This article is part of our Beijing Olympics series.
“The quad will come.”
That’s what choreographer and then-NBC figure skating analyst Sandra Bezic said as Jason Brown stepped off the ice at the 2014 U.S. national championships in Boston. The young figure skater had just brought down the house with his long program set to music from “Riverdance,” and this performance, which helped earn him a spot on the 2014 U.S. Olympic team, went viral, turning the 19-year-old with a ponytail into a fan favorite.
A lot has happened in the nearly eight years since Brown’s breakout performance at Boston’s TD Garden. He cut off his ponytail, for one. He’s been to the world championships four times, placing as high as fourth. He won the 2015 U.S. national title. And this week, he’s competing in the Olympics for the second time in his career. But the quad that Bezic predicted would come? It hasn’t.
To be sure, Brown has landed quads in practice. In November, he even landed one in competition that was certified as fully rotated. Points for persistence — falls on that jump are not what you’d call gentle — but his hit-to-miss ratio on competition quads is lopsided in favor of falling or under-rotating. Brown may hit a quad in Beijing, and I sincerely hope he does — not because I need him to do one, but because I’d love to see his decadelong effort rewarded. Brown seems to want to do the jump well, and consistently well. As a longtime fan, I want for him what he wants for himself.
But quads aren’t what fans want from Brown. Perhaps they’d like him to clear that particular hurdle so he has a chance to get on the podium at the Olympics or in the world championships, but they don’t think less of his skating for its lack of quads. The absence of quads in his programs and his resultant placements is testament not to what Brown is missing but to what most of the other skaters don’t seem to possess — or don’t possess to the same degree: exquisite musicality, deep engagement with the audience and a mastery over his blade. That Brown continues to rank in the top 10 internationally also serves as a reminder of all the ways most of his competitors are lacking in some regard. Without Brown around, fans — especially the younger ones or those without memories like an elephant — would probably not realize anything was missing from the other programs.
Maame Biney rediscovered Olympic dream after leaving abusive coach | FiveThirtyEight
But that appreciation alone won’t change Brown’s circumstances: The quad, and lots of them, is nonnegotiable at this point in men’s figure skating. Brown’s failure to land a quad nearly cost him a spot on the 2022 Olympic team. He placed fourth at nationals after falling on his one quad attempt, a salchow, but he was still awarded the third and final U.S. Olympic spot, somewhat controversially. He was taken ahead of the nationals’ second-place finisher, 17-year-old Ilia Malinin, who goes by “quadg0d” on Instagram — which is not at all blasphemous because his quads are really that good. (Is there only one “quad god” or several? Or is it a holy trinity kind of situation? Help me, I’m Jewish.) The selection criteria, which took into account the past two years of competition, made choosing Brown for the berth not only possible but likely, though a strong argument could have been made in Malinin’s favor. The teenager from Virginia is clearly the future of American skating and a mega-talent that should be cultivated and encouraged, which means being given competitive opportunities. Get this kid’s feet wet in major competition, get him in front of judges, have him be ready to take over from Nathan Chen when the three-time world champion chooses to retire. Had U.S. Figure Skating gone this route, it would’ve been a defensible decision.
My purpose here, however, is not to relitigate the selection of Brown over Malinin; it’s fairly obvious the decision suits the sentimental part of me. This is the place from which I watch Brown perform, and it’s the place from which I write this piece.
“Why do some athletes draw this sort of response, this bodily love that is sometimes out of proportion to their actual world standing,” Patricia Lockwood wrote about Brown in 2018. That year, he was just an alternate for the Olympic team after a lackluster long program at nationals.
I’m sure there’s an element of rooting for the underdog at play, and without quads, Brown certainly is that in the world of men’s figure skating. Several of the top skaters would have to make major errors before Brown would have a realistic shot at the podium. But there’s more to it than that. Usually underdogs have a scrappy quality, a rough-around-the-edges aesthetic, but Brown doesn’t project that kind of image. He leans into his edges as he glides across the ice. He holds his shoulders down, keeps his chin up, elongating his neck. Brown cuts far too beautiful a figure on the ice to ever be truly scrappy.
“Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty,” David Foster Wallace wrote for The New York Times in 2006 about the experience of watching Roger Federer play tennis.
