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1981 -1983 Worlds: Denise Biellmann, Elaine Zayak, Katarina Witt

Updated on May 1, 2017

Denise Biellmann in 1981

Denise Biellmann in 1981

Elaine Zayak in 1981

Katarina Witt in 1981

Katarina Witt in 1981

Biellmann, Zayak, and Witt

After the 1970s the legends had retired, Linda Fratianne paved the road to triple era for ladies figure skating. Following Fratianne, three great skaters, Denise Biellmann, Elaine Zayak, and Katarina Witt, rose to prominence, but the ultimate winner, as history remembers, turned out to be Katarina Witt. Witt introduced her own musicality and theatrical elements into her powerful skating while Zayak flaunted incredible jumping consistency and Biellemann her unforgettable signature spin. But behind Witt's monumental success was concerns growing. More skaters would throw triples, but the question is what would it do to the sport? If figure skating is all about keeping balance between technicality and artistry, how could it be achieved? Despite the fact that most skaters did triple jumps, very few cared how well they performed them or how well they incorporated them into artistic elements. Judges, coaches and experts were all alike in claiming that figure skating is all about balancing of athleticism and artistry, but no one seemed to know how to measure that which is to be measured. All got swept off their feet by triples, oblivious of a fact that landing triple jumps does not necessarily mean technical advancement. On the contrary, in terms of control mechanism, the sport was undergoing technical degeneration. This rapid decline in technical side was largely due to the reduction of compulsories, because skaters were compelled to spend more time on jumps, not compulsories. As more people agreed that skaters with more triples and no fall should win, skaters almost exclusively focused on the number of triple jumps performed. In this context, Elaine Zayak, whose uncanny ability to land triples surpassed her peers, looked unstoppable, and it was plain to everyone that jumpers would rule, unless they are checked. Peggy Fleming called it out, and the ISU acted upon the call. So came the enactment of Zayak rule.

Elaine Zayak was every bit of Linda Fratianne, although she lacked of classic quality Fratianne had. The executive quality of Zayak's skating contains much of Fratianne's brilliance, yet in the eye of Peggy Fleming, Zayak came short to be her legitimate disciple. Simply, jumpers were considered a bunch of rebels who ignored the classic quality of skating invested in traditional elements such as edge skills, line and extensions, artistic expression as well as physiological aesthetics, and more. The so called jumping fest was a distortion; it's a blatant ignorance of the ideal of the sport. It got under the skin of the great Peggy Fleming.

As shown above, Zayak's jumping ability was something all skaters in her time looked up to. However shining Zayak's jumps seem, her deficiency in other elements still can't go unnoticed. Although Zayak's deficiency in the classic elements might not be so great, especially compared to those skaters who were not able to handle triple jumps as much as Zayak, it legitimately puts up a question. Without verified contextual merits that enables Zayak's skating to be a whole and integrated expression, especially of aesthetic quality, how much of Zayak's technical merits can be justifiable and acceptable to be a part of the sport ideal? Here comes Fleming's sharp criticism to put a break on Zayak's unconstrained race. With all considerations that might favor Zayak, figure skating isn't for jump. Jump has been the most important element, since the beginning of Classic Figure Skating, even until now, that remains crown jewel of all the elements. Modern Figure Skating was and still is all about artistic athleticism or ultimate aesthetics, and mastery of triple jumps is one of critical tools to achieve that ideal.

In this particular competition, Katarina Witt seriously screwed compulsories. Otherwise, Witt surely could have shot to the podium. Witt's skating was powerful compared to her contemporaries, but more importantly, Witt knew how to skate musically. Witt moved with musical flow and enabled her program to be more contextually communicative with the audience. And Witt's ability to land triple jumps were also among top skaters. However, in the above, as you can see, Witt's moves appeared premature compared to her rivals.

Three genius skaters clashed for the glory, and Biellmann came out victorious in the end. Katarina Witt's reign was largely indebted to Biellmann's abrupt retirement and Zayak rule; otherwise, Witt's two time Olympic crown may never have been possible. Katarina Witt was one of the greatest skaters, as shown above. Witt, extremely competitive, was perhaps one of the most competitive skaters of all time. But among the top skaters, either of her contemporaries or predecessors or successors, Witt's skills were not of top qualities. Especially her moves, while powerful in contextual flow and much proficient, were less definitive and polished than desired. While Witt's expressiveness in her time was over-the-top among her competitors, Witt's control ability appeared still desired.

