Episode #64: Phil Hersh

APRIL 2013
An interview with Phil Hersh, an award-winning journalist who since 1987 has been the Olympic sports writer for the Chicago Tribune and the Tribune Company. He’s covered the sport of figure skating through 10 Olympics (Sochi 2014 is #10), 28 US Championships, and 16 World Championships. We spoke about his opinions on some of skating’s most controversial outcomes (Oksana Baiul vs. Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, Michelle Kwan vs. Tara Lipinski in 1998, and Sale/Pelletier vs Berezhnaya/Sikharulidze in 2002), his thoughts on the judging system, his friendly rivalry with Christine Brennan, and his high opinion of Michelle Kwan. 1 hour, 33 minutes, 45 seconds.




Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:

On his most embarrassing skating-related moment: Since I’m not a performing skater, I don’t have an arsenal of moments to think of. I can’t think of anything right off hand.

On whether he skates: I was a very bad hockey skater. In college I was a goalie in intramural hockey, so my lack of skating skills were not a tremendous liability at that time. My main recreational sport right now is cycling, because my Achilles tendon doesn’t allow me to run any more after 30-odd years. I took that up after the Turin Olympics in 2006, and in the summer I ride with a group. We’ll do 50 miles on Saturday and 50 miles on Sunday, and then whatever else we want to do. And we go at a pretty good clip. Road cycling is an interesting sport because the physical part is only half of it. The mental fatigue of making sure you don’t have an accident is almost as fatiguing as the physical part. It’s a very different dynamic from running, where you might fall down but you’re not going to take 12 people down with you.

On having a BA in French and having studied other languages: I’m very fluent in French, moderately fluent in Italian. Spanish is the last in, first out, basically. I learned Spanish in the early 90s because the 1991 Pan-American Games were in Havana, and then the 1992 Olympics were in Barcelona. At that point I had achieved what I call telephone fluency, which means I could carry on a conversation with someone who I couldn’t see — which is much harder because you can’t communicate what you could face to face. But Spanish has eroded the fastest because I learned it the last.

On having translated during interviews for other journalists: A lot of South American soccer players go and play in Italy, so they speak Italian much slower than they do their native tongue. So I can understand their Italian perfectly. And if Brian Joubert were to speak in Italian, I could probably understand his Italian better than his French. But I have helped people with translations in French. It’s also because you wind up learning sports terms very quickly, and many athletes speak in clichés anyway. Would I want to do an entire interview with a French athlete in French, without having the ability to record it and go back over it? No. But could I actually do the interview? Yes.

On writing about skating: I actually started writing about skating at the 1980 Winter Olympics. There was a day during compulsory figures where you just hung around and talked to people, just coaches wandering in and out or whoever. And the stories they told — it was after Vladimir Kovalev withdrew, and so people started telling funny Vladimir Kovalev stories, apparently he was quite the party animal. And I started listening to the stories, and finding out some great personal stories behind it. And on top of that I’ve been a passionate classical music lover all my life. My brother’s a musicologist and my son plays the cello. So what I eventually came to like about figure skating is that it was a sport requiring tremendous athletic skill, it had an artistic side, and although it does use the same music over and over again, it used great classical music. So that combination of things began to appeal to me. And then I started covering US national championships, I’ve covered 28 now, and the first in that streak was 1984 — I’ve missed two since then — and the more I hung around people and the more I talked, even before Tonya and Nancy and all the fun that brought us in the journalistic community, it just was fun. Everybody was very open and giving. Carlo Fassi taught me an enormous amount about figure skating, and made me feel not so stupid about recognizing jumps all the time by saying, hey, when it’s at the other end of the rink sometimes I can’t tell either. And Frank Carroll was very gracious and giving of time, and so were the athletes. At the beginning of that era, the end of the Scott Hamilton era and the start of the Brian Boitano era — they are two of the nicest, most forthcoming, gracious people you could ever want to find in the sport, and it was just fun to be around them.

In 1987, the world championships were in Cincinnati, and the Olympics next year were going to be in Calgary. It was at that point that I convinced the people at the [Chicago] Tribune [newspaper] that we should have someone paying 99% of their attention to the Olympics and to Olympic matters at all times. So from then on I really became immersed in figure skating, and it just developed from that. When it’s at its best, like Gordeeva and Grinkov in Calgary, Yu-na Kim at the 2010 Olympics, Michelle Kwan in Edmonton in 1996, Brian Boitano in Calgary, Rudy Galindo in San Jose — when it’s at that level you just can’t help but get caught up in it. Knowing at all times how difficult it is to do it right, and then putting it together with some sense of artistry and choreography and some musicality — very very few skaters can do that. All sport can be entertainment, but this sport has an inbuilt entertainment element that makes it unique. In gymnastics, floor exercise, the women have music in the background but that’s not really the same thing, because in figure skating you’re actually trying to interpret it.