But beauty and grace, regardless of how present and plentiful, are not often invoked in connection to men’s sports. “Men may profess their ‘love’ of sports,” Wallace wrote, “but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive statistics, technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalist fervor, uniforms, mass noise, banners, chest-thumping, face-painting, etc.” Wallace, a former tennis player himself, could certainly get technical in his dissection of Federer’s game when the Swiss legend was in his prime, but he seemed to prefer the metaphysical to explain what had happened on the court. For Wallace, this was a more satisfactory way of thinking about Federer’s game and his uncanny abilities.
While men’s figure skating certainly doesn’t shy away from beauty and the discussions thereof, there is also a strong desire to defend the sport’s place in the pantheon of athletics, even though men’s and women’s figure skating were among the very first “winter” sports brought into the Olympics in 1908, before the Winter Games themselves even existed. (Every four years, it seems there’s an ill-intentioned take that questions skating’s bona fides as a sport, usually on aesthetic grounds. How can it be a sport if the athletes wear costumes?) One of the ways skating’s athletic credentials are established is by parsing the discipline along technical lines, with discussions of required elements, scoring records, grade of executions and, say, how many quads one might attempt in a program. This way of analyzing skating is certainly important and useful. It helps distinguish different skaters and rank them, and sorting people into winners and losers is one of the main purposes of competition. It also has the unfortunate effect of reducing a performance to the sum of its parts.
In discussing what he felt was wrong with the current scoring system, which was implemented after the judging scandal at the 2002 Olympics, two-time world champion and 1968 Olympic silver medalist Tim Wood told the Skate Guard blog: “You know in high school when you dissected a frog in biology class? At the end of the dissection, it’s not a frog anymore, now is it? When you award more points for grabbing your skate and putting it behind your head than doing a spin well, you’ve completely missed the point of what figure skating is about.”
For many fans, Brown is what men’s figure skating is about — the edge quality, the glide, the musicality, the beauty — and the current system doesn’t have a way to reward him for what he does so well out on the ice. His whole is greater than the sum of the parts, but the current scoring system is a “sum of its parts” kind of project. There’s a lot of truth to that, but it also ignores the way in which the International Judging System has allowed him to remain competitive and in the top 10 in the world over the past eight years, even without a quad, by milking as many points as possible out of the program components score, which is the updated way of saying “artistic impression.” Brown has received many, many perfect marks in the components category. It’s just that these stellar scores aren’t enough to overcome the quad-point deficit.
Brown is hardly the first skater to be held back by a technical limitation. In the 1970s, skaters like Toller Cranston saw their title hopes dashed by weak performances in the school figures, though they were arguably the best free skaters of their time. (The figures were eliminated in 1990.) Cranston, like Brown, was known for his extraordinary artistry and performance quality; along with John Curry, the 1976 Olympic champion, Cranston helped revolutionize men’s figure skating into something far more expressive than what it had been during the post-war period. Brown seems a fitting heir to Cranston’s artistic legacy. In an interview with Russian media, Brown spoke of trying to push the boundaries artistically. “I’m focused on developing this part of our sport,” he said.
His “Sinnerman” short program is proof of this mission and its success. Since he debuted it nearly two years ago for the 2020-21 season, the program has been widely regarded as an instant classic by figure skating fans. Set to Nina Simone’s rendition of the song, it is a step up creatively from anything that Brown has ever done before in his long senior career, which is saying something since Brown has more than a couple of hits along the way.
Drawing from the choreography and Horton technique in the “Sinnerman” portion of Alvin Ailey’s masterpiece “Revelations,” the ambition of this piece is undeniable. Most figure skating programs typically aspire to an idea of “beauty” or being “crowd-pleasing,” which are certainly great things for a skater and choreographer to aspire to. The “Sinnerman” program is certainly both of those things, but there is more there than pleasure for both performer and spectator. There is a strong artistic point of view behind the music choice and the choreography.
Rohene Ward, Brown’s longtime choreographer, explained that nearly two years ago, the skater came to Chicago from his training base in Toronto, where he currently works with two-time Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser and Olympic bronze medalist Tracy Wilson, to get new programs. This was around the time we saw nationwide protests against racism and police violence in response to George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police. “Jason and I had never really spent a ton of time talking about social things just because we were always working on the ice,” said Ward, the first Black choreographer to be named “Choreographer of the Year” by the Professional Skaters Association. (He has received this honor twice.) But around choreography sessions in 2020, Ward and Brown, who is Jewish and white, finally had the conversation that many in the country were having at the time. “We really got to talk about his feelings and … creatively where we were in space and time,” Ward said
“Our body language was different, and the story we wanted to tell from this was very different from where we came from in the past,” he continued. “It was really to show strength and to show power and to show unity.”
