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Nov. 6 2009 - 1:04 pm | 519 views | 0 recommendations | 24 comments

‘Star rules’ hurting skating

Brian Joubert

Brian Joubert

After Friday’s short program at the NHK Trophy, the international judges seem to be sending a clear message: They want to see Brian Joubert on the podium in Vancouver.

The five-time world medalist, who skated much better than at his Grand Prix opener four weeks ago, is currently standing in first place over the strong field of men. After earning himself a short program score of 85.35 points, Joubert is almost two and a half points above reigning U.S. national champion Jeremy Abbott and seven points above three-time U.S. champ Johnny Weir.

With such an impressive score, one would think that Joubert’s skating was head and shoulders above Abbott’s and Weir’s. In reality, while Joubert had a great technical performance, it seems as though his presentation score was inflated to the detriment of two much more artistic skaters.

While Joubert landed a huge quadruple toe loop-triple toe loop combination in his short program, making him the strongest jumper of the evening, Joubert’s spins–particularly his combination spin–were noticeably slower than the two Americans’, and he lacked the polish and choreography that both Abbott and Weir displayed. This is why it’s puzzling to see how the strength of Joubert’s second mark was the catalyst behind his win.

Abbott, who recently switched coaches after a rocky showing at last season’s World Championships, was easily the best skater of the night. His new short program is incredibly fluid, captivating, and dynamic. Where Joubert relies on mugging and pointing to the audience as choreography, Abbott genuinely interprets the music. Abbott’s edges are noticeably deeper than Joubert‘s, and his jump entrances are far less telegraphed. However, despite these strengths and a solid short program, skated with speed and the best choreography seen by any man this season, Abbott was marked lower than Joubert in his second mark. This leaves us to wonder what event the judges were judging.

The presentation mark is subjective. It always has been. Still, it’s incredibly difficult to grasp how the panel could find Joubert’s skating skills better than Abbott’s. Joubert’s program was exciting and a fan-favorite, but that doesn’t equate to having the best choreography or interpretation of the music; instead, it just means Joubert knows how to entice an audience of young women. With the subjectivity of the second mark, results like today’s can call into question the use of favoritism.

While skating has always been given a bad rep for sketchy judging, this use of favoritism isn’t unique to the skating world. In basketball, there are the “Jordan Rules,” a term for star players getting calls in their favor. Stars are not called for traveling as frequently and get foul calls more often. In baseball, umpires seem to give bigger strike zones to star pitchers, and well-known batters like Alex Rodriguez appear to receive smaller strike zones. All of these rules, to some degree, are constructed to give a bit of favoritism to the stars of the these sports. Brian Joubert is clearly a star of the skating world. So the question is, are there “Joubert Rules” in skating?

Joubert isn’t the only skater who has received a boost from the judges. Two weeks ago at the Cup of China we saw Kiira Korpi held up in the ladies’ event. Korpi didn’t have the strongest technical content in her programs and clearly wasn’t the most artistic skater of the field, but she still managed to take home the silver medal. This favoritism also came into play at the World Championships last season, where 2008 world silver medalist Carolina Kostner was held up based on the strength of her second mark.

These “star rules” may be a fact of sports, and to some degree it’s what comes with having humans act as enforcers, but it’s frustrating when we see results like today‘s. It indicates that the judges are coming in to these events with pre-assigned favorites and are judging based on something other than what’s actually taking place on the ice.

Joubert is a great skater. But his skating skills, choreography, and artistry are not in the same league as Jeremy Abbott’s. It’s disheartening to see these results, and I’m sure it’s frustrating for skaters like Abbott and Weir who were artistically superior to Joubert at this event. Our job as fans is to call out these discrepancies for what they are in the hopes that “star rules” are eventually phased out. Unfortunately, I don’t see this happening before February.


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    I have read this thing about choreography and interpretation of the music so many times. I wish people noticed that not only the soft, smooth interpretation is the only interpretation of music. There are different music styles and there are different interpretation styles.

    You say Joubert’s interpretation was far behind Abbott and Weir. To me, this comparison is as if you said Bruce Willis’s interpretation in Die Hard was far behind Leonardo DiCaprio’s in Titanic.

    They are simply different programs with different interpretation required. In my opinion, of course.

