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TV tonight: An inside look at the bizarre, intense world of elite figure skating

Sochi, here we come. Not me, but Canada. Mind you, why Sochi is the venue for the Winter Olympics is a bit of a mystery – a subtropical beach resort with palm trees, the Cold War-era summer getaway for Soviet bosses and nobs. Go figure.

Anyway, it's where the action on the ice will be. And, apart from the hockey, a vast amount of attention will be paid to the figure skating, that most bizarre and intriguing sport.

The poet Al Purdy once posed the question, "Out on the ice can all these things be forgotten/ in the swift and skilled delight of speed?" Purdy was writing rhapsodically about hockey, but those two lines of poetry might well apply to the figure-skating racket. I once wrote, "Figure skating is hoser culture with a thin gloss of tacky sophistication." And got an earful from readers. On this matter, I'm no Al Purdy.

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And yet there truly is a strangeness to it all: the judging scandals, Tonya Harding, the ritual of the kiss 'n' cry scene at the end of a performance, the sometimes incomprehensible scoring of the routines.

Ice, Sweat and Tears (CBC, 9 p.m. on Doc Zone) is a captivating and illuminating look inside elite figure skating and it arrives just before the World Figure Skating Championships, which begin next week.

We're told from the start that it's harder to reach the top in figure skating than it is to get to the top in professional hockey. The top skaters, the doc says, are pushed to the limits of physical and mental endurance. The phrase "ice, sweat and tears" is used a tad too often, but we get it – it's a very demanding sport, even if one of the first vignettes we see is a conversation about lady skater's skirt. There's some fuss about whether she can wear a wee skirt or shorts.

We are taken inside Skate Canada's high-performance centre where the top skaters and the emerging ones are refining new routines. Patrick Chan is working on his new program. The skaters talk about the risks involved, including concussion, and the enormous demands that they put on their bodies. Kurt Browning concludes, "You don't cross the street without risk. So whaddaya gonna do, stay home?"

We also spend a lot of time with Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. And the most fun segment of the program (made by Michael McNamara) is watching Marina Zueva coach Virtue and Moir at a skating club in Canton, Mich. Zueva is the famous Russian ice-dancing coach and choreographer. She has worked with Virtue and Moir before, and with their great rivals, the American champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

Zueva knows what she wants, but her English isn't always adequate to communicate it. She is terrifically charming and demanding, and eventually people understand when she says, "It's do, it's fun, see." Or, "It is true how have to be looked." Eventually, both Americans and Canadians figure it out.

We see Chan and former coach Christy Krall playing cards backstage at the 2012 Canadian Championships. We observe Canadian pairs medalists Paige Lawrence and Rudi Swiegers training in isolation in Virden, Man., and see what happens when Lawrence suffers a concussion and is unsure if she can compete.

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Throughout, the smallness of the world becomes obvious, and we get some sense of the intense competition that exists between performers who see each other all the time. There are small hints of envy and ego but, at least while the cameras are on, the camaraderie is striking.

Soon, when the World Championships and then the Olympics unfold, we'll see a lot of figures talking about these things on TV. In many ways, figure skating is bizarre television. The skaters tend to be hopelessly self-conscious off the ice and, frankly, they dress badly. On the ice, many seem to model their outfits on what the members of ABBA wore, circa 1973. And yet the sport has enormous appeal as TV entertainment. In Canada, people young and old watch it at home and are transported to a place rarely reached. The allure of it is inside us, as Canadians – the challenge of achieving speed and grace on ice.

Ice, Sweat and Tears doesn't provide all the answers about the allure, but it does give insight into the drive that propels the top competitors forward. Sochi, here they come.

Also airing tonight Big Rich Atlanta (E! Canada, 10 p.m.) is for those who find Real Housewives of Vancouver and Big Rich Texas too tame. Like those series, it's about a group of wealthy women and their daughters who argue, curse and manipulate as they jostle to be at the pinnacle of the local social scene, such as it is. Perhaps most compelling, or horrifying, is Ashlee, a former Miss Georgia Teen, now divorced and devoted to arguing. Tonight: "Ashlee separates herself from the girls following the events of the cupcakes quarrel; Sabrina holds a financial seminar; Marcia and Virginia treat Katie to a night on the town." Yes, a cupcakes quarrel.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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