Answer Man

This is how figure skaters choose the music for their performances

By The Numbers: 2018 Winter Olympics

The Winter Olympics will begin in PyeongChang, South Korea, this week. Here are some facts you should know before the Games begin.
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The Winter Olympics will begin in PyeongChang, South Korea, this week. Here are some facts you should know before the Games begin.

Q: While watching the figure skating on the Olympics recently, I was wondering: Do the skaters pay someone to make the music fit the exact times they have for the short and free skates?

Bill F., of New Athens

A: Yes, skating is probably music to the ears of some recording studios. While it may not generate a large chunk of their revenue, they do charge skaters for producing the various music mixes you hear — and take pride in knowing that their work may figure into the difference between winning a medal and ending up an also-ran.

“Yes, absolutely they do,” Barbara Reichert, a spokeswoman for U.S. Figure Skating in Colorado Springs, Colo., told me. “The majority of athletes at that level, they certainly do have to pay for it. In a free skate, they may even use two or three pieces of music that aren’t by the same artist, so, yes, they do pay to have that put together.”

It works like this: Skaters, along with their coaches and choreographers, collaborate on picking just the right sounds that will help show off their particular strengths. Then they spend untold hours matching the music to their routines so they can, for example, launch a triple axle at just the right time to match a certain mood in the music. Once they are satisfied, the final version is recorded.

“We hear plenty of stories about how either a coach or an athlete or a choreographer might hear a song and say. ‘Oh, that would be perfect for so-and-so!’” Reichert said.

“An example might be (recent team bronze medalist) Adam Rippon, who’s all the rage right now. Adam generally chooses his own music, but he works with his coach and choreographer so that they can best maximize the points in the program because everybody still wants to win. And they’re all looking to combine the athleticism and the artistry to do that.”

Yet, Reichert says, the skater may not necessarily have the biggest say in the choice.

“Which I find funny because if you have to train to that program every single day for, let’s say, a year and you hate the music, you might feel like killing yourself, right? But because it’s performance-based, they are looking at all the aspects of it from how will the judges like it, how will the crowd like it, how does it fit into the building of points in trying to win.”

How important can it be, you may be wondering. Aren’t judges focusing on the skater, not the music? Turns out it may be sort of like a movie soundtrack. You may be concentrating on the actors and the action, but the background music adds more than you might imagine to a scene.

At the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, some argue it may have determined the winner. East German superstar Katarina Witt and American Debi Thomas both happened to pick music from Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen” for their long program, but critics said the music was better suited for one over the other.

“Carmen is all about that sassy character who was fiery and sexy,” Rosanna Tovi, who was a member of the U.S. international figure-skating team and world professional team in the 1980s and 1990s, recently told theringer.com. “It really ended up hurting Debi because Katarina was just so feminine and sassy, against Debi, who was a little more athletic.”

The result? Witt took home the gold while Thomas settled for bronze.

When it comes to music, by the way, it’s no longer your parents’ Olympics. If you aren’t up on figure-skating rules, music with lyrics was strictly verboten through almost all of the 20th century. Ice dancing relaxed the rules for the 1997-1998 season. Then, in 2012, the International Skating Union decided to permit music with lyrics for other skaters after the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.

“Which is a good thing,” Reichert said. “I think it has really modernized the sport and, at the same time, I think fans are enjoying that more. So you’re seeing the athletes really appreciate and embrace it, too. I mean how many times can you hear ‘Phantom of the Opera’ before you go running out for a hot dog?”

Although still popular, classical favorites such as “Swan Lake” have seen a pronounced drop-off. In the 2009-2010 season, 47 percent of the music used by U.S. singles and pairs figure skaters was classical, according to a Wall Street Journal survey. In the current season, it’s just 25 percent. As you likely noticed at Pyeongchang last month, the soundtrack to “Moulin Rouge!” was a popular choice but others ranged from Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” to Barbra Streisand’s “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” from her 1983 movie, “Yentl.” Jason Brown tried to take advantage of the “Hamilton” craze by doing his short program to “The Room Where It Happens.”

(If you’re wondering why two or more competitors wind up skating to the same music, the answer is simple: Olympians usually develop their music during the season prior to the Winter Games. By the time of the opening ceremonies, it’s far too late to come up with anything new.)

Nothing seems off-limits now. In the youth championships this year, Jimmy Ma “turned a lot of heads” by performing to a “pretty good, hard hip hop,” Reichert said. Even explicit lyrics apparently aren’t out of bounds. Canada’s Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford’s victory in the team free skate was done to Adele’s “Hometown Glory” complete with “Shows that we ain’t gonna stand shit” in the chorus. It reportedly wasn’t even bleeped by NBC.

“Now, if you were to go to one of our events, we actually have a DJ, and I don’t think people expect that at a figure-skating event,” Reichert said. “But we have this fabulous DJ — DJ Romeo — and he travels around with us. He’s sitting there spinning music the whole time between skaters or during breaks. I started here in 2011, and our events weren’t that exciting, and they are now a real fun, entertaining event. That’s just not something you would think about figure skating. Yeah, we’re changing it up.”

Today’s trivia

Where and when was the first figure-skating club formed?

Answer to Monday’s trivia: Opened for use on May 31, 1821, The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore is considered the first Roman Catholic cathedral ever built in the U.S. Consecrated on May 25, 1876, it was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who also designed the U.S. Capitol. It was the site of the funeral Mass for Charles Carroll, the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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