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    In total agreement again, I could almost have accepted Joubert being on top if it was on the strength of the technical mark, I would still have had some serious issues as Joubert had a hop off the landing of one of his jumps and his spins do not have the speed or complexity of others. But to have Abbot only ahead on transitions in the PCS is absolutely ludicrous, choreographically and interpretivally(if that is a word!) he is in a different league to Joubert.

    The message seems loud and clear this season the likes of Plushenko and Joubert are going to be gifted PCS on the strength of their quads. Abbott may be put in a position where he needs to go for a quad in his short. Only he and his coach can make the assessment on the risk of that decision.
    I do enjoy both skaters immensely for different reasons so it is not down to a personal preference for one skater over another. There are a few skaters who can bring great interpretation and quads to the table and I am really hoping they can bring it in the big events this season. Abbott would be one of these as would Takahashi although his showing today wasn’t quite back to his former standards. Lambiel is also a contender and it is a shame that he is not competing in the Grand Prix this season. Oda already secure of his place in the GP final has shown us some great interpretation with his long programme. It will be really unfair on these more rounded skaters if the attention they have paid to all areas of their performance is not given the recognition it deserves.

    The marking system could be used to such great effect if it was used properly but just as in the days of 6.0 the system is only as good as those implementing it.

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    Thanks for calling it right again! No one who understands what our sport is all about can claim Joubert is in a league artistically with Abbott and Weir.

    Where I disagree with you a little is on the cause for this unjust outcome. Without doubt, star power has a lot to do with it. It’s been like this since the dawn of skating and all judged competition, and sadly I see no way around it. But what I find even more upsetting is that the “new” judging system is fundamentally unable to reward those qualities that make someone “a skater’s skater:” flow, edge quality, musical interpretation, body line. That’s what quality skating is all about. The component scores carve up skating into parts as if the program was a loaf of meat. The result are scores that mark “components” (whatever they are!) — not artistry.

    The other problem is that speed and power are often confused with quality skating by the judges. Granted, it’s hard to cover the ice quickly and securely while jumping, spinning and doing intricate footwork. It should be rewarded. But it’s not the end-all of figure skating. The ISU President may be a speed skater, not a figure skater, but our sport is not speed skating and it should be marked in a different way.

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    I was very upset about the men’s scoring. Charisma and hip action should count for something, but not THAT much. Brian is exciting to watch, and does work the crowd, but that only counts under the “PE” (perf/execution) or “IN” (interpretation) component marks, at the most, right?…Not the ENTIRE component TOTAL!

    Jeremy was perfection. Although I actually felt that Johnny was a tad undermarked…but I agree with their standing, relative to one another.

    I hope the LP cleans up this mess in a fair manner.

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    I’m going to have disagree here a bit. First of all on PCS, I don’t think Johnny necessarily deserves higher PCS than Joubert. Johnny’s program is hardly having more choregraphy or transitions than Joubert’s. And he looked noticably slower than Joubert. Add in that Joubert is doing harder technical content, and I’d easily give Joubert higher PCS than Johnny.
    Second, I’d point out that while I’ve never seen them live, watching Kozuka after Abbott, I don’t get the feeling that Abbott is nearly as fast as some of the guys like Oda, Kozuka, and Joubert. Joubert actually IS a very good basic skating and skates with a lot more power than Abbott. However, Abbott did have more transitions and better choregraphy.. So maybe he should have had higher PCS.

    This being said I think Joubert deserves to lead right now. I think that while the quad is no the be in and end all of skating. I don’t think the quad is rewarded enough still. It is an incredibly difficult combintation that few men can do and it’s risky. I don’t think Jeremy was so much better on spins/footwork as to merit Joubert’s difficult combination. To be frank, I think the quad should be worth more than it is. And because it’s not given more points in base value, I’m fine with the judges rewarding it PCS wise. I mean 1.4 difference in TES, really? I don’t think so. If this is a sport risks like the quad need to be rewarded.

    And seriously shouldn’t there be more questions about Daisuke’s PCS. He had the highest PCS of the night and while I love him, he’s not the Daisuke he was two years ago. Once again hardly more transitions than Joubert, and a fall on footwork. Should someone who falls on their footwork truly get the highest skating skills of the night.