The number of skaters who have any knowledge about music is depressingly small, but I have a friend, a very eminent musician who plays in some of the world’s leading orchestras, and he told me that for ballet dancers it’s the same thing. No matter what tempo you play, they dance to whatever tempo they want. So it’s not just figure skaters [laughs]. It does bother me that over the years, I’ve often felt that if you give Skater A who has practiced a program all year, if you could just give them new music, they would do the same elements in the same order. And in many cases year to year it’s the same, no matter what’s being played. And I know people think I’m very hard on Patrick Chan [laughs], but I also sat there in London, Ontario [at the 2013 world championships], in awe at his short program. That’s what makes those special moments so very very special.  Denis Ten, very very special, when you see someone do all that incredibly difficult stuff they do, and relate it to the music and the idea of the music that’s accompanying them.

On criticizing figure skating: I think that a lot of people think that because I’m critical about figure skating that I don’t like figure skating. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have never been assigned to cover figure skating, it was my own choice. I have advocated for it for almost 30 years, and any time I wanted to stop covering figure skating, my bosses would have let me do it. The fact is that there are right now, and many of us are getting close to retirement age, a number of writers for major US publications who all came to love figure skating. John Powers at the Boston Globe, Christine Brennan at USA Today, Jo-Ann Barnas who was at the Detroit Free Press, Amy Shipley who used to work for the Washington Post. When this generation retires, there is not going to be a next generation. Partly because of the changes in the newspaper industry, but partly because we really really came to like the sport. And I remember at one point, after the Munich world championships in 1991 when the US women swept the podium, sitting outside on a nice sunny day and saying to a colleague: you know, there are people at baseball spring training right now who would wonder why we wanted to be here. And there are lots of people in my business who couldn’t understand why I wanted to cover figure skating. But it’s such a fertile field when you’ve got the soap operatic quality, the international personalities, the occasional performance that brings you, if not to tears, to emotional tingling because it’s so brilliant. I love figure skating, and to anyone out there who thinks that because I’m critical that I don’t like it, I love it. If I hadn’t loved it I would have stopped covering it after one year.

On how studying foreign languages leads to a job as a sportswriter: I’m very much of a previous generation, I guess, where a university education is supposed to teach you how to think, how to write, and how to read. And I just happened to do it in French. And it taught me to think — whether you do it in a foreign language or not makes no difference. And I’ve always been interested in writing. When my brother went off to Yale, I would go into his room and pound out imaginary stories on his typewriter.

On writing about many different sports: My primary responsibility is to keep track. I’m the only person in the Tribune Company, which is not just the Chicago Tribune but all of the newspapers, whose full-time emphasis is the Olympics. So I sort of know what’s going on in every sport, a little bit. I’m much better at winter sports than summer sports because there are fewer of them. I also write a twice-a-week college sports column that concentrates on the sports that don’t get covered much because they’re the non-revenue generating sports.

I’m on no schedule, unless I’m on assignment. I can write any time and post it on the blog. If I have something to say, I write it. I’m always working on something. The blessing and the curse of the Internet is that you can be informed about everything for hours and hours a day, and you have to stop because you don’t get anything done. So I have to close everything, Twitter, Facebook, and so on, to get some work done. But all of my assignments are self-generated. I consider myself working 24/7, and the privilege of working at home is that if they call me whenever, unless I have some overwhelming commitment, I’ll just stop what I’m doing and do it.

On covering the Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan story in 1994: None of us was at the practice rink [at US Nationals when Kerrigan was attacked].  We were at the pairs short program, if my memory serves, and we were all sitting in the stands when the news spread that something had happened, and it took off from there. And I’m not making this up, one of my colleagues immediately said “where was Tonya?” And from that moment in January 1994, right up until the world championships in Tokyo where Tonya would have skated, if she’d gone — it consumed my life for two and a half months. I joked that I didn’t get to see the winter Olympics in Norway, I got to see Tonya and Nancy for 28 straight days. And one of the points that I’ve made over the years is that [Tonya] was a fantastic skater. She didn’t need to hit anyone in the knee to win an Olympic medal, if she’d only committed to doing her best and going to practice. That was the interesting other side of Tonya, athletic and a little artistic in the Midori Ito kind of mold, but a great skater who came very close to winning an Olympic medal in Albertville two years before.

