With all of the Northeast in the deep freeze and the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics just hours away, it seemed more than fitting that this week’s “Lunch” date was with Dick Button. (Since the umpteenth snowstorm of the season kept us away from Michael’s yesterday, we decided to meet today for a special Thursday edition of this column.) The two-time Olympic gold medalist and legendary broadcaster has written a new book, Push Dick’s Button, which he adamantly says, “is not a biography or a memoir or about the history of skating” but rather “a conversation” because, he explained, “I’ve got plenty to say about a lot of things.” I’ll say. Dick told me the self-published tome’s title comes from the name of the popular segments he did on various networks while covering skating competitions in 2006 and 2007, inviting viewers to send in questions that he answered on air. “NBC once told me that all that material used on-air was their property. I was told you can’t copyright a title so if they sue me, it’s more publicity for the book!”
We were joined by public relations maven extraordinaire Judy Twersky and Pat Eisemann, director of publicity at Henry Holt and Company, who are both good pals of Dick’s. It was Pat who signed Dick to write what was supposed to be a memoir back in the late nineties when she acquired the manuscript while at Scribner. Since then, she told me, she’s helped him shape his story and advise him on self publication. Why the long delay? Dick told me a serious brain injury (from which he’s fully recovered) which resulted from a bad fall while skating (just for fun) made him shelve the project because, as he said with characteristic candor, “I just couldn’t hack it at the time. Writing a book is hard work.”
Not that Dick has ever rested on his laurels. After an extraordinary and much lauded tenure as one of America’s best figure skaters, Dick began his decades-long career in broadcasting in 1960 as a commentator for CBS covering the Winter Olympics. He moved to ABC in 1962 and in short order became figure skating’s most colorful analyst best known for his sometimes-irascible and often-irrepressible appraisal of skaters’ performances. His last Olympics as an on-air commentator was in 2010 at the Winter Games in Vancouver. “I’ve said I’m glad I’m not going to Russia, but I lied,” Dick told me between bites of roast chicken. “I’d love to be there.”
As we sat down to lunch he was searching his iPhone for word from friends in Switzerland on today’s results of the first-ever team figure skating competition. Ten teams, including those from the United States, Canada and Russia, comprised of skaters in women’s, men’s, pairs and ice dancing, will do their best to add to their countries’ totals. The top five will then go on to the finals. “My friends in Switzerland are watching it live,” he explained.
When I asked him if he thought the athletes were worried about the security concerns surrounding Sochi, he quickly dismissed the idea. “Forget it. I don’t think they could care less. I’m told there is a casualness about [the security]. If these terrorists wanted to do something, they’ve achieved as much as they would otherwise because there is so much talk about it,” he said before quickly adding, “It’s not the same as Munich, which was a terrible disaster.”
This go round, Dick will be live-tweeting the men’s and ladies’ events — but don’t expect bouquets for most skaters. “I don’t like what I’m seeing,” he told me referring to the performances during the competitions leading up to the Olympics. “I don’t watch [skating] very much now because there’s so much duplication. All these cookie-cutter programs don’t interest me.” With that, he reeled off what jumps and choreography viewers will likely see when watching skaters hoping to medal in their events, down to how many times to expect them to raise their arms above their heads (20, if you’d like to keep track). “They’re like drunken windmills,” he explained. “The women do it more than the men and that’s because they get points for them.”
While longtime fans of the sport know all too well why the New Jersey-born champion, who earned a law degree from Harvard, is a tough task master when analyzing skaters’ performances, younger viewers may not know what role Dick played in shaping the sport. He was the first skater to land a double axel jump in competition (1948) as well as the first triple jump — a triple loop (1952) and he invented the flying camel spin. “I’m not interested in seeing folks skate ‘nicely,’ he said, citing the 1951 World Figure Skating Championship in Milan, where Hayes Jenkins did a dramatic flying sit spin that had the crowd leaning in their seats to catch every moment as a watershed moment for the sport. “So many of the jumps today are blips, little ditsy pip-squeak jumps.” Alrighty then.
And don’t even get him started on the confusing judging system (skating nerds can dive into the minutia of it all in his book). “That’s why skating isn’t nearly as popular as it once was,” he explained. “The new rules have made it incomprehensible to most of us watching on television. We understood what a 6 meant, but what the heck does a ‘personal best’ of 208.36 points mean? Nobody understands the judging system anymore.”
He gives his own high marks to some of his all-time favorite skaters like including his long time on-air partner Peggy Fleming (“She’s wonderful. She was always so nice. I had a running joke I’d play on her where I’d ask her, ‘Did you gain weight?’ and she’d run around asking fifty people if she’d gained weight. I got her every time!”), Katarina Witt (“One tough cookie. She was gorgeous and she knew how to milk the audience”), Dorothy Hamill (“She’s a wonderful skater; better today than when she won the Olympics”) and Michelle Kwan (“She always handled herself so well”). Dick declined to speculate on why Michelle never took home the gold, but he did offer his thoughts on why younger skaters, most notably Tara Lipinski, who defied expectations and beat out Kwan for the gold medal in Nagano in 1998, often have a competitive edge. “She had nothing to lose. She went in and let loose. She was like a balloon that you blow up and then let it go and watch it ricochet all over the place. It’s much easier when you’re young.”
As for the chances of the U.S. skaters against their formidable competition in Sochi: “It’s all going to come down to whether they wilt or not,” he said. “The pressure is always tremendous. That never changes.” And regardless of head-scratching scoring, neither does the sport’s enduring appeal. “Skating is theater. Everybody talks about taking it out of the Olympics because they say it isn’t a sport,” he told me. “But that’s never going to happen. It’s sexy and it’s theater. It’s not going anywhere.” Class dismissed.
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