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      Thanks for your comment. I think as some posters below have mentioned, speed doesn’t equate to stronger choreography or skating skills. Joubert skates with a lot of speed and energy, but I still feel he is far below Weir and Abbott in terms of choreography and transitions. I agree with you that the quad needs to be worth more than it is, and I agree that Joubert was the strongest jumper in the short program. That said, he still needs to work on his spins, and he shouldn’t have won Friday’s short program.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    P.S. to my post above — this in response to becca above. I’m in full agreement with you about Takahashi. I think that’s an instance of the “star power” effect. He had no business getting scores on a level with Johnny Weir. Not only did he fall, but the flow of the program was seriously disrupted by the slowness of his recovery (I thought he was going to stop skating!). And the program had no oomph to it. I just don’t see where those scores came from.

    But I disagree about Joubert. You note that he has speed (which I acknowledged above) and that his technical elements were higher. Right on. But the PCS is not supposed to reflect the technical part all over again. It’s supposed to be separate. As for speed and power, like I said, they’re important, but this is figure skating, not speed skating. Other elements should count as well (or more, in my opinion).

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    We had a skatenastics watching party last night and were debating the mens short like wildfire.

    My views:

    1. Skating skills should be more than just a mark on someone’s speed. Edge control, turning ability, cleanliness of the edge, flow, ride out of the blade,etc should all be considered. I actually think it shows extremely poor skating skills when someone like Kozuka or Kostner books it down the ice so fast and then loses control before their jump takeoff and has a wipeout that is seen from a mile away.

    2. Johnny’s short is too front loaded. He needs to put the flip later on in the program like he used to do. I could not give it a good mark for transitions in good conscience.

    3. Joubert’s spins are slow and the positions aren’t great. His footwork looks noticeably easier. He does sell everything well.

    4. Judges need to stop just throwing up GOE and PCS for everything because a skater does a quad. One judge gave Joubert a zero GOE for his lutz in the short. Give me a break.

    5. The ladies are so incredibly weak compared to 2006 and all of the edge and UR calls have to be contributing to this. I think Michelle Kwan’s Carmine Burana was the only truly beautiful spiral sequence we’ve seen all season…haven’t seen a video of Sasha’s short from skate for the heart. Sasha could absolutely contend internationally if all of the skaters keep performing as they do.

    6. With all of the men being so close, judges need to start differentiating their range on the PCS marks. The judges’ need to lose their anonymity. One judge actually gave Kozuka an 8.75 for performance execution when he did an illusion turn out of his lutz and tripped, fell and stopped during his footwork. He is a great skater, but his execution wasn’t great during that program. 8.75 is completely out of line.

    7. The judges need to start awarding bonus points for originality and things that are truly special. The Rippon lutz should be worth more than just a well-executed triple lutz. There are things written into the judging system that make it not so horrendous but they are never used.

    8. Becca’s comment about Joubert deserving higher PCS because he did harder elements…wow. Only his combo was more difficult. The spins and footwork were certainly not. Awarding someone higher PCS just because they did a quad combo negates the logic and purpose of two marks.

    9. The system needs to be more specific with what counts as a transition and what doesn’t. Joubert and Plushenko have great imaginary transitions that no one seems to see…but the judges give them great marks.

    10. Adam Rippon and Michael Brezina are huge stars for the next four years.

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      9. The system needs to be more specific with what counts as a transition and what doesn’t. Joubert and Plushenko have great imaginary transitions that no one seems to see…but the judges give them great marks.

      I agree. So much of their programs consistent of two-footed skating and posing. This doesn’t equate to difficult transitions or choreography.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    Fantastic details (“davelease”)! Where do you have your skatenastics parties? NO chance you’re in San Francisco/Bay Area, is there?

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    I would also like to add that the ISU needs to define choreography better and judge it accordingly. Becca wrote that Johnny doesn’t have much choreography. How do you figure? He has lots of turns, accents, embellishments, steps etc that aren’t part of an element per se. He holds his body in different ways with intention. This also blends with interpretation, which is another huge issue with how PCS are judged.

    Mandatory deductions for performance execution may be in order. But then…why judge performance execution if the judges take neutral/mandatory deductions off of the TSS. And when does performance execution…selling something with conviction, performing it well…when is the line drawn between interpretation and performance execution?

