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Judging Olympic figure skating: More numbers than art?

As men skate for Olympic gold tonight, they're being judged by a system that emphasizes athleticism over artistic impression. Johnny Weir, for one, says it has squeezed out emotion and artistry.

By Staff writer, Staff writer / February 18, 2010

Men's figure skaters in action during a practice session at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics.

Mark Baker/AP


Vancouver, British Columbia

While the rest of the world debates whether Yevgeny Plushenko of Russia, Japan’s Daisuke Takahashi, or US skater Evan Lysacek – all in a near tie after Tuesday’s short program – has the best shot of winning Olympic skating gold tonight, there’s one thing the American knows for sure.

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Under the new judging system, favoritism won’t play a part in determining the winner.

"If you're the favorite and you don't skate well, you're not going to win,” said Lysacek, the 2010 US silver medalist, before the Games began. “That [is one thing that] has completely changed. Has the best skater won every time? Yes."

The new system, which has continually been refined since its introduction in 2005, emphasizes the athleticism of figure skating over artistic impressions – Johnny Weir’s pink ribbons notwithstanding. While superior artistry may be the tie-breaker between two skaters with comparable technical elements, it won’t compensate for a lack of difficulty in the routine.

Overall, both quad-jumpers like Pluschenko and artists like fifth-ranked Stéphane Lambiel of Switzerland seem pleased with the new system, which they say binds judges to criteria – closing the door on ambiguous “impressions” that leave room for too much subjectivity and even corruption, as at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.

But for skaters like Weir, infamous for plumage and theatrics, it has reduced inexplicable beauty to unfeeling calculation. And in that attempted justice, he sees a great injustice to the sport.

“It's something that's very difficult to balance – the sport of figure skating and the art of figure skating have basically become some kind of national math contest,” said Weir to reporters before skating to a disappointing fifth at US Nationals in January 2009, prompting a temporary retirement. “And this judging system is killing the sport as I grew up loving it and as the way I see the sport should be…. In my opinion, the art of figure skating is lost because of this judging system.”

Pure beauty – without secretly adding up points

It also may ruin the show for audiences who – especially at the Winter Olympics – are at the rink to see a good performance, not compare it with a check-list of elements they’ve never heard of.

"All the programs end up looking exactly the same because everyone is trying to put in the same level-4 tricks" to maximize their score, says Megan Marod, a figure skater and ardent fan in New York City. "Basically, it's now music playing while people do tricks."

Weir couldn’t agree more.