So that put skating in the public consciousness, greater than it ever had been since Sonja Henie maybe, and where it probably never will be again. But people forget that skating was very popular before that. The Battle of the Carmens [women’s event at 1988 Olympics], the final 20 minutes of that program was in the Top 5 television ratings of all time. Figure skating did not just emerge out of nowhere because of Tonya and Nancy. It just got lifted to an artificially high level in public interest.

On his writing about skating perceived as being negative: I feel like I’m telling the truth. I’ll make a couple of points which will probably make people angrier. Figure skating fans as a whole still think of these athletes as Dresden dolls, particularly the women, and that they shouldn’t be criticized. Let me remind you that these are mostly professional athletes. Once they get to the level of a world championship athlete, they are making some money, they are professional athletes, and because of the demands of the sport they are doing it full-time. So if the quarterback of the Bears throws four interceptions and costs his team the game, or if a figure skater falls several times, there is no difference in my mind to the coverage that person should get. It’s an athletic endeavor and should be criticized as an athletic endeavor.

And I think that a lot of figure skating fans are caught in this dilemma, they want the sport to be covered but they don’t want the warts to be covered. And that’s just not right. And anyone who thinks that I’m consistently negative need only read what I’ve written most recently about Yu-na Kim or about Patrick Chan’s short program or about Davis & White and the ice dance at the world championships, or go back over all the years and read the coverage. And they will find that the positive stories overwhelmingly outweigh the negative.

On his coverage of ice dance: I’ve always liked ice dance to watch, I just thought that for years the scoring of it was such a joke that there’s no reason to watch it. You could simply take the previous year’s results, crack the skaters who weren’t back, and figure out the next year’s results. And that has slowly changed. It’s not just that Davis & White are that good, it’s that Virtue & Moir are that good too, and they’re separate in my mind from the rest. And I’m not just talking about the skating skills, I’m talking about the whole thing. And as much as they pride, I still think that judging in ice dancing is like a critic at a ballet performance, much more than in the other disciplines where there are many more judged technical pieces that are easier to see, and easier to critique, and easier to say, done well, not done well.  When I say [watching ice dance] used to be my dinner break, it’s meant to be funny. You’ve got to have a sense of humor about this. I mean, literally, I can tell you that during the 1984 Olympic trials, the entire US press corps went out for dinner during the ice dance. Because we knew that Blumberg and Siebert were going to win, there wasn’t any real reason to be there. The trouble was that the sport for so long was pre-judged months or years in advance, and it’s hard to get over in your mind the notion that it isn’t pre-judged now. I’d like someone to explain to me in clear terms, and I do read some of this stuff, why all of a sudden the judges who loved the Shibutanis a year ago hate them now. Do I think ice dancers are amazing athletes? Absolutely. Do I think that the discipline is almost impossible to judge? Same thing.

On his article suggesting that Gracie Gold would not be judged fairly at Junior Worlds at Russia because the results were pre-determined: Some of that is meant to be satirical, some of that is meant to be ironic, and some of it is the truth. It’s meant to be, you can’t just write simple stuff all the time. Is some of the stuff I write purposefully snarky? Absolutely. But on the majority, is my figure skating coverage snarky? I would ask someone to go back and read the hundreds and hundreds of articles that I have written about figure skating and tell me that I have not written mostly positive stories about the sport.

On complaints about his coverage of other sports being negative: It’s based entirely on results. It’s not hard to dismiss US marathon runners when other than the two at the 2004 Olympics, the US hadn’t won marathoning medals in forever and ever, nor had high finishers or actually won a major marathon. I had a Twitter war about Ryan Hall, who had the fastest marathon times in the US for years, but every time he went in a major race couldn’t do anything. Is that a fact? Absolutely. Do I hammer on that fact at times? Absolutely.