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    jumpingclappingman – I’m in the SF Bay Area, too. The lines between the different components of the PCS and TSS are so blurry and overlapping that the scores reflects nothing other than reputation and whatever arbitrary breakdown of elements they concocted when they put together the new system. The only thing these scores don’t measure is ART. That’s what skating is supposed to be all about (or at least half of it!). Instead, all we hear about is quads and speed. Something is very wrong with this picture. True, Johnny Weir got a silver last night. But that’s not because his artistry was recognized by the judges, but simply because a few of the other skaters messed up so badly that even with all the propping up the judges did they couldn’t save them from oblivion.

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    I would like to correct my previous post—I was referring to Takahashi, not Kozuka receiving an 8.75

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    The NHK GOE and PCS scores have shown that bias, or possibly even corruption, have crept back into the ISU judging system (did it ever leave?). As stated above, a zero GOE for Joubert’s SP lutz? Pleeez!

    I think that we need to organize a protest at Vancouver during the Olympics. It seems like embarrassment is the only motivation for the ISU to clean up its act.

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    I forgot to a few more points….judging anonymity should be the first thing to go! Also, judges should be required to justify the GOE and PCS scores after every competition.

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    I just watched the ice skating on tv. The womens was interesting (loved the cleopatra costume).
    When were the pairs featured? Did I miss it. I saw no promos for ice skating on the channels. Yesterday was focused on college football. Was the skating promoed at all?
    The ice dancing is a yawn for me; the pairs is truly dangerous, beautiful and exciting to watch. I thought the commentating was done pretty well. Dick on abc has become too flagrant in his praise…like hearing “awesome, awesome” all during the 90’s.
    Is our little American the little gal who had the great pony tail 18 months ago?
    Thanks for letting me vent.

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    Where can I find the tv schedule for all pre olympic ice skating?
    Jen, I enjoy your column.

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    I agree. It is obvious the judges want the boring “Quad Boys” on the podium. Both Joubert and Plushenko are great jumpers, but their choreography, in-betweens, spins, leave a lot to be desired. And these two seem to rely too much on “gimmicks” and “salesmanship” to the audience and judges. I found Plushenko’s “Number 1″ showboating to be annoying, obnoxious, and showing poor sportsmanship. Joubert’s mugging/pointing is an old, tired trick that I saw a lot in the mid 1990’s programs, especially from the pros.

    Now it seems the judges give high marks not only for complete Quads, but for audience reaction. I guess audience reaction is now included as part of the PCS. It doesn’t matter if the rest of your components suck–have a Quad in your arsenal and mug to the audience, and you, too, will be on the podium.

    Problem is, using gimmicks to “sell” a program does not equate high quality skating and execution. It’s like being subjected to used car salesmen on skates, and I feel cheated when skaters resort to cheap tricks to rev up an audience; what they’re doing is covering up the poor quality of their skating.

    And while speed is important, it is not the ultimate definition of good skating, unless you’re Apolo Anton Ono.

    For the ladies–it is troubling to see so many problems with under-rotated jumps and wrong-edge takeoffs. I wonder if this is due to poor training technique or these girls being fast-tracked to learn the jumps quickly as possible. If they are being fast-tracked, good technique is going out the window in favor of a skater mastering a jump. But doing a jump incorrectly is not mastering it. Perhaps under-rotated jumps was always going on, but the judges didn’t penalize the skaters. Also, it appears that wrong-edge jumps weren’t penalized as much under the old 6.0 system as they are now. I recall Dick Button commenting about wrong-edge takeoffs in the ladies long programs, but then adding that it won’t really hurt the skater all that much, because the long program is supposed to be all about artistry.

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    “newsmuse”…find my blog (by clicking on my usename here), drop me a quick email via “contact” there, and i will contact you…if you might be interested in any skating viewing parties (ie: Nationals, Worlds, or Olympics most likely, or course).

  18. collapse expand

    I just turned off Skate America. Please explain how YN Kim can fall and make two ugly, very visible errors, yet be only 5 points worse than Rachael Flatt’s perfect performance.

    These two programs were not equal at all. One was good, one was bad. Period. I know they said something about Rachael’s spins not counting, but how can repeating a spin count the same as falling?
    They wanted YN to win, and that was that, IMO. She’s the chosen one, and is forgiven a lot more than Rachael and poor Mirai Nagasu.

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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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