OK, most everyone hates the current figure skating scoring system. It's complicated, inelegant, and impenetrable to the casual fan. But there's also a lot of insights to be gleaned from why the judges gave the marks they did to whom.
This is a deeper look at how the judges scored the top six competitors in Wednesday night's women's short program. Consider it your cheat sheet for understanding what might lie ahead Thursday in the free skate.
1. Kim Yu-na (74.92 points)
What stands out when you look at Kim's scores is that they're all good. She scores high on everything. OK, duh. She's Kim Yu-na. What's new?
Well, it means she was skating well within herself. She didn't need to hit a home run in any one area of her skating in order to finish first. And that bodes well for Thursday night, because it suggests that even if she does make an error, she has the quality in other parts of her program to make up for it.
Take the difficulty of her program. If you add up the points for all the elements she did – jumps, spins, and step sequences – she performed the second most difficult program of the night. (Her technical base score was 31.43 points.)
Take the marks that judge how well the judges think she executed these elements. Add them up and you see she performed the second cleanest program of the night in the eyes of the judges. (Her cumulative grade of execution score was 7.6 points.)
Take the more subjective scores that judge skating skills, choreography, and artistic interpretation, among other things. Add them up and she performed the second most aesthetically pleasing skate in the eyes of the judges. (Her program components score was 35.89.)
She didn't do anything the best. But she did everything better than almost everyone else. Imagine when she does do everything the best, as she is certainly capable of doing.
The gold is still hers to lose, despite the close margin.
2. Adelina Sotnikova (74.64 points)
Last week, 15-year-old Russian phenom Yulia Lipnitskaya put in the best performance of her young skating career in the team short program to take first place. The immediate question was: Could she do it again in the free skate the following night? She did, setting a personal best and blowing away the field.
Sotnikova is likely going to need to do the same thing Thursday if she wants to keep up with Kim.
Both Sotnikova's artistry and the difficulty of her program are close to Kim's marks – but close isn't enough. If both skate clean, Kim will surely get the higher component scores for artistry and technical scores for difficulty. The way Sotnikova made up the ground Wednesday was by skating the cleanest program of the night. Her grade of execution score was 9.04; Kim's was 7.6.
Skating cleaner than Kim would not seem like the best bet, but unless Kim falters, it will likely be the only way Sotnikova can beat her.
3. Carolina Kostner (74.12 points)
Kostner has officially made her "Ave Maria" short program among the most memorable of the Olympic Games. It is what got her within 0.80 points of the Olympic champion. The question now is: Can she make her free skate just as memorable?
Throughout her career Kostner has been prone to mistakes in big events. If she makes one here, she'll likely be out of the gold medal chase and very possibly out of the medals entirely. If she skates clean, she'll need to be memorable to beat Kim.
Like Sotnikova, she skated a sightly easier program than Kim Wednesday. The way she kept up was by beating Kim in the artistic component score. Her performance got her a component score of 36.63, compared with Kim's 35.89. It was the performance of a mature, 27-year-old skater at the height of her artistic craft. Her scores for choreography and interpretation – a 9.25 and a 9.39 – were the highest component scores of the night.
But she might have set the bar impossibly high. To keep up the pace, she'll need to equal or even exceed the emotion she generated Wednesday.
4. Gracie Gold (68.63 points)
There is nothing whatsoever wrong with Gold's score. It was not a personal best, but it was a great achievement on the Olympic stage. The problem, for Americans, is that it could give false hope. Being in fourth usually means dreams of moving onto the podium. That could absolutely happen, but Gold will likely have to skate clean on Thursday and hope for at least two skaters to stumble.
Why? Because Wednesday's scores suggest that the judges, while valuing her highly, don't appear to think she's arrived as the finished product yet.
Gold's greatest achievement was in skating the most difficult program of the night. Her base technical score of 32.04 topped Kim's 31.43. That is a credit to Gold, but it also speaks to the brilliance of her coach, Frank Carroll, who is a master of using the new scoring system to maximize the number of points his skaters can compile. That is precisely how his last student, Evan Lysacek, beat Evgeni Plyushchenko in Vancouver.
The problem is that Gold can't really ramp up her technical scores any higher, and there is a noticeable gap between her and the other top skaters in artistry and execution, according to the judges. She had the lowest component score for artistry (32.08) by some margin – a full 3.81 points behind Kim, for instance. Of the top six, she also had the second-lowest execution scores, with only Ashley Wagner scoring lower.
Wednesday was by no means a poor skate for Gold, which suggests her scores are close to her ceiling. She might be able to go a little higher, but others will still likely have to come lower.
5. Yulia Lipnitskaya (65.23 points)
Though Gold sits 3.4 points ahead of Lipnitskaya, if both skate clean, Lipnitskaya is likely to overtake her, and therefore might have a better chance of making the podium than Gold.
The numbers explain why.
The judges liked Lipnitskaya's artistry more, giving her a component score of 33.08, 1 point higher than Gold. Gold made about 0.6 back in the technical difficulty of the program. But Lipnitskaya outscored Gold on execution Wednesday even though she fell. Over the course of a free skate, with more elements, these differences compound significantly, as was apparent in the team event.
In the team free skate, Gold set a personal best of 129.38 points. Lipnitskaya then outscored her by more than 12 points, setting her own personal best in the process, too. In other words, if both skate to the best of their abilities in Thursday's free skate, Lipnitskaya more than makes up the 3.4 point difference between them. The difference between Lipnitskaya and the top three, however, is big enough that she might need one of them to make a big mistake to medal.
6. Ashley Wagner (65.21 points)
How did Wagner end up behind Lipnitskaya when Lipnitskaya fell and Wagner didn't? That's 6.0 thinking. That's not to say jumps aren't important in the current scoring system. They are. To win, you need them to keep up with the top skaters. But the scoring system isn't all about the jumps, and those who are well-rounded skaters can often make up points elsewhere even if they fall.
That's how Lipnitskaya did it.
First, she was planning to skate a significantly more difficult program than Wagner, so when she fell that simply knocked her technical score down into the same ballpark as Wagner's.
Second, except for the fall, Lipnitskaya skated cleanly. Even including a mandatory 1 point deduction for the fall, Lipnitskaya's execution scores were 0.98 points higher than Wagner's. Much of that gap came in spins, one of Lipnitskaya's specialties.
Wagner's scores Wednesday night don't suggest she has much upward mobility. Her artistic component score, execution scores, and technical score were all well behind the top three, and she skated relatively cleanly. Her personal best in a free skate was 128.33 in 2013, about on par with Gold's personal best.