On the decline of popularity of skating in the US: I don’t think you can separate one [reason] from the other. If there were a Michelle Kwan-like skater, or a Yu-na Kim-like skater, or a Patrick Chan-like skater in the US, I think interest would be higher. I would use the baseline as somewhere in the 1984-88 period, and how far it’s dropped from that is really interesting. The judging system is clearly incomprehensible, and most of the skaters will clearly tell you that. There has not been a US star that people really want to latch on to, and it doesn’t mean the skater with the best results, it’s the skater with the best personality. And then you get into this spiral, as television starts seeing these lower ratings, it starts paying less, and on and on and on. In 2004 or 2005, I interviewed Eddie Einhorn, the owner of the White Sox [baseball team] who negotiated a lot of the TV contracts for the ISU, and he predicted that skating was on its way to becoming an Internet sport other than for the Olympic games, and he’s been proved right. The confluence of the three factors has buried the sport a lot deeper than they might have had they not all been working against figure skating. ABC was paying the USFSA $22 million at one point, and now they’re in a profit-sharing agreement, and God knows if they actually make any profit. The ISU was getting an eight-figure number from US television, and now it’s basically giving away the rights. ESPN broadcasts every single US women’s soccer game leading up to the World Cup, but they won’t do that for figure skating because they don’t think they have the audience. Figure skating has lost its marketability, it’s lost whatever quality it had that made network programmers want to put it on, and it just becomes a vicious circle that’s very hard to get out of.

To get figure skating beyond a certain level, you have to attract sports fans. It’s not just women. And of all the disciplines, the average viewer turning [ice dance] on will have to wonder how that is scored, as compared to at least singles where you see somebody fall down and you think they might lose. It’s always been a singles-oriented country. You can try to sell ice dance all you want, but people like singles, that’s what they understand. Davis & White are terrific skaters and terrific people, but will they be able to sell figure skating to the fans? No.

On different figure skating judging systems: I still know 6.0 better than IJS. As much as I know about IJS, I still can’t figure it out. In 1994, at an event that had nothing to do with figure skating, I sat down with Ottavio Cinquanta and we had breakfast, he had just become the ISU president. It was the first time I’d met him, we sat down because he knew I covered figure skating. And that year, I think it was at the European championship where Skater A was ahead of Skater B going into the freeskate, and Skater B finished ahead of Skater A in the freeskate, but Skater A finished ahead overall. It was all of the bumping that was caused by ordinals. And he said, how can we ask people to pay for an event where they can’t understand the hard fast basics of the scoring system? Giving him credit, he was thinking about this far before Salt Lake City. SLC provided him with the opportunity to change the system, it wasn’t the reason. He wanted to change the system for a long time. He’s a guy who came from a sport where it was measured by whoever crossed the finish line first, although interestingly short track speed skating, which was his sport, has almost as much controversy as figure skating because of who’s guilty in collisions. So he had this idea, and he had the opportunity in SLC to implement it.

At the beginning, I thought it was a great idea, an idea worth trying. I didn’t buy the anonymity, although I understood what he was trying to do with that, but I didn’t think it was necessary. I liked the idea of trying to mathematize the sport. But at the beginning, not understanding what program component scores were, and how they were used, I didn’t understand that the problem would be just as great under the new system. At Moscow Worlds, in 2005, I asked Ottavio, how can 11 or however many judges score five component scores within three-tenths of another on every skater? You mean to tell me that the whole range for the entire top twelve is so small? And he said, I’ve given these judges a Ferrari that they don’t know how to drive. Well, eight years later they still don’t know how to drive, and that’s been the problem. If you fall three times, one of those five component scores has to get hammered. You cannot have all of that accounted for only on the other side of the mark. You cannot tell me that the impression of a program is not dramatically affected by serious mistakes, what is essentially the artistic side of the sport. As Chris Brennan pointed out in her column after Worlds, judges are judging what a skater is capable of doing, not what he or she or they did at the moment. And that was so evident with the German pairs, it was so evident with Patrick Chan. The problem is that what I think was a honest and well-intentioned attempt to make the system more credible has not worked the way they wanted.

The other part of the judging issue is that all the BS that skaters have to include in a program now makes the programs very much cookie-cutter, everybody has to do essentially the same thing. And to do seventy-three turns in the middle of a footwork sequence spoils so much of what is fun about a footwork sequence, which is the raw speed with which a skater can get across the ice and leave an artistic impression. And each time a skater has to do another physically demanding little thing, they get tireder and tireder. Think of how few clean great performances there have been under the new judging. Yu-na in Vancouver, Evan [Lysacek] in Vancouver, Patrick at 2011 Worlds, Yu-na at Worlds this year. There have been very very few. You see these protocols now and you see how many huge mistakes there have been, and I’m sorry, but there is nothing good about falling. The ability to recover and get up and keep going, that’s nice, but if somebody falls on the first or second jump of the program, I find it hard to pay the same level of attention to the rest of it, and I’m writing about it. And I think the fans would feel the same way. And I’m not talking about hardcore fans, I’m talking about the casual fan who turns on the TV and sees Chan fall twice and sees Denis Ten skate brilliantly, and can’t figure out why the eff the judges could possibly have had that result.

