How can an international sport need a costume?

Aliona Savcgenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany brought their athleticism to the Vancouver Games, but they should have left their ode to "Send in the Clowns" at home. Alex Livesey/Getty Images

In the new Tonya Harding biopic, "I, Tonya," there's a sequence in which Harding sews her own figure skating costume for an upcoming competition, goes out and skates a great routine, and then gets surprisingly mediocre scores. When she confronts the judges, one of them eyes her costume and says, "We also judge on presentation," to which Harding retorts, "Well, maybe if you gave me $5,000 for a fancy costume, I wouldn't have to make my own!" Afterward, Harding's coach tells her, "If you dressed appropriately, maybe they'd score you appropriately."

In a later scene, after once again skating well but getting another set of so-so marks, Harding tells a judge, almost pleadingly, "I landed all my jumps. Isn't it supposed to be about the skating?" He replies, "It's never been entirely about the skating. It's about the image."

The movie frames all of this as an indictment of the skating world's classism, suggesting that the deck was always stacked against Harding because she grew up poor and was rough around the edges, which is probably true. But with the Winter Olympics right around the corner, these movie scenes really raise a larger question: Why should figure skaters have costumes at all? Why can't they wear a unitard with the name of their country and maybe a number, like all the other athletes?

As it happens, my former ESPN.com colleague Jim Caple proposed that idea to a bunch of Team USA figure skaters and ice dancers prior to the 2014 Winter Olympics, and most of them gave it a big thumbs-down. Among their reasons:

• From skater Marissa Castelli: "We bring an artistry to the sport by wearing costumes and, with the music, that makes it more exciting to watch."

• From skater Simon Shnapir: "It's all about the whole package -- from the hair and the makeup to the outfits and the music to the personality and the emotion you bring."

• From ice dancer Charlie White: "In theater, a lot of times you use your outfit to get the story across. And that's certainly what I feel like we're doing. We're not just trying to look nice, we're really trying to be the characters we're trying to embody."

• From ice dancer Maryl Davis: "I personally think [uniforms] would be a huge drawback from the performance. There's no denying that figure skating as a whole and ice dance in particular are very much based on performance as on athletics. I don't think figure skating sport [would be the same] without the performance, without the glitz and the glamour."

Ugh. Comments like these just give more ammunition to people who think figure skating is somewhere between performance art and musical theater, not a sport.

I happen to be one of those people. There's no doubt that figure skaters are tremendously athletic performers, but hey, so are modern dancers and we don't call that a sport. When skating judges (even ones in movies) talk about "image" and skaters put so much emphasis on things like artistry, makeup, glamour, and embodying a character, it's fair to ask whether this is a sport or a variety show. Like Harding said, isn't it supposed to be about the skating?

Well, maybe. The scoring parameters used by the International Skating Union, figure skating's governing body, have changed since the days when Harding competed. The old 6.0-based system, which was scrapped in 2004 after a judging scandal at the 2002 Olympics, has been replaced by a lengthy and complex rulebook, which was supposedly designed to make the judging more objective. Interestingly, the section on "clothing" states that the competitors' attire "must be modest, dignified and appropriate for athletic competition -- not garish or theatrical in design," which would no doubt come as a surprise to those skaters who stressed the importance of their outfits' glitz and glamour (or to anyone who ever watched Johnny Weir skate). Other requirements are that the clothing "must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for the discipline" and that men must wear trousers, not tights.

Of course, "dignified and appropriate" and "not garish or theatrical" and even "excessive nudity" are all subjective concepts. So are lots of other entries in the ISU rulebook, which says the skaters will be judged on, among other things, "Purpose (idea, concept, vision, mood)" and "refined, artful manipulation of music details and nuances through movement" and -- get this -- "individuality/personality." Again, it sounds more like the guidelines for a song and dance competition, not a sport.

This emphasis on subjective factors doesn't just penalize skaters who, like Harding, can't afford the fanciest outfits. It also works against skaters who don't fit the conventional norms of attractiveness. There's nothing in the rulebook that says a skater will be penalized for having facial eczema, crooked teeth or, in the case of a female skater, unshaven armpits, but does anyone doubt that all of those would result in demerits?

A standardized uniform can't solve all of those problems, but it would be a good start. And surely Nike or Under Armour could design something with a bit of flair while keeping it sporty and classy (maybe they could even hire Harding as a celebrity consultant). You know some country is bound to try this eventually, just to buck the trend. Here's hoping it's soon.

Paul Lukas grew up next to a pond and loves to skate, although he does so with approximately zero artistry, personality or glamour. If you like this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook and sign up for his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, check out his Uni Watch merchandise, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.