or less difficult, beyond some of the spins and the lifts — and I remember well that lifts of the sort that all the ice dancers do now were extremely controversial back when they were first introduced. (Of course, I also remember when the status of ice dance as a sport at all was also quite controversial.) So I went to the dance competitions, but didn’t feel the need to take any photos even if I had had enough extra disk space to store them. (The ISU has worked hard to maintain the distinction between ice dance and pairs skating: pairs-specific elements are forbidden in dance, and many dance elements while permitted in pairs are scored so low as to not be worth including in a routine. The competitors in dance are always called “couples” in English, the official language of the ISU, and pairs are called “pairs”, even when, as in Finland, the same word is used for both in the announcers’ native languge. The one positive I can see to dance is that the elements do not require as great a size disparity between partners as pairs elements do: most of the couples are much closer in size to each other.)

Milan 2018: The ISU’s official calendar lists the 2018 World Championships as being “provisionally” scheduled for Milan, but I’ve heard from other sources that the organizing committee is very disorganized, does not have a Web site yet, never mind an arena or hotel contract. Contrast this with the Finnish organizers, who were ready in time to place the advertisement in the Boston 2016 program that I mentioned above. (Also contrast this with the sort of academic and technical conferences I go to, with significantly fewer attendees, where venue contracts are typically nailed down two or three years in advance!) I’ve also heard, again through the grapevine, that all-event tickets for 2018 are likely to cost about double what they did in Helsinki. Combine that with the fact that 2018 is an Olympic year, which means that the skaters will be training to peak in February, rather than March, and some top-name athletes may choose to skip the Worlds entirely if they perform well in the Olympics. On the other hand, there is also the chance that skaters may have a strong desire to redeem themselves if they perform poorly in PyeongChang, particularly if they are contemplating retirement anyway. Still, even Northern Italy almost certainly will have nicer weather in March than Finland, where it was cold, cloudy, and damp more than half of my eight days. Right now I’m keeping my options open; I might decide to go to Milan, if it’s not too horribly expensive, or if I can share the cost with someone. If I do go, I probably won’t be taking a thousand pictures a day.

That’s it for this round. If you’re at all interested in architecture or transportation, look for posts on Helsinki and Reykjavík later this week. Thanks for your attention, and to my regular blog followers, thanks for putting up with this two-week-long digression from my more usual fare.

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