For the first time in Olympic history, single and pairs figure skaters have been freed from their tinkly piano music prisons, and are now allowed to perform to music with lyrics. It took only one steamy performance this past Sunday evening to underline just how significant this rule change was to the sport. When Canadian champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir skated a sultry number to “El Tango de Roxanne” and “Come What May,” two essential highlights from the Moulin Rouge! soundtrack, the message was clear: This was a performance about sexual chemistry. Judging from the internet’s immediate instinct to ship the platonic pair, it was an extremely well-executed plan.
Despite the fact this rule change has opened the door for more spirited—and in the aforementioned case, hornier—creative expression, there’s a shocking amount of overlap among figure skaters’ music choices at Pyeongchang 2018. In addition to Virtue and Moir’s Moulin Rouge! combo platter, Yahoo Entertainment reports that four other skating programs will be set to music from Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 musical. On top of that, there are other confounding patterns: three pieces set to Luis Fonsi’s ultra-popular earworm “Despacito,” three set to Barbra Streisand’s rendition of “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” from the 1983 musical Yentl, and three set to the soundtrack of the little-known 2013 remake of Romeo and Juliet.
For the average armchair observer, it’s natural to pity any skater who dares follow Virtue and Moir’s performance with the same Moulin Rouge! soundtrack. (After all, it would be virtually impossible to top whatever polite-but-hot Canadian-grade sexual tension they’ve developed.) But it turns out that choosing the same music as your elite competitors can also hurt a figure skater’s score with Olympic judges. Rosanna Tovi, a coach and former figure skater who was a member of the U.S. international figure skating team and world professional team in the 1980s and 1990s, compares soundtrack overlap to when stars show up to an awards show wearing the same dress. “There’s that instant comparison of who looks better,” she said. “Let’s say it’s an ice dance team and three couples had the same music. If there’s a very high-quality team against a team that’s of a lower level, it’s really going to enhance the difference there because you’re seeing the same music. You’re seeing it one time skated really great and maybe one time skated really not so great.”
One of the most infamous examples of this phenomenon was the 1988 Calgary Games’ “Battle of the Carmens.” East German Katarina Witt and American Debi Thomas—who were largely seen as the main competitors for the Olympic gold that year—both independently picked Georges Bizet’s opera, Carmen, as the soundtrack for their long programs. (For what it’s worth, Carmen is an enduring figure skating staple that will show up in four separate performances at Pyeongchang.) “It was two distinctly different Carmens,” Tovi said. “Carmen is all about that sassy character who was fiery and sexy. It really ended up hurting Debi because Katarina was just so feminine and sassy, against Debi who was a little more athletic.” In the end, Witt was awarded the gold medal, and Thomas earned the bronze.
Given Olympic figure skating’s cursed history in this department, an obvious question arises: Why don’t less experienced figure skaters simply change their music once they discover they’ve accidentally doubled up? The short answer is that it’s usually too late. Most Olympians iron out the details of their routine with their coaches and choreographers during a season of competition that precedes the games, so that most everything is decided by the summer prior. It’s not until their first competition that they see which skaters have picked the same songs. “At that point you’ve already trained the routine, you’ve already got your costume, so much work and time, money, energy, has already been put into this,” Tovi said. “It just takes so much time to get that program ready to be seen at competition, and to be able to land your jumps at the right time during the music, to be comfortable with the music, to be comfortable expressing to the music. Once that’s done you really don’t have time to change it.”
There’s also the larger question of how so many skaters made the individual decision of selecting scores from dated or obscure movie musicals. Though some of Pyeongchang’s more creative figure skating contestants have purposefully experimented with nontraditional music—prior to the Olympics, the U.S. team’s Adam Rippon recorded and performed to his own rendition of Rihanna’s “Diamonds”—most others are careful to choose more conservative pieces, as a strategy of pleasing the judges. Just as Tonya Harding was frequently marked down for selecting unconventional scores like her 1991 medley of the Batman theme, “Send in the Clowns,” and “Wild Thing,” Olympians who choose more daring popular music run the risk of being penalized.
“We have these judges that have been around for a very, very long time from when skating’s very conservative,” Tovi said. “They love their classical music. Basically if you’re competing, you’re probably going to get a better score from a judge if you’ve got a very classic, conservative piece of music than if you go too wild. That’s been the history of judging in figure skating.”
The end result means that contestants must find a happy middle ground: a tune that’s both popular enough to energize the audience and structured enough to humor the judges. In 2018, that combination apparently translates to nostalgic pop songs theatrically covered by Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman. At the rate we’re going, it’ll be only eight more years until the Olympic judges will be ready for Hamilton: On Ice.