Canadas Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue
  • JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images
  • Canada’s Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue

When I was a kid in Canada I spotted a mention in the local paper of a high school basketball game with a twist: one of the coaches couldn’t make it, so both teams had to be coached by the same guy. The memory of reading this has stuck with me as anecdotal evidence of the casual way the Canadians approached every sport but hockey. Hockey was competitive; everything else was gym class.

(Or curling.)

The anecdote just got more complicated. I’ve been watching the Olympics, paying special attention to figure skating (and curling), in particular to the showdown for the ages between Canada’s reigning gold-medal ice dance team of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and America’s heirs apparent, Meryl Davis and Charlie White. Commentators proclaimed them the two best pairs ever to grace the event, and sure enough, when Davis and White edged out Virtue and Moir Monday, as expected, both teams received the highest scores ever awarded.

They train together near Detroit and share a coach, Marina Zoueva. NBC’s commentators have found this relationship endlessly remarkable, but a thousand remarks don’t add up to a single exploration of why the relationship exists and whether it can possibly do right by either pair, let alone both. Presumably, a shared coach can equally assist both pairs to reach the separate summits of their art; but can she be trusted by either pair to conceive a battle plan to defeat the other?

That’s not a question Virtue and Moir haven’t asked. After the medals were awarded, Moir told the Toronto Sun:

“We went to Marina on countless occasions and told her that we weren’t happy and in no way were we going to be happy with a silver medal [in Sochi]. We tried everything. It felt a little bit like we were in quicksand because [the American pair] were getting away from us. I think Marina listened to us and we kind of reshaped some of our program. But she’s an artist as well, so she wanted to stay true to her vision.

We were both pretty blunt with her in the fall—and even leading up to the Olympics—that we weren’t happy and we felt sometimes that she wasn’t in our corner. [But] she handled that tremendously well. She just, she’s been with us now for ten years and I really think that she loves us and she pours her heart into our choreography.

But as the Sun observed, Zoueva choreographed both teams’ programs, and “there were some suggestions that the American team’s programs were simply more appealing than the Canadian’s.” For instance, Phil Hersh wrote in Tuesday’s Chicago Tribune: “The intensity of the ‘Scheherazade’ sections [Zoueva] chose for Davis and White suited perfectly the power and athleticism that have come to define their skating. . . . Virtue and Moir’s free dance music was an unfortunate mash-up of Russian classical pieces cut and pasted into something that would have confounded even Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.”

I await reporting that digs deep into the strange ways of international figure skating, a realm in which there are, apparently, far more world-class skaters than world-class coaches. My own spirit of inquiry prompted me—the ice dance finals fresh in mind—to revisit the performance that made me stop thinking that ice dancing was really silly. This was Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean’s gold-winning skate to Bolero at the Sarajevo Olympics in 1984, the skate that under the old scoring system received perfect 6.0’s from every judge.

Watch it now. They’re as elegant as I remember, but their skating is slower and much less physical than the skating of the top pairs in Sochi. The lifts are simpler, and I see nothing that today’s ice dancers would call a twizzle. But then the twizzle didn’t become a requirement until the 1990s.

I’ve watched enough Olympics to conclude that the tension between grace and raw athleticism will never be resolved. Ice dancing has become more athletic, but artistry separated the winners from the also-rans at Sochi, and the event decided a couple of nights earlier, men’s singles, was embarrassing to watch, one contender after another winding up to dutifully attempt a jump he wouldn’t have dreamed of in 1984, letting fly, and landing on both feet or on his keister. Evan Lysacek won the gold in Vancouver in 2010 without even attempting a quad because he mastered every element he attempted and did them all gracefully. The women’s singles contest is the Olympics’ ultimate ice skating event because women are expected to put art first. Yet they also wind up, looking a little too much like discus throwers, and cut loose. The next big step forward in these events—I suspect and hope—is not to add yet more spins and distance to the jumps: it’s to perform them without reminding me of my grandpa cranking up his Victrola before he settled in with a Red Seal 78.

If art rules, then it’s reasonable for Virtue and Moir and Davis and White to share a coach. Art is ultimately noncompetitive. If athletic prowess, which isn’t, rules, then it might be a bad idea. The day after, Virtue and Moir aren’t so sure themselves.