The system has not done what it was intended to do, which was to remove a lot of the subjectivity that had corrupted the sport with pre-judging. And clearly Patrick Chan is pre-judged. Savchenko and Szolkowy, clearly pre-judged, because they never should have got those component scores in London. And the demands put upon the skaters, particularly in singles, are so enormous now that it is very hard physically to skate a clean program with all the difficulty. So you’re seeing more and more flawed programs and just as much inexplicable judging. And where do you go from here? The more I think about it, the more I think, try something like diving. Go back to a scale, throw out the high and the low and add all the points up. Maybe go someplace in the middle if you want to go somewhere mathematical. As to how to cure the second issue, judges should be hammered over the head that they can’t continue to judge what they think that skater is capable of doing. At his best, is Patrick Chan unquestionably the best male skater in the world today? Without a doubt. But how many times have we seen Patrick Chan at his best in the last three years? Not very many. Yet he has won lots and lots of competitions over that time.

Skating skills? Doesn’t skating skills mean not spending half of the time on your ass? Seriously, that to me is an essential skating skill, standing upright. It’s not like you’re a hockey player getting checked. Skating for four-and-a-half minutes is extraordinarily hard, but you’re supposed to stay upright. I just finished watching again the fall on the first triple lutz [in Chan’s program] in London, and it was an awful fall. It detracted from the program for 15 seconds. 15 seconds in a four-and-a-half minute program, that’s a lot of lost time. I think that the penalties have to be a lot harsher for falling, and I think the more times you fall, the more the penalty should be.

On television skating commentary: They could give more information, but don’t forget, they don’t have very much time after a skater finishes before the next skater, and if they see what looks like a third-grade math test splashed across the board in front of them — they can explain maybe one or two things. Would it be better if people explained it more? Yes. Would fans’ eyes glaze over if they really explained it? Yes, but they don’t have the time to do it. Figure skating commentators on television tend to be very nice to skaters, it’s always been that way, and it will always be that way. They tend to be much more protective of the skaters than us in print, even the ones who aren’t former skaters. They’re also in the business of promoting a product, i.e. their telecast, and I often wish they would let people on who would be more critical of skating. When you see something that elevates the moment, the specialness of that is so great that it’s demeaned by being sort of nice to everything else.

On mistakes: My most embarrassing mistake is probably something I’ve made by not reading a protocol right, and I don’t want to make an excuse for this, but I’d like to see someone do what we often have to do, which is write about 800 words in eight minutes. You do your very best to get it right, but when this whole extra level of mathematical complexity got involved — one of the great things that happened at the Vancouver Olympics was that we got to see the whole protocol skater by skater. That’s a huge help in trying to explain the result to a reader. And writing about Yu-na Kim on deadline after that freeskate, if you think that’s not the most positive writing ever about anything, I’d be very curious.

What we’ve always wanted to happen, since the 1994 Olympics when a lot of people thought Nancy Kerrigan should have won — the next day, Britta Lindgren, who was the referee, explained to us that she gave Oksana [Baiul] essentially the same winning score that a lot of the judges did. And she explained why, and it was a totally rational, defensible explanation. Figure skating suffers because the judges don’t talk. Or the referee doesn’t talk. In the NFL or in baseball, if there’s a controversial call, there’s a reporter who gets to ask the officials about the decision in the game, immediately. That would really help figure skating, if they could get a technical specialist or a referee to tell you why this was judged this way. On the technical side, anyone with access to a replay who can slow it down can probably figure out a lot of that stuff for themselves, although I defy you a lot of the times to figure out exactly where a skate leaves the ice and whether it comes back down after 240 degrees or 248 degrees or 258 degrees of revolution. It’s still very very hard. But in the case of Patrick Chan at the Worlds, which is probably the most controversial case going on right now, to have someone explain to me why they thought he deserved those component scores and why Denis Ten [was scored as he was]. And maybe they would have a very good explanation for it and the sport would look better and the fans would have more understanding of it.  Maybe. And it has to be immediately and it has to be from an official, not from someone even as knowledgeable as someone like Tony Wheeler appears to be. Not from an outsider.

