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Nov. 2 2009 - 10:44 pm | 662 views | 1 recommendation | 24 comments

Simplifying skaters’ routines: Best for the sport?

judgingFigure skating is at a crossroads. The casual viewer may not notice it, but it permeates every competition. And this past weekend at the Cup of China, this dilemma was brought to the forefront.

The debate about the new judging system has now become a debate about the growing oversimplification of skating routines. After two days of watching the ladies’ event at the Cup of China, questions of whether or not the current judging system is best for our sport continue to arise. In an event that was marred with mistakes, it was the downgrading of some subtle mistakes that spoke the loudest.

In last Friday’s short program, American Mirai Nagasu skated with impressive command and speed, winning the event. Nagasu wasn’t a favorite heading into Beijing, but the speed of her spins, stretch of her spirals, and strength of her jumps helped secure Nagasu a victory in the first phase of the competition.

The long program, however, held a different story for the 2008 U.S. champ. Taking the ice as the last lady to perform, Nagasu fell on a planned triple loop late in her program, and, while she stood up on the rest of her elements and skated with her usual speed and a greater sophistication than we‘ve seen from her in the past, Nagasu dropped to fifth place in the standings. The reason for her plunge? Nagasu received credit for only two of her seven jumping passes. The rest were downgraded.

If last weekend’s event were judged using the 6.0 judging system, Nagasu probably would have been on the podium in Beijing. To the blind eye, the majority of her triple jumps looked rotated. She didn’t have a lot of speed on her landings, but the downgrades that she was penalized for wouldn’t have killed her score if it weren’t for the use of slow motion replay and points subtracted for such mistakes under the current system. This killed Nagasu’s chances for a medal and left her with a lot of homework as she heads to her second event on the Grand Prix, Skate Canada.

When a skater makes mistakes, they should be penalized. Slow motion replays are a great addition to skating events and have helped to promote accuracy in judging. However, some of Nagasu’s jumps didn’t look any more or less rotated than those performed in her short program–even after watching them in slow motion–and it’s worrisome that when such calls are taken into play, skaters may abandon attempting difficult triple jumps and combinations so as not to risk the potential for lost points.

In last Saturday‘s long program, Finland’s Kiira Korpi won the silver medal with a free skate marred with bigger mistakes and simpler jumps than Nagasu’s. Only landing three clean triples and popping two more, Korpi didn’t attempt a triple flip and failed to rotate a triple lutz in her long program. Despite the lack of technical content in her long program, Korpi scored significantly higher than Nagasu in both marks, calling into question which direction the sport is going. Watching Nagasu and Korpi’s skates back-to-back, Nagasu seemed to have trumped Korpi’s performance so much so that the average skating fan would have had trouble deciphering where Nagasu went wrong.

It’s understandable that the judges would deduct for mistakes. But what is so difficult for skating fans–and even me–to fully grasp is how the judges arrive at their scores and why certain mistakes are weighed more heavily than others. When looking at the protocol following the event, the numerical values assigned to jumps and trying to decipher what led the panel to downgrade certain elements can become so puzzling that fans and even skaters are easily confused.

It still seems like the judges, and now the technical specialists, have the ability to promote certain skaters and knock other skaters down. If a skater underrotates their jumps, they should take a hit from the judges, but the extent to which certain mistakes are weighed seems askew.

While there isn’t going to be a significant change in this system, it’s disconcerting that the wrong things in the sport seem to be rewarded. Underrotations need to be taken into consideration, but for many skaters this will only serve to oversimply their programs, ultimately robbing skating of the drama that comes from truly difficult and risky routines in the interest of avoiding downgrades and lost points.

We can’t go back to the 6.0 system, but it was obvious after watching last weekend’s event that the current system won‘t suffice in its current form either.


