Dick Button: A Cutting Edge Behind The Olympic Mic
Anyone who has watched much figure skating on television in the past 50 years knows Dick Button's voice and his sometimes unforgiving commentary.
Take Button's response to the performance of world champion Alexei Yagudin at the 2000 World Figure Skating Championships in Nice, France. The crowd seemed impressed, but Button was not.
"It was just so-so," Button shouted above the applause. "He doesn't own it yet. He hasn't mastered it. The music is gorgeous, but the rest of it — it hasn't been fulfilling." Yagudin went on to win the event.
Fans of such straightforward, unapologetic and occasionally icy analysis will welcome Button's role at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. The 80-year-old dean of figure skating commentary will be back on television for NBC's coverage of the games, providing analysis in chats with Olympic host Bob Costas during breaks in the action.
Button brings his own skating experience to the task. He was America's first Olympic figure skating gold medalist. And the two gold medals he won at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics are still unmatched by the Americans who've skated since.
Button once dominated men's figure skating, winning seven straight U.S. championships and five consecutive world championships. And he pushed the limits of the sport, performing the first double axel jump and triple loop and creating the camel spin.
But Dick Button the skater gets no mercy from Dick Button the analyst.
"Technically and stylistically, that program sucks," Button says of his 1948 gold medal performance at the St. Moritz Olympics.
That program included the first-ever double axel in competition, a jump launched while skating backward and into 2 1/2 rotations in the air. The 18-year-old Button had mastered the move just days before.
"That takes some guts," says Ron Judd, a Seattle Times columnist who writes about Button in his book The Winter Olympics: An Insider's Guide to the Legends, the Lore and the Games.
Four years later, Button performed the first triple loop in competition, again at the Olympics. "He didn't need it to win," Judd says. "He's way ahead. He puts it in anyway and lands it!"
Button "invented things on the ice that are now a staple of everybody's routine," Judd says. "And [he] was the first to really combine all of that power and athleticism with this just ... pure dance."
You'd never know it listening to Button's own analysis of his Olympic skating. At January's U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Spokane, Wash., Button huddled over a laptop screen watching grainy color film of his 1948 Olympic performance.
"Even [the] double axel wasn't really a very good one in that Olympic Games," Button says, as he watches himself skate in a black jacket and pants. "If you look very closely at it, you'll see it would have been marked down for having a cheat on it."
Button then leans back and says this about what many consider the most innovative Olympic performances of the era: "I didn't learn what skating was all about until after I had won two Olympic Games. And that came through the dance world, through body positions and the music, the choreography ... which was much more advanced [in dance]," Button says.
In fact, Button turned to dance after his second Olympics, incorporating the style and rhythms into performances at the Ice Capades, where he skated during breaks from Harvard Law School.
No Sugarcoating ... And No Harm Meant
In 1960, Button went to the Squaw Valley Olympics as a figure skating commentator for CBS. He has been scrutinizing the performances of the world's top figure skaters ever since.
Judd says Button "throws in some levity that's badly needed, and a little bit of a jolt of reality with some of his cutting remarks. And I think that's what's made him so popular."
The analysis can be as effusive as it is critical. Button gushed before 2006 Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen took to the ice in her Olympic comeback attempt at this year's national championships.
"She looks like a Dresden porcelain doll with that pulled-back hair and the red slash of lipstick," Button told NBC viewers. "She's quite exciting and exotic looking, and you can't take your eyes off her."
Button then warned that "more important than that is whether she has the kind of metallic ... backbone that will allow her not to make the mistakes that will put cracks in that porcelain-like facade."
But it was a comment about American Angela Nikodinov during a nationally televised competition in the last decade that cemented Button's infamy as a sometimes snarky analyst.
Nikodinov was getting ready to skate and before the music began, Button reportedly said that this might be a good time for "a refrigerator break."
"What I said was, 'She allows you to take a refrigerator break,' " Button recalls. "And of course, I was criticized wildly for that."
The comment seemed dismissive of a skater who had trained hard and deserved the chance to succeed and be seen. Button says he was misunderstood.
"Angela Nikodinov went through these programs without commanding your attention," he says. "If she had really started commanding your attention and allowing you to see what I know is inside there, she would have been a champion in minutes."
Button also calls Nikodinov "extremely talented, elegant and beautiful." But he's adamant about not sugarcoating what he sees on the ice. "I don't think anybody wants to sit there and listen to somebody say, 'Ooh, ooh, ooh, wasn't that beautiful? Wasn't that just too lovely for words?' The heck with that," he says.
But he also says he doesn't mean any harm.
"I hope I don't hurt people," Button says. "I've tried to do it from the point of view of making the audience aware of what [skaters] are doing and making [skaters] aware."
Skating In 2010
Button continues to push the sport, but now from his perch off the ice and in front of the microphone. He's critical of the new scoring system instituted after the judging scandal at the Salt Lake City Olympics.
Button told NBC viewers watching the 2010 national championships that they were not about to witness skating "we necessarily like the most."
"We have to remember that this is a judging system based on points," Button said. "It's the point value that counts [for] each of the individual moves."
The biggest point values come with high-scoring jumps, Button says, so skaters don't take the time for lingering and fluid grace on the ice. Thus, Button predicts, they are unlikely to inspire the kind of innovation he brought to skating.
"They're doing the same moves over and over and over because that's what they get the points for," Button says. "And there isn't enough emphasis put on ... the performance level, the [elegance] level, the music, the interpretation."
Button complains that the pressure for more points prompts younger skaters to skimp on fundamental techniques like edging and simple, graceful gliding on ice.
The kids he sees at local rinks "jump on the ice and they start instantly trying to learn to put their foot over their head or do a double flip jump," Button says. "But they don't learn to just basically stroke and skate."
Frilly costumes with feathers and flowing strands also bother Button when they don't seem to fit into a skater's program. He cites as an example the flamboyantly dressed American medal hopeful Johnny Weir.
"He's a highly talented skater with great ability, but his skating is conservative. It is not a flamboyant style of skating," Button says. "And yet the costume that he wears is off the wall. And I feel that the two things are like two feet going off in opposite directions. I don't think that the costume helps his skating. ... It distracts you from what his skating is."
The sport needs to change, Button says, but he's past being the agent of change.
He's also past skating on ice himself. A skating accident 10 years ago caused a skull fracture and serious brain injury that left Button deaf in one ear. But he still longs to skate outdoors, as he did at the Olympics. And his favorite spot is a pond on his farm in upstate New York, when it freezes thick and smooth and black.
"I had seven black ice skatings about three or four years ago. And I haven't had one since," Button says. When he has skated he barely finds himself moving, he adds, chuckling.
But then he turns wistful. "No, I don't skate anymore, really," he says. "If I skated today, all I would be is frustrated by the fact that I wasn't able to do what I knew I had been able to do."
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