On whether he personally contributes to or against the popularity of skating: I don’t think I should have anything to do [with it]. My role is to report on the sport. If it stinks, it stinks. If the popularity is declining, the popularity is declining. It is not my job to prop it up, or to create heroes. I am invested in the sport only to the extent that I like covering it, and when it’s done well, I love covering it. It is not my role in any way, shape, or form to promote the sport. People with a lot more power than I have had have had an opportunity to figure out what was wrong with figure skating, and to this point they have not been able to come up with a solution. So none of us are in the job of promoting figure skating. However, by virtue of the fact that we are covering it, we are promoting it, negative or positive. And as I said — the best example I can give you, the world championships in a pre-Olympic year, which are a decisive championships because they determine places at the next Olympic games per country, and they often produce a brand new star — the New York Times did not have anyone at the world championships, and they have not had anyone at the national championships for the past few years. John Powers at the Boston Globe had covered more nationals than I had, but did not go to San Jose or to Nationals this year. Mainstream big time media have issues that are unrelated to figure skating that are contributing to this, but the fact is, when you want to find something easy to cut, it’s going to be figure skating. And I would suggest to you that by 2020 there might not be any newspaper in the country covering figure skating. There will be newspapers in some form, whether digital or print, but I don’t think anyone will be covering figure skating. A number of us came into this at the point when Brian and Scott were at the peak of their careers and got enchanted by the sport, entranced by the people and treated very well, and out of our own volition followed the sport for all these years. So you can have two kinds of coverage. You will still get people writing for Ice Network and some of the websites who will preach to the converted, and hard-core figure skating fans will be able to get coverage of the sport. They won’t be able to get the same kind of personality profiles and the same kind of perspective. I thought the World Championships should have been cancelled after the Tokyo disaster, and I had access to Cinquanta and I was calling him four times a day. That sort of relationship comes from being in media and covering an organization, that Cinquanta or Jacques Rogge or whoever will take your call. The very well-intentioned people working for smaller outlets are not going to have that kind of access. Will they be able to report about the sport? Absolutely. Do some of them know 100 times more about the technical side of the sport than I do? Absolutely. Will they reach a larger audience than hardcore figure skating fans? Absolutely not.

On the impression of the sport that casual fans might get from reading his work: If you go back and read what I wrote about the world championships, the first story I wrote, before I got there, I went back and talked to Max Aaron’s old hockey teammate, who’s now playing at the University of Michigan. Totally positive profile about Max in which I brought up the fact that he has a long way to go artistically, which any figure skating fan would agree with. The next story I did was about Carolina Kostner, 11 years or 12 years or 16,000 years or whatever it was after competing in her first world championship — a totally positive story. The first really negative thing I wrote was kind of a giveaway paragraph — I wrote about the German pair being overscored but I thought that the winners were so good that that was irrelevant in any case — the first really negative thing I wrote was about Patrick Chan’s unjustifiable win. To me that one incident overshadowed the rest of the entire competition. How can you not make a big issue of that? It’s the world championship. If you go back and read, of the seven stories I wrote, eight or nine or however many I wrote, including the stuff that was only online, I think you would find only two really negative stories. The one after the men’s final and the column when I went over all that same ground again.  Had Patrick Chan deserved to win the event, and had he skated well enough to deserve winning, I probably would have written not a single negative word about either the judging system or any of the skaters.

However, for me not to point out that Ashley Wagner fell five times in her final three freeskates of the year would be overlooking the fact that she’s a great skater who looked like a great skater in November and was not the same skater since. Am I supposed to forget about that? I wrote that I thought that Gracie Gold was the best skater in the US at the end of the season, and at the end of the season, I thought she was. Maybe over the whole season, you could debate that. But do I go out there with the intent to write that the judging system is horrible? No. Do they give me the opportunity far too many times to say that? Yes. If you go back on all the horrible decisions I’ve seen over the years, that Chan thing may be the single worst. It was unbelievable. When you consider how well Denis Ten skated, and how brilliant the idea was to use two programs from the same score, and to link them together, how well he executed that — the upside of this system is that Denis Ten could have finished 114th or whatever he was at the Four Continents the month before and still wind up second in the world, which never would have happened before. How can you not like that? For people without a reputation, they’re allowing them to exceed whatever reputation they thought they had, but once you get a reputation, you’re still given far too much benefit of the doubt. When I go back and look at all of Michelle Kwan’s major performances, there was only one time when I thought she was overscored, in Helsinki [1999 world championships] where she should have been buried so far after the short program that she would have been out of contention for a medal. But the rest of the time I thought she got the scoring she deserved. Oksana Baiul at the [1992] Olympics, she doubled a jump, but she did it in the corner so far down from the majority of judges who were attempting to see it without the benefit of replay — I would want to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that was an honest mistake. Should she have been taken out of contention with a lower score in the short program? Yes. But is it possible that was not some sort of judges’ corruption? That’s also possible, in my mind.

