Ice Network

Button unfiltered: Voice of figure skating sounds off

Two-time Olympic champion still has a lot to say on state of the sport
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Once you get Duck Button started on a topic, it's hard to get him to stop, as Brian Boitano found out at the Skating Club of Boston's "Skater's Ball." -Sarah S. Brannen

He cultivates gardens at his North Salem, N.Y., farm to resemble compulsory figures, gifting bushes and flower patches with names like "Brian Boitano" and "Peggy Fleming." When in Manhattan, he sits in on Metropolitan Museum of Art curator talks on early American furniture. He's a longtime supporter of projects devoted to restoring the Hudson River.

But mostly, as any figure skating fan knows, two-time Olympic champion (1948 and 1952) Richard "Dick" Button is a first-rate conversationalist.

"He is brilliant, and he's usually miles ahead of everybody else in thoughts," said Jirina Ribbens, a longtime friend and business associate. "You have to keep up because he's already on to the next thing."

Ribbens was Button's right-hand person at Candid Productions for 14 years, producing Candid's annual World Professional Figure Skating Championships ("Landover") and many other events. She still loves every minute she spends with Button but admits that new acquaintances can get whiplash.

"He has a quirky sense of humor, and some people can be taken aback," Ribbens said. "You have to have the confidence to give it right back to him."

She pauses.

"He's a special person."

Fans can gain the benefit of Button's conversation in safety with his book, Push Dick's Button, an easy-going mix of personal history, skating anecdotes and comments on the current scene. Reading the book is like sitting on your couch, glued to the U.S. championships or Olympics, waiting for Button's next historical reference (Romanian sculptor Demetre Chipăruş, anyone?) or peppery bon mot.

"You know that saying, from Alice [Roosevelt] Longworth: 'If you haven't got anything nice to say, come sit by me,'" Button said during a break at the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston earlier this month. "Well, it's not that I don't have good things to say. But there is a lot to say.'"

Icenetwork: You've been encouraged to write your memoirs, but this book is a bit different.

Button: I had a magnificent contract to write a book about 10 or 15 years ago, and it came with a lot of money and really very inclusive kind of quality. At that same time, I had gone skating one New Year's Eve (in 2000), feeling good, and I tried something I knew how to do, but my body didn't do fast enough. I had a fracture, concussion, was three months in rehabilitation and a year getting over it. That kept me from writing a book that was inclusive, like The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire of Skating, or a full biography. There was so much time for the brain had to settle, and I didn't do [the book]. (Button became national spokesperson for the Brain Injury Association of America.)

And a friend of mine said, "I would just like to come and sit with you on a couch and have you tell me what's going on." And I had plenty to say, and it was easy for me to sit down and write it because it was like me conversing with you.

Icenetwork: In your years of commentating for ABC, you were famous for pointing things out things that irritated you, like a poor position in a layback spin. Is there a lot of that?

Button: I do let a lot of that out. The chapters in the book are all different subjects. One of them is called "Entrances and Exits" -- what do skaters do when they enter the ice? Irina Slutskaya, for example, the first thing she does is blow her nose. And that's showing it to 18,000 people [in attendance] and how many million people off stage? Katarina Witt, on the other hand, enters like the reigning queen, knowing full well not only is every man looking at her but every woman is looking, too. When she takes off to start, it is with flair and drama. She's not looking for a four-leaf clover on the ice.

It's all kinds of different things that are irritating and fun to me and interesting to me and unusual to me.

Icenetwork: What is your biggest irritant today?

Button: The judging system rewards failure. We see so many falls, left and right; everybody is falling. Do you know why? If you do a quad jump, you get [base] marks of 12 or 12.5 points. If you fall on it, the judges take off three points, and they take off another point for a fall, and then give you eight points or something, which is the base value of a triple jump! So what that means is this judging system is rewarding that failure.

If the jump was simply not counted and you lost all the [credit], like under the old (6.0) system, people would be a lot more hesitant to try a jump they knew they were going to fall on. I think this is a very serious issue.

Plus, what really happens at competitions is shut up in a vault in Lausanne (ISU headquarters in Switzerland), and the audience will never know which judge did what. It is a secretive sport now, and that is a negative quality.

Icenetwork: At the ISU conference this June, U.S. Figure Skating will propose the ISU end anonymous judging at its championships.  

Button: God bless them, I don't think they're going to get anywhere with that. We should fire the ISU; we should fire the president of the ISU (Ottavio Cinquanta). This is a federation which controls two sports, give me a break. How can there be a figure skating judging system [designed] by a speed skater who has said endlessly, "I know nothing about figure skating."?

Icenetwork: Watching the skaters in Boston, what was a big positive?

Button: Well, you've given me very broad ground there. It's hard to answer. Let me say that Meryl Davis and Charlie White are absolutely the supreme quality of what we are looking at. I was watching them today, and their technical merit of skating is simply exquisite. The way they float over the ice, the way they move, the constancy, the comfort they have, is simply mind-blowing.

However, they also have to create a program that has to answer to a lot of rules. It's very difficult to create a great program when you have so many restrictions placed upon you before you even start. I frankly would like to see what [Jayne] Torvill and [Christopher] Dean would have done with the rules as they exist today.