Book Review: Roller Skating for Gold

Recently, I was wasting time on Amazon (well, I was looking for something, but the stupid incredibly helpful Amazon search engine found lots of other things for me to spend money on), and I found a wonderful book on roller skating that I didn’t even know existed – Roller Skating for Gold by David H. Lewis:

Amazon is currently selling this book new for about $60 (eek), but I was able to get a used copy for less than $8, including shipping.  It seems like many libraries are discarding this book, as many of the used copies note that they were former library editions.  Eventually it might be nice to have a copy of this book in “new” condition, but for less than $10 I couldn’t pass this book up.

This book is a wonderful analysis about why none of the various aspects of roller skating have been included in the Olympic Games.  The writing itself is quite good, and the details are very interesting.  In essence, it really is a history of roller skating, but the slant of viewing that history with the goal of Olympic glory make it a bit more compelling than many of the other general histories I have read.  While the history does seem a bit focused on artistic, the book does touch on artistic, speed, hockey, and derby, not to mention comparisons and information about the divergent paths of roller and ice.  There is also discussion about more modern forms of skating – street skating, rexxing, etc.  The book was published in 1997, so there is a chapter dedicated to speculation over how the “new” in-line skating craze will affect the sport (those of us still here know the outcome – inline skates have been widely adopted by speed, there are now inline and regular roller hockey leagues, and one event for inline freeskating at the artistic world championships).

The book follows the rise of the various organizations leading the sport, and the arguments between them.  It discusses conflicts between skating organizations and the IOC, promises that were not kept, and betrayals that were endured.  While the writing style prevents all of this from being overly-dramatic, were I a writer I would have several potential screen-plays dancing about in the back of my brain.  The author cites letters passed between the organizations, and quotes from skating’s leaders to lend credence to his account.

While relaying the events and telling the tale of skating’s quest for Olympic glory, the author offers his own critiques and criticisms over what the leaders of the sport should have done to help their chances.  Among his complaints are that in all their petitioning to the IOC, the skating experts have portrayed roller skating as being exactly like ice – which it is not.  The forces of friction act differently on a thin blade cutting through ice than they do on four wheel attempting to spin and turn on plastic coated wood, and this allows roller skaters to do some things differently (and dare I agree with the author?) better than ice skaters.  You don’t see 9-jump combinations on ice (well, you don’t see them much in roller anymore either, but my goodness they were brillant) and ice skaters can’t perform the amazing heel camels or broken ankle spins that take advantage of the quad skate’s unique design.  The author notes that the capability of running speed races on outdoor courses could be of interest to the same viewers who enjoy watching televised marathons or bike races, whereas the capabilities of the television to do close-up shots could actually render figures interesting (well, maybe not, but for some reason I think they could appeal to the golf crowd).  Not to mention that we don’t have to re-surface the skating floor after every 12 contestants, though we often sweep before a pairs event for safety reasons.  Another area of difference is the major players in the sport – in ice traditionally contestants from the US, Canada, and Russia dominated, with skaters from Japan and China more recently emerging as front runners.  In roller skating, the Italians dominate artistically, with other great skaters coming from Argentina, Brazil, Australia, Germany, and the US, though there have been brilliant skaters from many other countries as well.  With roller skating trying to present itself as being close to ice, not having the expected rivalries made the sport feel like a let-down to the casual observer.  In addition, the author criticizes the scheduling decisions at major events, where the organizers often held the best skaters and events for the end of the evening.  When you are an established sport like ice skating, you can put the stars at the end to force people to stay.  For a relatively unknown sport like roller skating, if you put a splatfest as the first event of the night, no one in the media is going to stick around to watch the artistic and technical brilliance yet to come.  The author laments that many of the most stunning performances of all time (whose technical and artistic merits rival the great performances on ice) were most often held after midnight to a nearly empty arena, with little more than a few personal hand-held recording devices saving the moment for posterity.

And, while there is a general sadness over the continually failing struggle for Olympic inclusion, part of me has to wonder if it is perhaps better for the sport that it has not been in the Olympic spotlight?  The author notes how changes to ice and gymnastics (which have been even more drastic since the book’s publication) have forever changed those sports, and perhaps not for the better.  Roller skaters still perform compulsory figures and dances at all levels, whereas these portions have been essentially removed from the highest levels of ice.  The author discusses how the greatest innovations for the sport were not made when roller skaters were seeking to emulate ice and impress the IOC, but instead happend during the 1940s, when the Olympics weren’t an option for anyone in any sport.  The leaders and innovators at the time were making changes and improvements simply for the sake of making skating more interesting, entertaining, and elegant.  Looking through videos of the past, I have to agree with the author – that the continual push to emulate the ice events have led to the loss of events like Fours (two pairs teams skating together), which were some of the most exciting roller skating events, while including things like original set patterns (now original dance), which seemed like little more than filler in the program.  Now that ice has gone to the short dance format, it will be interesting to see what the roller skating community decides to do.  Personally, I favor dropping the original dance and having more emphasis on the two compulsory dances.  The compulsory dance events draw far more viewers at the regional and national meets than do any of the free skating events, so it would be crazy to change that aspect of the event, but even still I have fears that it will happen.

Despite his criticisms and complaints, you can feel the author’s love for the sport on every page.  You can tell that he is as frustrated with the situation as many of the sports leaders, though I appreciate that his critiques were honest and thoughtful, and that this book was well researched and not just a rant or rambling propaganda.  Personally, I found it a bit of a shock that I knew so many of the people who provided quotes or information for the book.  And by “knew” I mean have talked to or interacted with or see on a semi-regular basis.  But it was interesting to see their opinions written down, and compare it with what I know of them from my personal experiences.

Overall this was a marvelous book.  Thought provoking, informative, and interesting.  For anyone who has roller skated in a competitive format, it is an absolute must-read.  I think that ice skaters could find this book informative and interesting as well, as it does have some discussion about the early days of their own sport.  However, whether a skating fan or not, I think this book could be of great interest to the general reader – especially one interested in sports or Olympic history.  If you can manage to find a copy, this book comes highly recommended.

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