I’ve always felt that the Russians won that pairs gold medal in Salt Lake City. Everything about their skating was so far superior, about the artistic side, there was a case where I thought that even the mistakes that they made were not enough in my mind to take the gold medal away from them. Back then, the presentation mark was the decisive mark, and therefore in many people’s minds was the more important one. Sale and Pelletier had skated Tristan and Isolde, and then they did something that was relatively abstract, and they dumped it in favor of the schlock of all time, Love Story. So in my mind I had already given them a 2.0 deduction for skating to Love Story — I’m only being semi-serious about that.

But now that we’re talking about music, there are programs when I would have started out with a half-point deduction for the music being so horrible. I don’t understand how a skater can spend all summer coming up with a program and (a) even falling back on the oldest of clichés, or (b) picking something like Max Aaron’s short program, which is unlistenable. I was never a fan of Rachael Flatt’s skating, but I loved the fact that Tom Dickson and Tom Zakrajsek were doing the coaching and the choreography, and she took some risks. Doing La Mer, a total tone poem.  And I want to say that she skated to pieces of a Brahms sextet at one point, it would have been 2007. I happen to listen to an enormous amount of music in a week, and I’m always sitting in the car or at home and looking at a watch, and saying, boy, you could do that as a long program, you could do that as a short program, and wondering why it isn’t. And it drives me crazy when people chop up things that don’t have to be chopped up, and it drives me crazy that people won’t listen to more music and try to find — to take the gamble and do something that the audience might be unfamiliar with but which is so strikingly, stunningly beautiful that it won’t make any difference. Once you get to the level of top six, or senior nationals, take some risks, for God’s sake. It’s not like there aren’t any choices. The only thing that tends to be new is from whatever movie soundtrack’s hot that year. I think skaters need more music education. I think one of the reasons that the Russians were so good, and in their system they could tell the skaters to do whatever they had to do, they would make them go to watch the ballets. I remember Chris Brennan was with me on a trip to Russia in 1997, and we went to see Don Quixote at the Mariinsky. And when you sat there watching it, you could see so much of pairs skating was drawn right out of the ballet, and to understand that kind of physical movement is so incredibly important. And whether the skaters liked going to the ballet or not, over the course of time some of that had to sink in.

On pairs skating: It’s by far the most dangerous discipline, if you like that sort of thrill. To me when done right, it’s unbelievably beautiful. But we see so few that are really good at it any more. When you saw the Chinese when they were right, like in 2003 in Washington, you just sat there and went, oh my God. And I’ve had a lot of “oh my God” moments in skating.

On competing with other reporters: You obviously compete to get news scoops, about somebody being injured or leaving a coach, or being arrested in the case of Christopher Bowman, may he rest in peace. And Christine [Brennan] and I have had knock-down, drag-out arguments, the most famous one — she was adamant that Michelle Kwan should have won in Nagano [1998 Olympics] and I was adamant that Tara Lipinski should have won. We will probably never agree about that, and we have argued about that, yelling about that. We do agree, sadly enough although it is not our job to promote the sport, on the fact that the sport is in a dangerous declining. It’s declining to the point of becoming irrelevant.

On balancing being critical of the skaters with being friendly with the skaters: If you fall twice and I point that out, you shouldn’t have a problem with that. If I’m critical of you for no reason, you should have a problem with that. The discussions I’ve had have mostly been with skaters’ agents, who tend to be as protective as figure skating fans about their athletes. I never became the kind of friend I am with Michelle Kwan while she was skating. Once she stopped skating, it’s a whole different relationship. When Janet Evans [the swimmer] retired after the last Olympic trials — I met Janet Evans when she was 17 years old and spent a whole day at her house. And I wrote in this piece after the trials that it’s almost like watching my own daughter grow up. Yet our level of friendship got different when I was covering her. I don’t want to be that close to any of the athletes I cover. I was honored and flattered to be invited to Michelle Kwan’s wedding, it was great and I’m very happy for her, and I’ve written on many occasions that what she did in skating pales in comparison to what she’s done since, getting two degrees, getting involved with diplomacy. She could have been America’s guest for the rest of her life, and she chose not to, and I think that’s wonderful. I always had a good relationship with her over the years, but I wouldn’t have considered her a friend, I would have considered her someone I was friendly with. I don’t want to be friends with the people I cover, while I am covering them. If we have a relationship that becomes a friendship later on, that’s wonderful.

