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Monday, December 22, 2014

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Dick Button breaks the ice at Westport Library with candid views on skating world

Updated 1:15 pm, Monday, April 7, 2014

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  • Dick Button, Olympic ice-skating champion and Emmy Award-winning television commentator, spoke Sunday at the Westport Library. Photo: Nancy Guenther Chapman / Westport News
    Dick Button, Olympic ice-skating champion and Emmy Award-winning television commentator, spoke Sunday at the Westport Library. Photo: Nancy Guenther Chapman

 

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It was clear the button had been pushed when a renowned figure skater speaking Sunday in the Westport Library was asked about the new International Skating Union's scoring system.

Dick Button, the 1948 and 1952 Olympic men's skating champion, known to many in the audience as an Emmy Award-winning figure skating commentator on television, at first comically declined to give his opinion, pointing to first one ear and then the other as he said the question had been asked on his wrong side.

"If you read the book you will find my opinion," he said, referring to the reason he was in Westport -- to promote his book, "Push Dick's Button."

But opinions flowed in the talk, and Button quickly went off on a rant about cookie-cutter programming in skate competitions, judging secrecy and the reasons so many skaters fall these days. Stopping midway to ask with a laugh, "Am I getting carried away?" he calmed to finish with the comment, "If you've gathered that I don't like this, you're right."

Button said he didn't want to write a history of skating and also didn't want to write an autobiography, because, "I know what I did and it's boring to me, so why write it for someone else?"

"What I really liked, the idea was, `Come on in, sit on the damn couch -- it's a well-worn couch -- push off the dogs that are probably taking up three-quarters of it, sit down, grab some popcorn and some beer and we'll watch what's going to happen on television,' so that I can maybe fill you in on what I have learned over the years as to what it is that you are watching," he said. "That's the purpose of the book. That's why it's called `Push Dick's Button,' which I really loved doing because it can lead to all kinds of ridiculous comments."

Chris Cutie of Westport said she had already read it, and Button's talk was "exactly the way he wrote the book, just to sit down with a skating competition on, have him tell me what he thinks, tell him what I think," which was thrilling because she grew up listening to him talk about skating.

"He was the best. I like Johnny Weir, but the other ones, they don't come close to him," she said.

Others in the room agreed, laughing heartily at Button's random observations.

Button said he shocked people back in 1947 when he decided to go against the "very, very formal" norm and put on a white mess jacket while skating, instead of a black one, earning comments like, "What does he think he is? A waiter?"

That was an example of changing norms. One year later, when he decided a white jacket would not work well against the snowy backdrop of the outdoor stadium where he was competing, he donned the formerly traditional black jacket, only to stand out as the different one again.

"The ruckus about it clearly drops down very quickly," he said.

That was part of a recurring theme of the talk: rules. Rules committees exist to create rules, he said. If they don't make rules they have no reason for existing.

Such as the Katarina Witt rule. In 2000, the female half of an ice dancing couple "popped out" of her white dress, he said, comparing it to Janet Jackson at the 2004 Superbowl.

"It wasn't a single pop, it was a double pop," he said. "I tell you, the total concentration through the whole thing was, `How many times is she going to pop out?' Of course, none of the commentators said a word about it. I would have."

The rule makers set out to address this problem at about the same time Witt had a "Little bit too skimpy" of a costume.

"You don't make more rules about it," he said. "You let the judges make a decision."

The name dropping continued later with the tale of "Bolero" as performed by Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean in 1984.

"Understanding music is the most important thing," he said, asking the audience if they remembered Bolero and getting a resounding yes.

"Let me just finish this story because it's a good one," he said, as there was an attempt to rush him.

Torvil and Dean designed a beautiful dance by beginning while kneeling on the ice, he said. That meant the competitive part of the dance did not begin until Dean actually came to his feet and began skating.

The song was too long, Button said. But Dean "out-thought them," he said.

While that ice dance is famous, the ISU rules were promptly changed to make the "iconic" program illegal, he said.

So about those ISU rules, a prime part of the conversation of his book: Why do you see so many skaters falling? The rules favor that, he said.

"If you try a triple jump and you get around far enough and fall down, you get the points that equal out to almost a triple jump. So why not try it and hope like hell that you got around far enough even if you fell down? I mean, c'mon," he said.

You can't find out who voted for what, he said. That information is locked in a vault, he said.

"If you've gathered that I don't like this, you're right," he said. "It's written much more coherently in (the book)."

Button then signed books and other things -- like the skates Lori Andrews wore in the '70s as a competitive skater.

"To have his signature is really important," Anderson said, though she didn't know what she would do with the skates now signed by the man who was "very much the icon of figure skating" when they were new.

"I thought his talk was fabulous," she said. "I just feel like I could be his friend. I love the description of sitting on the couch and talking. That's what it felt like. He was so informally casual. He's very grounded and real not caught up in (the glamour) ... genuine."