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.

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

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.

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.

“I'm just longing for the day when you see that beautiful program that's clean, that you can really feel something from, and not be secretly adding up points in your head while you're watching it,” said Weir last year, complaining that even he couldn’t squeeze much artistry into routines jam-packed with necessarily technical elements. “I miss the days of when Michelle Kwan would skate a program and get perfect 6s, or when Alexei Yagudin would kind of breeze through this amazing footwork that maybe wasn't technically that difficult, but you got an emotion from it.”

But what the new International Judging System (IJS) does do is create a more level playing field. In 1998, for example, Michelle Kwan lost to Tara Lipinski’s solid but easier program with a bobble on a much more difficult routine. That won’t happen tonight. And that’s why even if a skater falls on the ice here at the Pacific Coliseum, he could still win gold.

"In the new system ... you can fall [on a jump] and still win. In the old system if you fall, you'd lose, it didn't matter if you were the best skater in the world," explains Marod. In the old system, "you could go out and hit your jumps but have poor spins and poor footwork and still win."

How the new system works

So how does the new system work, exactly? According to US Figure Skating’s explanation online, the IJS involves two panels at an event: a technical panel and a judging panel. The technical panel identifies each technical element and its level of difficulty as the skater performs it. That leaves the judge free to focus on how well the element was performed – giving it a “grade of execution” of GOE score that ranges between -3 and +3. That GOE is then factored into the base value for the element.

To take US Figure Skating’s example:

The technical specialist identifies a jump as a triple Axel. The judge grades the quality of the jump and assigns a GOE of +1. The base value for a triple Axel is 8.2 points, and a GOE of +1 for a triple Axel has a value of 1.0 points, so the point value for the element is 9.2 points.

The judges, meanwhile, focus on five criteria: skating skills, transitions, performance/execution, choreography/composition, and interpretation.

The system has been modified every season since the 2005 World Championships. This year, the big change was to lessen the penalty for under-rotating jumps – a criterion that discouraged the top men from trying to land quads in competition, says Akiko Tamura, a Japanese journalist who has covered figure skating since 1993.

Quad king Plushenko is 'like steel'

At the past two Worlds, both gold medalists won without any quads – a trend that impelled Russia’s Plushenko, a master of quads, to come back and try to save the world of figure skating skills from deteriorating into a bunch of boyish hops.

Tonight, he is favored to win.

“He is like steel,” says Tamura, who – like the rest of the world – will be watching closely.


Judge for yourself. Follow Christa on Twitter.

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