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HELENE ELLIOTT

Skaters Brian Joubert and Patrick Chan spar verbally off the ice

After French skater's criticism of world champion's lack of quad jumps, Chan of Canada calls Joubert a sore loser. Joubert sticks to his guns.

March 25, 2009|HELENE ELLIOTT

It's starting to feel like the good old days, when the rivalry between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding became a sordid soap opera that launched figure skating into a golden era.

No knees have been clubbed in the battle between 2007 men's world champion Brian Joubert of France and up-and-coming Canadian Patrick Chan, but words as sharp as skate blades reignited the eternal debate between athleticism and artistry before the men's competition begins today at the World Figure Skating Championships.

"The gauntlet is thrown," Don Laws, Chan's courtly coach, said in typically elegant fashion.

"Nothing like a little testosterone to fire it up," Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist said with a theatrical growl in his voice. "It's good stuff."

The plot summary:

After Canada's Jeffrey Buttle unseated Joubert at last year's world championships, the Frenchman said he was disappointed Buttle didn't try a quad.

He overlooked Buttle's eight triple jumps, two combinations and single negative grade of execution among 168 marks for the 14 elements in his free skate. Buttle also got four maximum grades of Level 4 on his spins.

Joubert did a quad, but his triple-triple combination was downgraded for taking off on the wrong edge and he did a double-single combination junior skaters would disdain. Three of his spins were graded at Level 2 and his best was a Level 3.

Asked the other day by Chicago Tribune colleague Phil Hersh to comment on Joubert's recent assertion that not enough men are trying quads, Chan called Joubert a sore loser, graciously sticking up for a teammate.

Or, as one Canadian writer put it, "Going hockey on him?"

Heads were up and sticks were down Tuesday as Joubert professed to respect the now-retired Buttle and the skaters who will present their short programs today at Staples Center.

"So I am a bad guy? Sorry," Joubert said.

But he didn't back down.

"I was disappointed to see [a] world champion without a quad," he said. "Jeffrey Buttle is a very good skater. . . . For me figure skating is not the jump. It's everything. But I think it's more fun for the audience to see quad jumps, that's all."

Doing a quad comes down to risk vs. reward in a judging system that puts a premium on stamina-sapping footwork and stiffly penalizes faulty jumps.

The quadruple toe loop, the one most men try, is worth 9.8 points. A negative grade of execution can cost up to three points. A triple axel is worth 8.2 points. Done well, it can earn up to three bonus points.

Why risk falling on a quad when you're more likely to nail a clean triple axel?

"It's worse this season because if you do mistakes, you lose more points than last season," said Joubert, who did a quad-triple combination Tuesday on the Convention Center practice rink but might not do it today.

A quad, he said, "should be maybe 12 points. We have to see, we have to talk with the other skaters, but I think they will change after the Olympic Games."

Hamilton also wondered why the risk was raised for those willing to push their athletic limits.

"The scoring system has made it really punitive to miss the quad to the point where even if you've got it 90%, that 10% makes you maybe take it out of the program because it's now become a punitive system," Hamilton said.

That aspect, he said, "is one of the profound weaknesses of the system. You want to inspire your athletes to take this to the next level. At the same time if you're going to punish them for any mistake, if the risk is not worth it anymore, then you might be stifling the growth of it."

In other words, advancing the sport is a noble idea, but advancing yourself is your primary goal.

"Every one of these guys can do a quad. They have to," Hamilton said. "But whether they put it in the program or not, it comes down to strategy. It's like taking the Hail Mary pass out of football. It's like you want to be able to give somebody the opportunity to light it up, and the quad does that.

"You still need to have a great balance. Good spins, good footwork. But they're trying to shove everybody in the same pretty box."

Laws said Chan will do a quad next season while building up to the Vancouver Olympics but won't try one here because Buttle proved two clean programs can win a title.

Should a skater have to land a quad to win the world or Olympic title? "Only if he can do it," Laws said.

Without battles over quads, we'll have to settle for verbal dust-ups.

"I am not a sore loser," Joubert said. "I respect the other skaters, but I prefer when they beat me with quad jumps."

As Laws said, the gauntlet is down. "Every sport needs a rivalry," Hamilton said.

This one more than others.

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helene.elliott@latimes.com

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Schedule

WORLD FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS

At Staples Center:

TODAY

* Men's short program. First half, 9 a.m.-12:55 p.m.; second, 1:30-5:20 p.m.

* Pairs free skate, 7-11 p.m.

THURSDAY

* Ice dance, original dance, 12:30-4:50 p.m.

* Men's free skate, 5:35-9:45 p.m.

FRIDAY

* Women's short program. First half, 8:45 a.m.-12:50 p.m.; second, 1:20-5:30 p.m.

* Ice dance, free dance, 6:30-11 p.m.

SATURDAY

* Women's free skate, 4-8 p.m.

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