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Though failed to earn grace from Peggy Fleming, Elaine Zayak was the top of the world in her own right. Her skating may lack of certain qualities needed to be an all-rounded skater to Fleming's eye but as shown above, Zayak's skating shows the very best quality possible in her time; Zayak's moves were more definitive and more accentuated than even Witt's. Except a fall in the program, Zayak looked too strong to beat here. But Peggy Fleming was very outspoken about Zayak's skating; she disapproved it, because Zayak's skating was not what Fleming had envisioned. Inevitably, facing the unassailable wave of jumpers, conventional skaters such as Rosalynn Sumners or Katarina Witt were favorably marked for elements other than jump. Even if the qualities of their non-jumping elements were not quite satisfactory, Witt was the Maginot Line for Peggy Fleming, who wanted to fend off jumpers and to preserve the ideal of the sport by highlighting classic traditions.

Katarina Witt was thus Fleming's choice. Although Fleming wasn't much delighted in Witt's quality, she didn't criticize Witt as much as Zayak. Fleming gave a nod to Witt's talent as a performer, and preferred to think more of Witt's potential to further grow. Witt's skating was characterized by her relentless push throughout the program. Though powerful, her skating was almost always too rough and much desired. Here, Katarina Witt ranked second in free skating, but in all appearances Witt couldn't have placed that high. Witt was vastly over-scored. I am not even convinced if Witt could be placed third or fourth. However, that wouldn't dampen Witt's greatness as a figure skater. Witt was perhaps one of the most competitive skaters of all time. With her two Olympic golds under belt, Witt left an immortal legacy behind her; it was Witt's competitive ability that made her one of the greatest skaters of all time and the very face of the 1980s.

In the 1983 worlds Rosalynn Sumners won the title beating Katarina Witt. Sumners was actually a skater characteristically opposite to Witt. Unlike Witt whose unpolished skating tends to toughen up, Sumners was stylistically elegant and competent yet would become easily nerved. Sumners could have written another chapter of U.S. ladies figure skating like her predecessors. But Sumners' psychological weakness became a nemesis in her career. Sumners let her victory slip through her nerve. That's how she lost in the 1984 Olympics, which became Witt's first Olympic victory. If you look at the 1983 U.S. National, you will realize why Peggy Fleming was so fond of Sumners over Zayak. Rosalynn Sumners, who here reminded people of Linda Fratianne, obvious in her music cut, here pulled off incredible performance in the above, except a fall. But Sumners popped triples in her Olympic gold hunt, and had to walk out without the crown reserved for her. What was remarkable about Katarina Witt was her self-assertion and confidence exuding out of her performance while her skating was slightly dented overall. Witt's advantage lies in her powerful management of triple jumps that would make other skaters look dwarfed so often. As Witt sailed away with jumps, she actually got away with her cheap junks under the sleeves of her charming sale tactics.

The 1980s was an era of power and speed. That's self-explanatory because, in order to land triple jumps, skaters needed to speed up to secure height and revolution. Katarina Witt was an unusual skater. Power and speed were Witt's advantages, but at the same time, Witt often looked clumsy and stiff. Witt was also competent in jump, but the overall quality seemed to lack of polishing. Witt was not like Elaine Zayak or Midori Ito although Witt was much capable of pulling off clean jumps. Witt's skating was mostly characterized by her power, stamina, tenacious handling of jumps. As a matter of fact, you can tell through Witt's skating that she left no room for anything sophisticated or nuanced. Witt's skating was a series of relentless push after push, salvaging all blunt lines and delicate innuendos into her self-generated language of assertion. To simply put it, Witt, considered as the most glamorous skaters of all time, wasn't Peggy Fleming. Although Witt's winning in the 1984 Olympics was never convincing, in a way Witt challenged Peggy Fleming by beating Rosalynn Sumners.

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    • Courtney Dundon profile image

      Courtney Dundon 2 years ago

      Good for HER