MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

If you've ever watched figure skating on television, you will likely recognize this voice.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. DICK BUTTON (TV Commentator; Figure Skater): It was just so-so. He doesn't own it yet. He hasn't mastered it. The music is gorgeous but the rest of it hasn't been fulfilling.

BLOCK: That's Dick Button calling it as he sees it he has been analyzing figure staking on TV for 50 years. And he's back at it, now 80 years old, at the Vancouver Olympics. Button was a great skater himself, winning America's first gold medal in the sport.

NPR's Howard Berkes traces a life etched in ice.

HOWARD BERKES: In a half century watching the ice, some skaters made Dick Button swoon, like Michelle Kwan at the World Championships 10 years ago.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. BUTTON: She has more energy in this program than I've seen her give in a long, long time and that's refreshing and wonderful to see.

BERKES: And some made him wince, like American Michael Weiss at the same event.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. BUTTON: What can you say about that? I think what frequently happens, and you see it

(Soundbite of horn)

Mr. BUTTON: more times than you don't, is that they get through the tough jumps, they get through the really difficult stuff and then blow it on something easier. Whether it's a

BERKES: So, what would Dick Button say about his own skating, including the 1948 performance that made him America's first Olympic figure skating gold medalist.

Mr. BUTTON: Technically and stylistically, that program sucks. I don't like to say it because I figure people can see it that

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUTTON: they will learn it themselves.

BERKES: Thanks to newsreels and YouTube, we can see it ourselves.

Unidentified Man: Button electrified the crowd with his phenomenal jumps. Just watch this.

BERKES: This was the first double axel ever performed in competition, a jump launched skating backward and into two and a half rotations in the air. Button was 18 at the time and he'd only perfected the move a few days before.

Mr. RON JUDD (Columnist, Seattle Times; Author, "The Winter Olympics: An Insider's Guide to the Legends, the Lore and the Games"): And lands it, wins a gold medal. And that takes some guts.

BERKES: Ron Judd writes about Button in his book, "The Winter Olympics: An Insider's Guide to the Legends, the Lore and the Games."

Mr. JUDD: 1952 in Oslo, he's the first one to do the triple loop. He puts that in the Olympics. He didn't need it. He puts it in anyway and lands it. He introduced a lot of jumps to the sport and moves and spins. The camel spin was Dick Button. He invented things on the ice that are now a staple of everybody's routine, and was the first to really combine all of that power and athleticism with this just sort of pure dance.

BERKES: At last month's National Championships in Spokane, Washington, Button hunched over a laptop watching grainy black and white film of his 1948 Olympic skating.

Mr. BUTTON: Oh, yeah, that's oh, I - wonderful. Oh, I love that. Where did you get that?

BERKES: The film shows Button dressed in black head to toe, carefully and delicately tracing a figure eight in the ice. Then the screen flashes shaky color film of the gold medal winning free skate. But the analyst in him is unimpressed.

Mr. BUTTON: See, even double axel wasn't really a very good one in that Olympic Games. If you look very closely at it, you'll see it would have been marked down for having a cheat on it.

BERKES: Then Button leans back and says this about what many consider the most innovative Olympic performances of the era.

Mr. BUTTON: I didn't learn what skating was all about until after I had won two Olympic Games. And that came through the dance world, through body positions and the music, the choreography et cetera, which was much more advanced.

BERKES: Button combined dance and skating performing in the Ice Capades during breaks from Harvard Law School. Then in 1960, he went to the Squaw Valley Olympics as the figure skating color commentator for CBS. He's been scrutinizing the performances of the world's top skaters ever since. Writer Ron Judd.

Mr. JUDD: Button throws in some levity that's badly needed and a little bit of a jolt of reality with some of his cutting remarks. And I think that's what's made him so popular. The public appreciates that because they're like here's this guy, he's an institution in the sport but he still gets how just stupid it is sometimes and some of the ridiculous parts of it. And I think that makes him sort of an everyman in a way that he wouldn't be if he didn't do that.

BERKES: His most infamous remark came as American Angela Nikodinov was about to skate in a televised competition.

Mr. BUTTON: What I said was, she allows you to take a refrigerator break and, of course, I was criticized wildly for that.

BERKES: Because it seemed dismissive of a skater who trained hard and deserved the chance to be seen. Button says he was misunderstood.

Mr. BUTTON: Angela Nikodinov went through these programs without commanding your attention. If she had really started allowing you to see what I know is inside there, she would have been a champion in minutes.

BERKES: Button also calls Nikodinov extremely talented, elegant and beautiful. But he's adamant about not sugarcoating what he sees.

Mr. BUTTON: I don't think anybody wants to sit there and listen to somebody say, oh, oh, oh, wasn't that beautiful? Wasn't that just too lovely for words? The heck with that. And I hope I don't hurt people. I've tried to do it from the point of view of making the audience aware of what they're doing and making them aware.

(Soundbite of music)

BERKES: To keep up with evolving moves in skaters, Button shows up rink side for practices before competition begins.

Mr. BUTTON: Anyway you see right away with this lady in the blue, this gal in the blue she I mean, it's not going to go anywhere, you know.

BERKES: This is practice at the National Championships, last month where the U.S. Olympic figure skating team was selected.

Mr. BUTTON: Look at that, you see, look at that foot thing that she does. The foot is not pointed. But look at this spiral though, very nice. That's beautiful.

BERKES: And later with the arena packed, NBC's cameras rolling and skaters ready to skate, Button hints at disappointment about how skating has evolved.

Mr. BUTTON: Well, one thing it will not see is what we necessarily like to see the most. We have to remember that this is a judging system based upon points, very complicated scoring system. But it's the point value that counts of each of the individual moves.

BERKES: It's a scoring system that resulted from the judging scandal at the Salt Lake City Olympics. It puts such great value on high-scoring jumps, Button says, that skaters don't take the time for lingering and fluid grace on the ice. And they don't risk the kind of innovation Button himself brought to skating.

Mr. BUTTON: The emphasis on so many people is that they are doing the same moves over and over and over because that's what they get the points for. And there isn't enough emphasis put on what the performance level, the elegant level, the music, the interpretation. All of those things are not given the same importance that another triple jump is.

BERKES: The sport needs to change, Button says, but he's past being the agent of change and skating on ice himself. A skating accident 10 years ago fractured his skull. But he still longs to skate outdoors as he did at the Olympics. And his favorite spot is a pond on his farm in upstate New York, when it freezes thick and smooth and black.

Mr. BUTTON: I had seven black-ice skatings about three or four years ago and I haven't had one since.

BERKES: But when you do go out, do you?

Mr. BUTTON: I barely find myself moving.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUTTON: No, I don't skate anymore, really. If I skated today, all I would be is frustrated by the fact that I wasn't able to do what I knew I had been able to do.

BERKES: What Dick Button continues to do is explain the elusive complexities of figure skating for the rest of us. He'll take to the air for NBC's coverage of the Vancouver Olympics, sharply accessing what today's figure skaters can and can't do.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: This is NPR.

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