No more 6.0s: the new judging system for figure skating

The Salt Lake scandal ushered in a system that awards points and keeps the judges anonymous.

With apologies to Lindsey Jacobellis and her Visa-bright smile, the most eagerly anticipated addition to this Olympics is not her snowboardcross, or the speed-skating team pursuit, or the biathlon mass start. It is figure skating's new judging system.

Gone are the 6.0 and the notion of a perfect score, thrown out with the French judge whose allegedly crooked vote initially denied the Canadian pairs team the Olympic title in Salt Lake City. Now, skaters could use a personal mathematician as much as a coach as they carefully construct programs to reach the elusive 200-point plateau.

In the two years since it was introduced, the system has drawn mixed reviews - praise for emphasizing elements other than jumping, and criticism for encouraging all skaters to perform similar routines. Monday night, however, it will face its greatest test yet, as the first figure-skating medals of the Games are awarded - appropriately enough, in the same event that caused so much controversy in 2002: pairs.

"It's a new system, so there are going to be bugs," says Ron Ludington, a coach who has worked with several former Olympic figure skaters. "But in the long run, this system is going to work well."

The fundamental difference between the old and new systems is that the old system was subtractive, while the new one is additive. In other words, in the previous system, each skater was measured against a perfect standard of 6.0, and judges subtracted points for things he or she did wrong.

Now, there is no such thing as an overall perfect score. Each element in a skater's routine is worth a certain number of points. If the skater performs the element perfectly, he or she will receive all the points for that element.

Add up the points, and that is the skater's total score, meaning that lines of 5.8s and 5.9s have been replaced by a single total score. At the US Olympic qualifying events, for instance, Sasha Cohen won with a score of 199.18.

"The only thing I miss is the immediate comprehension of what a score means," says Cohen. What she has gained, though, is confidence that the scores are about the performance on the ice rather than the reputations off it. "It's nothing like, 'Wait two years and you'll get your scores,' " adds Cohen. "It's just so fresh and so positive."

The system has resulted in a scramble to figure out which elements are worth the most points, and then to cram as many of them as possible into a performance without having the skater collapse from exhaustion.

"It's a lot like math," said Michelle Kwan at a press conference before she withdrew from the Games.

Indeed, it has made calculations a more integral part of the sport as skaters and coaches weigh the promise of points against physical limits. "There's a certain amount of strategy," says Evan Lysacek. "You can plan to go out and get a specific score."

That has recast the character of skaters' performances. Footwork and spins, once seen as little more than filler between axels and salchows, have become a much bigger part of a winning program. "It's not just about jumps anymore," says Kimmie Meissner, also on the US team. "It's about everything else."

As most skaters choose the same high-scoring elements, however, it has created a sense of déjà vu. The Biellmann spin, in which a skater pulls her leg backward over her head as she spins, has almost become obligatory in the ladies' competition.

Kwan even hinted Saturday that learning the elements that score well in the new system might have contributed to her injury-plagued season.

Perhaps the greater issue with the new system, though, concerns what happens off the ice. To help guard against cheating, three of the 12 judges' scores are randomly omitted for each skater, then the highest and lowest remaining scores are also thrown out, leaving a panel of seven. All the scores are now anonymous, making it impossible to know which judge gave which score.

The International Skating Union says this allows judges to make decisions that might be unpopular with their country's federation. Critics say it removes all accountability. "That's got to be brought back to the system," says Mr. Ludington.

Yet he and others are hopeful that with a few tweaks after the season, the cold calculations of the new system could be a vast improvement over the charm of the 6.0. Says former Olympian Michael Weiss: "In the long run, it could potentially be a much better system for figure skating."

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