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    Kinda comes back to the whole issue of judging skating, right? The fairness of the sport? This is why figure skating takes a hit from sports enthusiasts, it is still to subjective to human whims (hence my firm belief that in Vancouver the Russians will win ice dance, even if the French, Americans or Canadians are better, because it is so subjective, what do you think??).

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    OMG – I just watched the COC on youtube and I’m totally confused…how could Kiira K. do better than Joannie R.?? Joannie’s program was so much better, she landed almost all of her jumps, besides her choregraphy was better.

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    “If a skater underrotates their jumps, they should take a hit from the judges, but the extent to which certain mistakes are weighed seems askew.”

    I think this is the essence of the problem.

    I am a big figure skating fan, but I’ve never skated and only know the basics of the sport. I actually do like the new system, generally. It seems more fair and honestly makes more sense than the 6.0 system (skaters seem to be earning points for specific things rather than just receiving somewhat arbitrary numbers). But this weekend’s competition was heartbreaking. No one could watch Nagasu and Korpi and actually think that Korpi did a better performance. I think it’s not that the system needs to go, but like all good things, that the officials need to see what has been happening and make adjustments.

    Let’s just hope that they are as perceptive as you are!

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    The Callers and Judges are doing precisely what the ISU leadership is mandating they do… promote and cajole. The ISU rules governing what is expected from the judges and callers deliberately promotes playing with the numbers which allows promoting reputation and favoritism. Until the ISU removes federations/associations control and selection, of international competition officials this sorid part of scoring will continue, regardless of the system used.

    Jennifer, your evaluation is Spot On!

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    Hmm. So having complicated programs without considering fully rotated jumps will make figure skating better? Isn’t it the basic of figure skating for skaters to jump with fully rotation?

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      Yes, obviously skaters need to rotate their jumps. Underrotations should be deducted from a skater’s total, but the amount of points deducted shouldn’t be as substantial as they are under this system. This may lead skaters who can rotate their jumps, like Nagasu, to play it safe during competitions because they fear the downgrades and points deducted for slight mistakes. Most of the jumps in Nagasu’s long program didn’t look more than a quarter turn underrotated, and most looked as rotated as those in her short.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    I completely agree with your post, Jenny. After watching Cup of China, I was stumped as to why Nagasu had dropped so far down in the standings. I was thinking she’d at least be second or third and was astonished when I saw she was fifth! It seemed like Even Frank Carroll was surprised!

    It wasn’t clear as to why she had plummeted but I figured it was because of jump downgrades, something Alissa Czisny, and Caroline Zhang are often penalized for.

    I was also very confused as to why Kira Korpi finished second. Her program was underwhelming, in my opinion. Her program content was weak and as you said, she didn’t land the difficult jumping passes of flip and lutz. I’ve noticed that this happens often in Korpi’s case: she seems to be held up by the judges. I think she’s a lovely skater and has a Grace Kelly-like image on the ice, but she just doesn’t have the technical content and skating skills that the top contenders in the world have. It does seem that the judges are valuing simple, clean programs over more difficult programs that may contain mistakes, downgrades or wrong edge takeoffs.

    Mao Asada has taken the triple lutz out of her programs because she has been penalized for wrong edge take off. It’s a shame that she feels she can’t include this jump in her program. In lieu of the lutz Tatiana Tarasova and Asada have packed two triple axel passes in the program to earn points. It’s too bad Mao can’t just include the triple lutz in place of one of the triple axels, which has been her undoing this season.

    There are some good things about this new points system (I like that someone who finishes 6th in the short still has a chance to win in the long), but I greatly miss the 6.0 system.
    Gone are the glory days….

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    Yes, exactly. I haven’t been able to spit that out when people keep asking me why I’m having issues with the scores.

    It goes the other way too. While some skaters are getting more heavily penalized vs. others, some are getting rewarded more vs. others.

    The most disconcerting part about it all is that, once again, judges have figured out how to get around this “scandal proof” judging system and effect outcomes.


