An excerpt from "The Winter Olympics: An Insider's Guide to the Legends, the Lore, and the Games" by Ron C. Judd, a Seattle Times staff reporter.
It looks like a sport where you just strap on skates, get going fast, and do something crazy. But every second and every motion of a skater’s routine is carefully choreographed, and practiced ad nauseam. Because the sport is now ruled by a new and extremely complicated scoring system, a bit of background on the ins and outs can help spectators better appreciate what’s going right—or, often, horribly wrong—on the ice.
Field of Play
Olympic ice rinks for figure skating are 30 meters (99 feet) wide and 60 meters (198 feet) long—a few feet short of an Olympic-sized hockey rink. Some international competitions, and often major events such as the U.S. Olympic trials, are conducted on smaller, professional hockey-rink-sized ice. In either case, skaters wind up using every inch of it. Modern skaters have the advantage of skating on ice that’s reconditioned after every half-dozen performances. In the old days, this wasn’t the case. In earlier Olympics, figure skating took place on outdoor rinks, where wind, weather and ice conditions were major factors.
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The term “figure skating” has become something of a misnomer. Compulsory figures, that slow, tedious, meticulous tracing of set patterns on the ice by competitors, were axed from international competition in 1990. The move came largely as a result of greater TV coverage of skating, which focused on the athletic aspects of the sport at the expense of the compulsory figures, which, for TV purposes, are like watching paint dry.
Today’s singles and pairs skaters simply skate two programs: a short program, about two and a half minutes long, and a free skate, about four minutes long for women, closer to four and a half for men.
Beginning with the 2006 Turin Olympics, skaters have been forced to adapt to a new international scoring system installed in the wake of the 2002 Salt Lake judging scandal. It throws out the old 6.0 mark of perfection and replaces it with a complicated, much more detailed, computer-driven system that, frankly, is clearly understood by only a handful of badly-in-need-of-a-life figure skating wonks.
“Do you understand the new scoring system?” skating legend and ABC commentator Dick Button asked during an interview at the 2007 U.S. Nationals. “Because I don’t.”
Here’s an oversimplified way to explain it: Under the old system, you essentially started with perfect 6.0 marks for required elements and had points chipped away for things you either flubbed or failed to attempt. The new system is zero-based, awarding you points—in great detail—for things you attempt and even more points for moves you successfully complete. Skaters know what point values are assigned to certain moves before they begin. That’s how they now shape their programs to be competitive.
You still get two scores—one for technical elements, one for program components (the latter subdivided into five other categories)—and the highest score (thank God) still wins.
Further complicating matters, the International Skating Union, which brainstormed the system, has added an entirely new layer of “management,” if you will: a panel of three “technical specialists,” all equipped with TV replay monitors, who initially determine what kind of move was executed—whether a jump was a double or triple Axel, for example.
The judges then decide how well the move was performed, using a scale ranging from –3 to +3, which is then added to a predetermined point value for the jump (example: a triple Axel has a base value of 7.5; it can earn 10.5 if perfectly executed but drops to 4.5 if it’s shaky).
So has the new system changed the way actual competitions play out? Absolutely. The old judging system, in addition to its simplistic 6.0 scale, also placed a higher value on skater’s placement than on his or her actual scores. In other words, if one judge ranked a skater in first place with a score of 5.5 and another judge ranked a different skater in first place with a 5.9, those two marks were, for the purposes of the scoring system, the same.
Not anymore. The upshot is that under the old system, skaters who were anywhere below third or fourth place after the short program had, because of the placement, or ordinal, system, little to no hope of winning a competition, even with a sterling free skate. Today, skaters can leap ahead from much further back in the pack because their scores, theoretically, are based purely on what they do, not on how they did compared to someone else.
Well, sort of.
Many skaters say they like the new system, largely because it provides them with clear-cut feedback about what they’ve done wrong, thus giving them a roadmap to improvement the next time around. Some skating purists, however, complain that today’s skaters are sacrificing overall artistry and flow in a mad dash to pile up points by completing or, in some cases simply attempting, difficult or ugly moves that have high point values.
Beyond that, as the public is forced through what’s likely to be a long learning curve, there’s no clear recognition of what a score means. Everybody used to know what it meant when Michelle Kwan drew a row of 6.0s. They don’t really know what to think when she posts a short program score of 68. They ask, Out of what? A thousand? It’s a fair question.
This has had a downer effect on the sport’s fan base, some skating insiders insist.
