Five-Ring Circus

Why Do Figure Skaters Go to the “Kiss and Cry” to Get Their Scores?

Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir wait for their marks in the “kiss and cry” zone in Sochi.

Photo by Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

Stefan Fatsis also read a version of this story on the Feb. 18 episode of Slate’s sports podcast “Hang Up and Listen.”

The phrase “kiss and cry” is as firmly entrenched in modern figure skating as the triple Axel or Johnny Weir’s Instagram account.* But it wasn’t always so. Until the early 1980s, the place where skaters waited with their coaches to receive their marks from the judges marks was known as … the place where skaters waited with their coaches to receive their marks from the judges.

According to the 2004 book Cracked Ice: Figure Skating’s Inner World by former skating judge Sonia Bianchetti Garbato of Italy, “kiss and cry” was coined by a Finnish skating official named Jane Erkko. Erkko was watching an ice dancing competition with some young skaters in the 1970s, and they noticed that the competitors kissed and cried while waiting for their scores. The expression “remained a joke among the skaters and with Jane as the place where the skaters would sit down after skating their programs,” Garbato wrote.

Erkko was on the organizing committee for the 1983 World Figure Skating Championships, which were held in Helsinki. According to Garbato, Erkko and the television producers for the event were looking over a map of the rink to discuss camera placement. When the “chief technician” asked about a spot just off the ice that was decorated with flowers, “Jane very naturally answered that it was ‘the kiss and cry corner.’ ” He wrote KISS AND CRY in all caps on the map, Garbato reported, and the term stuck.

So who was the mystery technician? At the time, CBS was broadcasting the world championships. In the 2011 e-book Skating on Air: The Broadcast History of an Olympic Marquee Sport by Kelli Lawrence, former CBS Sports executive producer Rick Gentile credited the kiss-and-cry coinage to his colleague Peter Donlan. I followed up with Gentile, who produced the 1992, 1994, and 1998 Winter Olympics. He told me that CBS had long wanted to station a camera in the off-ice area where the skaters waited for their marks, but the producers of the world broadcast feed balked, until they finally agreed to do so in the early ’80s.

Donlan was CBS’s London-based operations manager and the point person for dealing with the figure skating championship’s organizers. According to Gentile, Donlan first called it the kiss-and-cry area “and so it ever shall be.” He said it’s possible that Joe Aceti, a CBS Sports director, came up with the phrase, but that “Peter was the one who made it an internationally accepted term.”

After I relayed the story about the Finnish skating official, Gentile told me that Donlan would have been the head guy at the 1983 production meetings, “so I’m saying Peter’s still in the running for coining.” (Both Donlan and Aceti have since died.) My guess: The Finnish official said something along the lines of “that’s where the skaters go to kiss and cry” or even, as Garbato wrote, “that’s the kiss-and-cry corner,” and the CBS execs turned it into a production term, as an adjective and adjectival noun, as in “the kiss and cry.”

The emergence of kiss-and-cry areas at competitions—and the emotional gold they yield for television—certainly spurred usage. When the Olympics were first televised in the U.S. in the 1960s, rinks didn’t have a formal place for skaters to receive their scores; they just stood off ice, where a network reporter sometimes would be waiting. According to a 2010 New York Times story by Juliet Macur, the off-ice area was “spruced up with foliage” for the Lake Placid Games in 1980, a bench was added in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, in 1984, and a “major set, with a designed backdrop and lights” was built for Calgary in 1988. “It’s gone from a blue curtain and a bucket of flowers on the side to plastic ice sculptures and crazy sets,” NBC’s director for figure skating, David Michaels, told the Times. “It’s become a big design element that everyone works hard to figure out.”

But it took a few years for “kiss and cry” to travel from the rink and the production truck into the sports vernacular. Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer says the first reference to “kiss and cry” in news databases is a May 1987 article by John Powers of the Boston Globe. “Yes,” Powers wrote, “that place where figure skaters clutch their flowers and await their marks has a name—the Kiss and Cry Area.” The Times didn’t use “kiss and cry” until a pre-Olympics, pre-knee-whacking profile of Nancy Kerrigan in January 1994.

The phrase, Zimmer says, is one of several “kiss and blank” descendants of “kiss and tell,” which dates to a 1695 comedy by the English poet and playwright William Congreve. (“O fie, miss, you must not kiss and tell.”) For instance, “kiss and ride” was coined around 1956 by the general manager of the Chicago Transit Authority after he watched wives kiss husbands goodbye at a train drop-off, Zimmer says.**

As for “kiss and cry,” it’s skated well beyond the ice. A 2005 Times profile of a neurologist and ALS researcher afflicted with the illness noted that “so many people got long hours of counseling after learning they had ALS that they call [his office] the kiss-and-cry room.” Kiss and Cry is the title of a 2004 play by Tom Rowan about a pairs skater and an actress who are gay but pretend they’re dating to court celebrity. There’s a 2013 Belgian multimedia performance that has nothing to do with skating. And a 2009 episode of the Canadian television drama The Border in which “Zoe helps a Chinese Olympic athlete defect to Canada.”

The Japanese love kissing and crying. The pop singer Hikaru Utada recorded a 2007 single titled “Kiss & Cry.” There’s a 2000 manga and a 2007 anime by the name, and a new girl group, too. After she won Olympic gold in Vancouver in 2010, figure skater Kim Yuna of South Korea hosted a TV show called Kim Yuna’s Kiss & Cry, which was a Korean Dancing With the Stars on ice. It did not return for a second season.

“Kiss and cry” is an official figure-skating term now, mentioned twice in the International Skating Union’s Constitution and General Regulations. But has its popularity peaked? The number of Olympic “kiss and cry” mentions in the Times grew from the lone citation in 1994 to four in 1998, three in 2002, seven in 2006, and a whopping 13 in 2010. In Sochi, thanks to the new figure-skating team event, the kiss-and-cry area itself turned into a kiss-and-cry condo complex. But Times staffers have managed just five mentions of “kiss and cry” so far. The women’s competition, of course, is still to come.

*Correction, Feb. 18, 2014: This post originally stated that the quadruple Axel, rather than the triple Axel, is firmly entrenched in figure skating.

**Update, Feb. 18, 2014: This sentence originally stated that “kiss and ride” was coined in 1956. It’s unclear whether the phrase was coined then—1956 is the first year the phrase appears in news databases.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Sochi Olympics.