  8. collapse expand

    The same thing is happening in Gymnastics. Its very frustrating. Why some girls’ routines are scored higher even though there were mistakes.

    I don’t know what the solution is…

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    Well, I do not agree that in last week’s competition Nagasu might have scored higher than Korpi if it had been still the old system. Nagasu’s jump technique was relatively shaky in the free program than in her short ( perhaps because it is still early in the season?), and her presentation looked somewhat juniorish (I don’t know if this is a correct word, but you get the sense) to me. However, she is still a young skater and she has learnt her lesson. Hope she can significantly improve her jump technique in her next competition.

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    Love the blog Jenny but I can’t agree with you on this one.

    By this stage of the game a skater should know how to fully rotate their jumps.

    If only this code has been in place in 2002 maybe the real winner would have her gold medal and Sarah Hughes would be home with her cheated triple triples and flutzes.

    I don’t like this code because it rewards messy skaters like Sasha Cohen from the last Olympics to make the podium

  11. collapse expand

    Problems with this system include:

    - It leads to obviously wrong results. The results from competitions are not a reflection of who skated better, they’re a reflection of a random formula that doesn’t accurately reflect who should place where.

    - The “calls” (e.g. underrotation) are often wrong. They are subjective and because only 2 people need to agree (of 3), they are too often incorrect.

    - The rules aren’t in the best interest of the sport. This includes the required elements (eg spiral sequences), the “features” on spins and step sequences, and more.

    Just having an intelligent panel give ordinals would lead to much more accurate results, and the goal of a system should be to lead to results that reflect reasonable placements.

  12. collapse expand

    I’m actually though going to point out Jenny that there were a lot of people who thought some of Mirai’s jumps in the short were questionable, and a lot of people who agreed with the callers. I’m not an expert so I don’t know. What I do know though from watching Mirai’s career, is that this isn’t the first time Mirai has gotten a LOT of underrotation calls in international competition. So, I’m more inclined to side with the callers in some sense, and say that the very least it’s something that she needs to work on.

    And I thought the whole competition was poorly skated, except for Suzuki.

    And most skaters are not going to stop attempting the bigger jumps if they can somewhat do them because double jumps are heavily penalized.

  13. collapse expand

    I agree that it seems as though there are errors that are being punished more than perhaps than what they should be punished.

    Unfortunately, I am unable to watch any of the events from Cup of China due to slow internet and not getting Universal Sports so I am unable to comment on the placements from Cup of China, however; I do think that there is a problem with how things a penalized.

    I think of the ladies event in 2009 U.S. Nationals as having problems. I still don’t understand how Alissa won. Yes, her spins and spirals are superb, but she landed, I think, two triples and still won.

    Perhaps there should be a penalty if fewer than five triples are landed… though I guess that wouldn’t work if a skater landed under-rotated triples and only received credit for landing two triples.

    I do like the new scoring system better than I liked the 6.0 system. I always thought that the 6.0 system was somewhat random. I like how in the new scoring system how each jump has a base point and then can receive negative or positive grades of execution. I think that giving each jump, spin, etc. a base point value makes sense.

  14. collapse expand

    I feel the skaters should be able to fully rotate their jumps. They should be penalized if underrotated, but right now it seems too many points are taken off for that versus a skater falling on her butt or making real obvious errors that mar the flow of a program. Underrotated jumps do not mar the flow and aesthetics of a program the way falling down or other obvious mistakes do, so yes, Jenny, you are right that the penalties are too severe. Just as the Quad should be rewarded more points, underrotated jumps should not be as severely penalized. This new scoring system still needs a lot of tweaking, but it doesn’t appear the ISU is in any hurry to fix it.