“Some people would question why is he [Brown] getting ‘Sinnerman,’ and is it appropriate for him to skate to [it],” Ward asked before answering the question himself: “Absolutely, it’s appropriate for him to skate to, and he should be skating to this.”
For Ward, Brown was the only skater who could pull this off — perhaps aside from the choreographer himself, who was an incredible performer during his competitive career. “I knew that Jason was really the only person that I could put this on,” Ward said — the only skater currently competing who could take Ailey’s technique to a steel blade and a sheet of ice. The way it manifests in Brown’s program is in the arms, held at 90-degree angles during turns; leaning on his edge, his leg stretched to the side with his arms straight and by his ears; when he jumps into a nearly stag position before dropping to the ice on one knee.
As with many of Brown’s most beloved programs, the idea for the “Sinnerman” short program came to Ward in a vision. “I saw his final pose, I saw everybody standing, and I was just like, ‘This is what you’re going to skate to at the Olympics,’” he recalled. Ward described a similarly religious experience with choreographing Brown’s breakout “Riverdance” program. “I was such a believer in it,” Ward said. And then with the zeal of a convert, he set out to make believers of Brown and his coach at the time, Kori Ade, too. “I made him a believer, and then he made everybody else a believer.” Brown’s long program at the 2014 national championships, which helped him place second and make the Olympic team, was a mass conversion event. The program started slow and soft but built in intensity and speed, simply never letting up. By the time the four-and-a-half-minute program was over, Brown was skating at a sprint and the arena was in raptures. People jumped to their feet before he even finished his final scratch spin. The video of that program soon went viral, turning people who hadn’t been in TD Garden or watching on TV at home into believers, too.
Since that debut, Brown (along with Ward) has continued to proselytize to the skating masses, though subsequent programs weren’t as splashy as the one that put him on the map. Ward said it was a deliberate choice to not retread the “Riverdance” terrain. “We’re just going to keep growing and expanding and becoming more iconic,” Ward said of the development of Brown’s style on the ice since his early days in the senior ranks.
“We were never going to get stuck in a genre. We were always going to try something new and push the boundaries and test the waters,” he continued. “He [always] came to me with an open mind, open body, open spirit.” Ward said there were only a couple of times when he and Brown disagreed over the music selection and direction of a program. One of those times came during the 2016-17 skating season. Ward chose a very simple piano piece called “The Scent of Love” for Brown’s long program. Brown was worried that it was too slow compared with his previous programs and that spectators would get bored, but Ward thought it was the right time to pull back and strip down, letting Brown’s superb skating speak for itself. There were none of the bells and whistles of “Riverdance.” Brown’s performance was simple and poignant. His head, how he held it, where he gazed, did much of the expressive work of this piece. As he stepped off the ice after the piece at Skate America, cameras focused on one woman, who appeared to be working at the event, moved to tears by the performance. “It was so beautiful,” she told Brown, who gave her a hug before joining his coach in the “kiss and cry.”
This is hardly an unusual reaction to Brown’s skating, but athletic dimensions of artistry are often forgotten when speaking about the American skater and his performance. “The pace and the cadence to keep up [with the music] the entire time, to keep that energy, that hustle … this man is running, and to keep that up for two minutes and fifty seconds at this pace is very, very difficult for him, let alone anybody. But he does it. Because of how he trains, he makes it look effortless,” Ward said, referring this time to Brown’s “Sinnerman” program. “They want to talk about how pretty he is, but they don’t want to talk about how powerful he is, regardless if he does quads or not.” Ward thinks most of the other top skaters would be hard-pressed to pull off the intricacies that Brown can with seeming ease. “These boys, they couldn’t do it if they tried.”
And it’s hard to fathom Brown, even if he had mastered the quad salchow, being able to skate a program as taxing and as complex as “Sinnerman” with that jump. His transitions from choreography to jump then back to skating seem virtually impossible with a quad in the mix. (Or perhaps I’m underestimating his cardiovascular fitness.)
“As I work so hard to build my technical content, I’m not willing to lose that amazing performance quality that I, you know, instantly fell in love with,” Brown said in a recent International Skating Union video. “Technical content” is undoubtedly a euphemism for quad jumps. Brown’s comments are a clear articulation of priorities. Yes, he’d like to be able to add a quad to his programs, but not at the expense of artistry. If he can’t have it all, he’ll keep doing what he’s always done — moving spectators with creative, beautifully expressed programs. And honestly, that’s more than enough.