On getting stories from the ISU and the International Olympic Committee: They feed me stories, and I use them if I think they’re legitimate. Nobody has ever fed me a story and said if you run this, there’ll be a quid pro quo, because I wouldn’t accept the quid pro quo. Those of us who work for major media outlets — we don’t take things for free. Occasionally someone will take you out to dinner and I’ll always try to make sure that the next time I’ll take them out for dinner. But any time I take an athlete to lunch, including athletes that make 50 times more than I do, I have paid for their lunch or their dinner. We can use each other to get a story out, but only if it’s a legitimate story.

On using social media: Twitter is kind of a funny thing. During the Boston bombing, the Twitter coverage by the Boston Globe, it was the first time I saw the virtue of Twitter as a reporting device. Blogging is very difficult, because I consider blogging really as writing, and I try to put in the same effort as something that I was going to spend six hours on, but also because the mechanics of getting the blog into the system and adding the picture takes a lot of time and it distracts from what you’re doing. Tweeting doesn’t really distract from what you’re doing, so it’s a valuable resource. I occasionally pick up news from it, but there’s no way on God’s green earth that I can follow every athlete that I write about. I follow a lot of people but I might go a whole day without looking at Twitter. If it’s something really important, it’ll appear in the form of retweets and I’ll catch up to it. I use Twitter to be snarky at figure skating events, without a doubt. Nancy Armour from the Associated Press uses it the same way, to comment and to get things out in 140 characters. I’ve drawn the line that I use Facebook for personal things, for family things like some of the things my son is doing in music, and make Twitter a totally professional device.

On figure skating message boards: I go to Figure Skating Universe relatively often during the season. I do cover a lot of other things, and there are people there who are much more invested in following every little thing in figure skating than I am. And not infrequently they will say that they happened to have been in a rink and somebody was hurt, or somebody was no longer skating with that skater. And I will take that and call the skater or the skater’s coach or email somebody, and use that as a source for news tips. What I dislike most about all of these figure skating boards is that you can do the comments anonymously. I don’t think that’s fair. If you want to criticize me, I have no problem with that, but sign your name. I have my name on everything I write, and on every print story, my email address and my Twitter address are on there. I stand behind everything I write, and you should stand behind everything you write. I’ve said to people who email me, if you write me rationally, and I don’t care how critical it is as long as it doesn’t get profane and ranting, with your name on it and a real email address — I have replied to every single one of those I’ve gotten over however long we’ve been using email. For some competitions when I choose not to wake up in the middle of the night, there might be people on Figure Skating Universe who are in a completely different time zone and who are commenting on performances and who fell and all that, If I come into a competition late, I’ll skim through that, because before the protocol comes out it’ll tell me why so and so is in fifth place. So that’s useful as well.

I think these message boards are a great way to connect people who have a similar vested interest. But before people comment that I’m too critical, they should go back and read some of the comments on these message boards which are ludicrously critical about people. And I think that everybody would be better served if they used a real name. I have a name on Figure Skating Universe, but I have never posted, nor will I ever post, a single thing on Figure Skating Universe. But I would be foolish not to look at that and Golden Skate and whatever else is out there, because there are people who love figure skating and who find out things that I don’t find out. If I were not to pay attention to that, I wouldn’t be doing my job and not using all the resources available to help me do the job.

About the Author
Yup, I’m a skating fan. But I’m a skater too. I compete nearly every year in the U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships, and am always thrilled to see my other skating buddies there. In my real life I work in marketing for brands that make positive changes in the world, and a mom of two rambunctious boys.

4 comments on “Episode #64: Phil Hersh

  1. sidney says:

    Great Interview! Regarding Phil’s thoughts on the judging system and some skaters being prejudged on what they are capable of and not on what they did that event, (like Chan at Worlds ’13) with no regard to what took place on the ice that day – truer words couldn’t be spoken clearer.

  2. Nick Pilgrim says:

    Like a lot of other folks from FSU, I was bracing myself.

    But I loved this interview, not only for Mr Hersh’s passion and honesty, but that you asked him to justify a few of the more controversial statements he has made in his column.

    Great job!

  3. Great interview! WOW!

  4. CasEddy says:

    Good interview! Lots of interesting tidbits about skating scoring proposals and his career as a reporter.

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