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    I agree completely that there was something very wrong in COC. Mirai has shown that she has the spins, the jumps, the choreography, and the charisma.
    I think that all the technical restrictions on skating are taking the art out of it, especially when the change of edge and change of position rules prevent beautiful spins you can see for more than a few seconds…

  16. collapse expand

    It’s good to see you back as a commentator! I think you have been doing a good job so far!
    About the new scoring system, I can see how they want to break everything down to quantifiable elements. The judges now have a base for every single score. It definitely makes whole TES part more transparent, and skaters can look at the score and see areas they need to improve, ie. under-rotated jumps. My problem w/ the scoring system is on the second part of the score, PCS. This is equivalent to the old “presentation” score, and is still very much subjective. What kind of “music interpretation” is a good one? How can the judges know every single piece of music out there and how it should be interpreted? ‘n even very famous pieces can have new interpretations. Moreover, we have seen same skaters, same program, one day s/he performed well, all the PCS scores are up. Next competition, s/he made mistakes and all the PCS dropped, including choreography. But the choreography clearly hasn’t changed at all. S/he may get penalized on SS or PE, but not CH. What do you think?

  17. collapse expand

    I have to disagree with you on this one.

    Figure skating already gets terrible reputation for being too “artistic.” I have friends that constantly argue with me that figure skating shouldn’t even be considered a sport. And promoting athletes to put pretty choreography ahead of correct technique won’t help.

    I am a HUGE Asada fan, but despite what some people say, if she can’t do the correct lutz there is NO REASON that she should be putting it in her program. If she wants to, she should accept the deduction in points that come with it. Some skaters go through the extra trouble to learn the correct lutz, and it is not fair.

    It’s like making a rule in basketball that says “As long as you do a really cool shooting pose, we’ll give you the point even if the ball misses the basket” simply unimaginable in any other sport.

    It’s only been few years since the rule was made and obviously skaters are adjusting. Correct way for them to go is realize that this is here to stay, suck it up, spend the extra time and effort to learn the correct technique.

    About the average audiences not understanding, well I would rather have some people scratch their heads than to dumb down the sport for average audiences who can’t be bothered to learn the rules of the sport they’re watching. It still boggles my mind when people ask “how come that person came first when he/she made a mistake?”

    Not only does Kim have the correct technique but she is also able to perform quality choreography. That is the only direction skating should be headed.

    • collapse expand

      as for Nagasu, her jumping techniques has been criticized since she was a junior. The fact that she under-rotates her jumps is not a surprise. She had time to fix it, and it’s a shame she didn’t bother to. She is a delightful performer, but a sub-par athlete. Since figure skating is an athletic event, she should be judged by the latter.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  18. collapse expand

    Hi Jenny! I’m extremely happy to have discovered your blog. I’ve missed watching you compete. I still remember quite fondly your Chicago program with the incredibly sparkly dress and sassy attitude. You were a class act on the ice and you are a classy writer also.

    Anyway, I must disagree with your analysis. I believe the COP has helped the sport tremendously. I even find myself accurately predicting scores before the judges post them (and then I readily congratulate myself). I feel that if you cannot complete an element, it should be left out. If you decide to compete with said element and do it poorly, you should be heavily penalized. I enjoy picking out errors that more casual skating viewers can’t see. (Oops! That was a flutz…)

    With Mirai’s FS, she was very bad, IMO. She knew how poorly she skated immediately when the music stopped. She wasn’t surprised at all by all the deductions and downgrades. She got graded for what she did and did not do.

    My only quibble with the COP is that the ladies’ programs are alllll the same with litter variation from one skater to the next. But the individual qualities of each skater cannot be muted.

    I love figure skating!

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    About Me

    I’m originally from Boston, living in LA, with a passion for the world of figure skating. During my career on the ice, I was a world junior champion, a five-time U.S. national medalist, and a three-time world team member. Since retiring from the sport, I have dedicated myself to attaining my college degree with a major in broadcast journalism. I’m looking forward to sharing my views on the ins and outs of the skating world, along with my opinions and thoughts on various issues coming from the ice. I welcome you to my blog!

    To contact me: Jeki815@gmail.com

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    Location:Los Angeles, CA