Mika Saarelainen: "Synchronized skating is ready for the Olympics!"


Team Sunrise 1 (Credits: Mihail Lefler - 2019)

He is a must in the figure skating world. He will even go to Beijing for the Olympic Games in a few days. The famous international judge Mika Saarelainen confides about synchro, a discipline he really appreciates.

Discover the first part of the interview here
Mika Saarelainen talks about his career and his link with sport
During a competition, what happens during the "Round Table Discussion"?

Mika Saarelainen: There are two mandatory judges gathering in the competition: the first one is before the competition. In it, the Referee goes through the rules and emphasizes what we are doing. After the competition, there will be this Round Table Discussion. In it, we go through the competition, how it went, whether there are some big anomalies, whether there’s something to look out for, if there’s something someone hasn’t noticed. It is intended as a training event and it provides an opportunity for practical interpretation of the rules.

In Round Table Discussion we can have a conversation about the competition, as the rules forbid judges to discuss e.g. after a short program. Even then, we don’t talk about team differences or characteristics but about evaluating difficult elements, for example. One feature of a good judge also is that you have to be really quick to decide. In one competition a judge can make thousands of individual decisions and it requires good concentration. The detailed reversal of these numerous quick decisions in retrospect – for example in Round Table Discussion - is both impossible and fruitless. 

It is often said that it is not worth comparing the scores of different competitions. How would you respond? Do judgments differ from country to country?

We can never make the competitions absolutely comparable, but in principle, the scores of different competitions can be compared, because the same rules are applied and all judges in every country are basically trained in the same way.

Judging is an interpretation of the rules and that is what we do. The rules are really detailed and performance, for example, contains many parts, one judge can look at and emphasize one detail a little more than another.

The rules cannot be completely black and white, meaning that we cannot say that judging is totally not a matter of opinion, but neither can it be done on the like-I-dislike axis. I would also be really worried if we all agreed all the time! The judge cannot favour any team, if it were to be tried, it would quickly get caught and it would end the career. Performances can evoke emotions, but points are awarded based on rules.

Skyliners Seniors (Credits: Navaz Sumar - 2019)

What do you think about the music used in Synchronized skating? What is a good choice of music specifically for synchro?

All music is possible. First, the music has to be appropriate for the level of the team: no Rachmaninov piano concerto for 7-year-olds, no childish music for adult women, no overly adult music for little skaters.

The technical level must also be considered: not too difficult music if the skills of the team have not yet developed. It’s also not really worth choosing the same music that some top team has skated in the previous season, a comparison can’t be avoided. You should also follow the laws of music, music is math, you should not break phrases or cut music from the wrong places unless you know why you are doing so. Like choreography, the dramaturgy of music needs to be built properly, if you can't, get someone who can. Sung music: lyrics need to be able to illustrate, you have to know what is being sung and why.

If you want to use very frequently used music, it's a good idea to download a different version than the usual one, as there are numerous versions of all the popular songs. Here, too, I try to help teams to be themselves, not imitate others.

"Teams around the world are approaching the brightest top"
To what extent do costumes and makeup matter? How much attention does the jury pay to them?

Skating competition is not a fashion show, we do not evaluate costumes. The rules stipulate that the outfit must not be too theatrical but suitable for sports. At some point, for example, there was a fashion to glue rhinestones to the face, but they were banned because they dripped onto the ice and were a danger. Lastly, the change of costumes during the performance was forbidden. The costume may be affected if it is disruptive in some way and teams may also receive reductions for points if the costume is not acceptable, for example, excessive nudity is prohibited.

What do you think about the current level and development of the sport?

The level has risen tremendously over the last 10 years. It’s always sad to hear someone say that you should switch into a synchro if you can’t skate. This has not been the case for the last 20 years and that is why it is always fun when those who let such a sentence out of their mouths come to see a Synchronized Skating competition and find out how demanding this sport is.

Increasingly, teams around the world are approaching the brightest top. The sport has come a long way, especially on a technical level. The requirements have also increased and it is mandatory to practise individual skills as well. However, there is still a lot to do, for example, in step technique, and it is great that Ice Dance coaches are used to help.

Remember that you are from Finland. A question about your country: what do you think is the reason for the good and long-lasting success of Finns?

We are blessed because we have so many ice rinks in the country, thanks to ice hockey! This means that the conditions are good for the sport. Our internal competition has also helped here, as we have a lot of good teams that have to compete with each other even harder than in international competitions. 

Elite 12? "A double-edged sword"
Last year’s world champion may not qualify to the Worlds the following year. We are still the only country in the world with three different teams that have won the Senior World Championships. One secret to success is that we have a lot of professional Synchronized Skating coaches who coach skaters from the very beginning of their skating careers.

What do you think of the Elite 12 series and the Olympic dream?

This question has been on the surface for years and is, I think, a double-edged sword. I’ve always been opposed to downsizing teams, because the sport isn’t exactly the same then, but I don’t directly knock out the idea right away, as I haven’t seen a single competition where teams of twelve skaters compete so, I don’t know how it works!

For example, in Rugby, a smaller number of players compete in the Olympics than in other competitions. This could be a solution for many countries to have a competing team, but it is also necessary to consider what the sport will have to give up if the number of skaters is reduced? I don’t take a stand on one side or the other, but I’m not the biggest fan of Elite 12.

Helsinki Rockettes (Credits: Janne Koistinen - 2018)

Synchronized skating should anyway get to the Olympics, because it is ready for that!  This sport sells ice rinks full in seconds, as do ice hockey finals and other figure skating events, but even this information has not yet been convincing. The application will be sent again, hopefully this time we'll be accepted. I think Synchro is too isolated within the sport as well. It would be great if in the future we could for example organize a Finnish championship with all the figure skating sports!

What would be your most important message to the Synchronized skating family?

It’s great to have this kind of sport that differs from the other figure skating sports also because of the fan culture which is so special. This has been a bit of a surprise for the other figure skaters! The atmosphere at every competition is always incredible. Let's be very proud of this beautiful sport!