Defending the figure skating system — sort of

The current system for the inherently controversial task of judging figure skating competitions is the worst system ever designed — except the last one. And except the systems they used in snowboarding, freestyle skiing, gymnastics and pretty much everything else that’s decided by judges.

The old system had that old familiar air to it. Judges gave marks for technical merit and presentation ranging from 0.0 (never, ever seen) to 6.0 (rarely seen). But that wasn’t even the decisive factor — it was the “ordinals,” ranking skaters from first to worst.

And it had a few problems:

1. Rep meant everything. Judges weren’t going to give a bunch of high scores until the big names hit the ice in the last group. A veteran skater would often get the benefit of the doubt unless he or she skidded all over the ice.

2. Comebacks after the short program were all but impossible. Sarah Hughes’ rally from fourth after the short program to the 2002 gold medal was the exception, requiring an exceptional sequence of dominoes to fall.

Here’s an example: Let’s say Jane Jumpwell is fifth after the short program with a bunch of 5.5s while Sally Spinner is first with a bunch of 5.7s. Short program ordinals are cut in half, so Spinner would have 0.5 points to Jumpwell’s 2.5. (The fewer points, the better.)

Then let’s say Jumpwell has the best free skate ever — all 6.0s — while Spinner stumbles around to a bunch of 5.3s and 5.4s. But then everyone else stumbles around, and Spinner is still second-best to Jumpwell. From the free skate, Jumpwell would have 1.0 points to Spinner’s 2.0. Final totals: Spinner 2.5, Jumpwell 3.5.

Let’s make it less hypothetical: Denis Ten was ninth in this year’s short program and third in the free skate. Under the old system, he would have had 7.5 points. Spain’s Javier Fernandez would have beaten him just because so many skaters finished in the 2.34-point gap between Fernandez and Ten in the short program. The fact that Ten blew Fernandez away in the free skate would’ve meant nothing.

This year, 12 men’s skaters were in contention for the podium after the short program. Under the old system, most of them would’ve been out.

3. Transparency? What transparency? Why did a judge give a 5.3 instead of a 5.5? Who knows?

The current system lets us see every element. Was the triple axel underrotated? There it is, with a lowered base value and a negative Grade of Execution. And judges weigh in on the “components” — skating skills, transitions, choreography, interpretation timing, etc.

(Let’s dismiss one bit of criticism — the idea that skaters get credit for what they attempt. Utter nonsense. If you say you’re going to do a triple-triple but you only do a double-single, you get credit for the double-single. If you fall, you get a mandatory 1-point deduction as well as a negative Grade of Execution for the jump. And you may have underrotated the jump to begin with, which reduces the base value … add it all up, and you’re down many points.)

Compare this with snowboarding and freestyle skiing. Athletes do all kinds of tricks and get exactly one number. Why was that run a 93 while the run before it was a 91? Who knows?

So when we question figure skating scores, we can take a closer look. That’s why The Boston Globe‘s John Powers attributed Adelina Sotnikova’s controversial figure skating victory to simple math: “There are those in the Land of the Morning Calm and beyond who’ll claim that Queen Yu Na wuz robbed, that it was a bag job for the homegirl, that figure skating is every bit as corrupt and confusing as it was in the years that culminated in the Salt Lake judging scandal. And then there are those who can count.”

So Sotnikova won because she got more points for her jumps, right? Well, not quite. Sotnikova may have done more technically demanding jumps, but the judges correctly knocked her down for a mistake. By Sally Jenkins’ figuring, it was actually the spins, not the jumps, that put Sotnikova ahead. And Amy Rosewater’s dissection shows how Sotnikova and her coaches refined her program for maximum points while Kim was in virtual international isolation.

But Rosewater’s piece hints at another problem: the “component” scores. Kim barely beat Sotnikova here. But Sotnikova kept it close by improving five points and change from the European Championships.

Improvement? Or a judging flaw? Ultimately, this is the most subjective part of the figure skating system. And there’s no way to take it out completely without reducing the whole sport to a jump-off and spin-off.

So that subjectivity is still there. And that’s why, for all of Powers’ protests, my former colleague Christine Brennan has a point when she investigates the makeup of the judging panel and the anonymity in the judging process. We don’t know who gave what mark.

On NBC, Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir stressed the importance of “connecting with the audience.” That’s going to be a bit easier for the host country’s favorite than it is for Gracie Gold or Yuna Kim. Did that sway the judges? Maybe.

And would they mark things up any differently if we knew who gave what score? Would the pressure to please the home crowd be outweighed by the pressure of knowing the marks would be scrutinized by every observer around the world?

So what we can say of figure skating’s judging system is this: The numbers are fine. And the human beings behind them may be fine. But we need to know who they are. One simple change could ease so many problems.


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Beau Dure

The guy who wrote a bunch of soccer books and now runs a Gen X-themed podcast while substitute teaching and continuing to write freelance stuff.

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