“We’ve thrown away our icons,” two-time gold medalist and longtime skating commentator Button said of the new system and its ditching of the old 6.0 perfect score. “How would you feel if you went to a baseball game and you couldn’t yell at the umpires anymore?”
Nevertheless, the new system appears to be here to stay—whether anyone outside the inner skating world understands it or not.
Curiously, the new system may do little to prevent the very sort of corruption, exposed at the Salt Lake City Games, that spawned it in the first place. The new system has twelve judges, compared to nine under the old system. But unlike the previous system, where each judge’s score was posted publicly, the new system’s scoring scheme is kept anonymous.
Skating officials note, however, that scores are not anonymous to International Skating Union principals, who know who voted for which skater. And the technical scores are derived by choosing nine of the twelve judges’ marks at random and then discarding the highest and lowest of those remaining.
Translation: It’s still possible to bribe a judge, but it’s not as easy to bribe the right judge—one who can provide a guaranteed result. These days, you might have to bribe more of them to cover your bets.
If you remember nothing else, keep this in mind: The one with the highest point total wins. You get more points for trying more difficult jumps, even more if you’re successful. And you still get mandatory deductions when you fall. So, there’s that.
And here’s where the points will be applied: A typical ladies’ free-skate, or long, program today will have six to eight triple jumps, many in combinations; several combination spins; and a tricky straight-line step sequence. A typical men’s free-skate program will have as many or more triple jumps and now, for top-level skaters, at least one or two quadruple jumps thrown in for good measure.
Jumps provide the most scoring bang for the buck in figure skating. With a little—okay, a lot—of practice, you can learn to identify them. Here’s a list of the most common. Note that most of these jumps can be—and most often are—done with two to four revolutions before landing.
Jumps with a toe takeoff:
Lutzes: Launched by the right toe pick, with takeoff from the back outside edge of the left foot.
Flips: Launched by the right toe pick, with takeoff from the back inside edge of the left foot.
Toe loops: Launched by the left toe pick, with takeoff from the back outside edge of the right foot.
Jumps with an edge takeoff:
Axels: Because the jump is launched from a forward edge (the left outside edge), it has an extra half revolution, and thus it’s considered the most difficult jump. It’s landed on the back outside edge of the free foot.
Loops: Launched from a right back outside edge, landed on the same edge.
Salchows: Launched from a left back inside edge. Watch for the swinging opposite leg launching this one.
Pairs and Ice Dancing Scoring
Symmetry of movement is key for pairs, but the scoring is otherwise similar to that for singles. The main difference is that pairs obviously work from a different list of essential elements for their short program.
Ice dancing is all about flow. The sport emphasizes the grace of skating pairs, who essentially ballroom-dance their way around the ice rink.
Thus, scoring centers on how well the pairs move to music, how they execute their footwork, and how well they work together (not, as you might suspect, how little they are wearing out on the ice).
The primary difference in ice dancing comes in the competition format, which includes three rounds. The compulsory round, in which skaters complete a set of required maneuvers, is worth 20 percent of the final score. Next is an “original dance” round, in which all skaters get the same rhythm but can create their own routine to it. This round is worth 30 percent. The final round, worth half, is the free dance, with routines customized by each pair.
Judges apply the same scoring standards, with a technical score and program component score, as are applied to singles and pairs.
If you fail to understand a word of this, don’t worry: You’re not alone. Just wait for Button and Scott Hamilton to figure it out and explain it.
Training and Equipment
Figure skaters, not surprisingly, spend the vast majority of their time on the ice, practicing jumps, body positioning, spins, transitions, and footwork, often to the point of exhaustion. But this is a total-body sport, and the same types of training techniques—running, resistance and weight training, and reflex drills—used by other athletes have made their way into the modern figure skater’s training quiver. Some top skaters also devote many hours to formal dance training and other pursuits bordering more on art than athleticism; it’s necessary, they say, to become a complete skater, balancing fluidity with power.
Equipment has changed only modestly over the decades. Figure skates are boots with high ankles for support. Their blades are made of steel, which is not flat on the bottom, but concave, providing skaters with a sharp inside and outside edge from which to launch or carve turns. (The blades are so sharp that they’re actually melting the ice for an instant, allowing forward motion on a thin layer of water.) Figure skates also have a blunt, serrated tip, called a toe pick, used to launch jumps and stop abruptly.
Skating uniforms aren’t really uniforms at all, but costumes that become part of the show. They’re all made of stretchy, breathable fabric—in every conceivable color and style combination, particularly in ice dancing, known for its avant-garde ensembles.