By Steve Keating
LONDON, Ontario (Reuters) - The figure skating world championships closed on Sunday as they almost always do with a glitzy gala, arguments and controversy.
With a scoring system that is harder to understand than the theory of relativity and offers about as much transparency as a Papal conclave, figure skating still struggles to connect with the average fan, particularly in North America where their numbers are on the decline.
That confusing system allowed Canada's Patrick Chan to claim a third consecutive world championship title on Friday despite hitting the ice more times than a toddler learning to skate.
The routine was so dreadful that Chan spent the next two days apologizing profusely to fans for his performance but he certainly did not apologize for the win.
"I deserved it," declared Chan. "It's totally understandable that people have their doubts.
"You look at hockey, it's really simple score one more goal than the other team. Figure skating is a little more subjective.
"But I would keep telling people I deserved it and would more than love to explain why."
There were plenty looking for an explanation. Even Chan's fellow skaters quickly challenged his victory through social media channels.
"No disrespect to Patrick but a skater shouldn't be able to fall twice & get such high PCS," tweeted former U.S. and world champion Todd Eldredge.
Canada's Minister of State for Sport Bal Gosal saw things very differently tweeting: "Is it me, or is @SkateCanada's @pchiddy (Chan) getting better every time he skates?"
Therein lies figure skating's great conundrum; one skate, two polar opposite views.
The outcome of judged sports will always be open to debate but in figure skating there is increasingly little faith that the anonymous men and women perched rinkside dispensing scores are getting it right.
It has been over a decade since the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic judging scandal exposed the corrupt underbelly of figure skating, plunging the sport into a credibility crisis it is still trying to recover from.
Critics see the head-scratching results as more evidence that old biases remain firmly entrenched in the figure skating culture, where skaters are rewarded as much for their reputation as their performance.
"No question Salt Lake was a turning point," International Skating Union (ISU) vice-president David Dore told Reuters. "It seems no matter how hard we try I don't think we are ever going to escape that unfortunately.
"While we have made a fair system, it is a complicated system and I think we are still trying to explain it."
Skating officials admit that while the sport is flourishing in Asia, it is faltering in North America.
In a clear sign of down-sizing, this year's championship were awarded to London, a small southern Ontario city midway between Toronto and Detroit and held in a charming but smallish 7,000 seat junior hockey arena.
Not long ago, any major figure skating events held in North America were reserved for only the biggest of venues, the previous three worlds hosted in Canada (1996, 2001 and 2006) all staged in National Hockey League (NHL) rinks.
But those days are over and never coming back, according to Dore.
"I think everyone wants to come back to the big huge arenas and I don't think we are going back to that," he said. "Maybe we are in a smaller venue but reaching a broader audience then before with social media."
Officials insist there is more upside to holding an event in a packed smaller venue than a half full NHL arena but the fact the London worlds, featuring the comeback of Korean figure skating queen Kim Yuna and the presence of hometown ice skating celebrities Olympic and world champion ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, could not fill the Budweiser Gardens every session shocked many.
The trend towards smaller venues has also hit the United States, which has taken the once hugely popular national championships to Omaha, Spokane and Greensboro, North Carolina in three of the last four years.
A red-hot television property at one time, live figure skating has all but disappeared from American living rooms.
"There was a boom in the '90s, there was an explosion of interest that created those packed 18,000 seat stadiums," David Raith, the executive director of U.S. Figure Skating, told Reuters. "I think it can go back to that. We are looking to host the worlds in 2016 in a major city, in a major arena and we think we can fill it.
"Television ratings are not what they use to be.
"We want to see it edge back towards those astronomical numbers but I don't think anyone will ever see those numbers again in the United States.
"Things evolve. It use to be a horse and now it's a car."
(Editing by Gene Cherry)