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Figure Skating Gets Ugly

There's something very bad going on in figure skating.

Not the new judging system — no one understands that well enough to know if it's good or bad. Not the abundance of techno-pop music. Not even the exit of Michelle Kwan.

No, it's much, much worse. It's Halloween on Ice.

Some of the skaters have been wearing enough Day-Glo to light up a small village. Tattered numbers that look like ragbag rejects. More fringe, sequins and sparkles than even a circus act would find acceptable. And colors so wild they're not even in Crayola's 64-pack.

"What I find pretty much unwatchable is all the (stuff) that's on the costumes," said Jef Billings, a longtime designer who has dressed Peggy Fleming, Michelle Kwan and Sarah Hughes, as well as Canadian Jeff Buttle, the men's bronze medalist.

"You need to wear the costume; the costume shouldn't wear you," said Billings, also director and costume designer for the Smucker's Stars on Ice show. "If the costume is overwhelming, either visually or physically, that's what you're looking at. I think that's the problem with some of the extreme costumes that are out there."

Extreme is the most polite way to describe some of the duds on the ice. For every elegant costume worn by skaters like Sasha Cohen or Buttle, there are several that are so tacky that even Britney Spears wouldn't touch them.

In the pairs free skate, Tatiana Volosozhar wore an aqua-blue dress with filmy, lighter-colored wisps coming off it while her partner, Stanislav Morozov, was dressed in brown. Maybe they were trying to portray their "Conquest of Paradise" program with him as the ship and her as the sea.

Sweden's Kristoffer Berntsson's free skate costume made him look like a purple mummy — if mummies did velvet. Kevin Van Der Perren of Belgium wore a red, black and silver number with more sparkles than a Vegas showgirl. And what about Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" made silver medalist Stephane Lambiel think zebra print?

Then there's three-time American champ Johnny Weir. For the short program to Camille Saint-Saens' "The Swan," he was dressed as the bird itself. The bottom of his costume was black with cutouts that looked like feathers. The silver-and-white top appeared to be covered in feathers, and a red glove on his right hand — he's dubbed it Camille — made his arm look like a swan when he raised it.

It was, uh, interesting. And it could have been worse. The designer's idea was to have molting blue feathers running down the left arm, on top of the fishnet.

"I thought that was a little much," Weir said.

You think?

"I do find some of the costumes sometimes are over the top," said Dick Button, the men's gold medalist in 1948 and 1952 who is doing commentary for NBC in Turin. "You almost feel you've been trapped in a windmill in the Metropolitan Opera House costume department."

So what gives? If figure skating is supposed to be a sport of grace and beauty, what's with all the ugly outfits? And in Italy, home of designer houses like Versace, Armani and Gucci, no less.

"We all have a different idea about what our programs are or the moods we're trying to set," said Jamie Sale, a pairs gold medalist in 2002 who is doing TV work in Turin. "It's your own interpretations of what you're trying to portray."

Figure skating, as we all know from the sport/not a sport debate, is a blend of athleticism and art. You have to have the tough jumps, spins, speed.

The problem is, there are few requirements for figure skating costumes. Certain body parts must be covered, and men have to wear trousers. There are even penalties for fashion violations — though whoever's in charge of that appears to be sleeping on the job.

"I asked skaters, `Why does the costume always have all this stuff?"' Billings said. "They said, 'Because it makes it look like we're skating faster.' My comment was, `Why don't you just skate faster? Is it really about an optical illusion? Or is it really about ability?"'

Billings' solution: Turn loose those snarky commentators from the Oscars, Golden Globes and Grammys on figure skating — and watch the ugly outfits disappear.

"They think they're in their own little insulated world," Billings said. "The minute it starts to affect the results, it will change. ... But, as I always have said, the ugliest costume in the world can end up at the top of the podium, and the prettiest costume can go home last."

By Nancy Armour