Inside the Rings: Figure skating, uh, what?
Why the fuss? Figure skating’s much-maligned scoring system is,
in fact, easy to understand: The Chinese got marked up for being
married – husbands and wives who stay together after hurling each
other across the ice deserve 10 extra points – and Ukraine’s pair
was docked for teeth-grindingly yucky Flash Gordon costumes.
Oh, sorry, have I got that wrong? Rats. It’s too confusing.
From a scoring system fans could no longer trust, to one they
It’s more honest, but more incomprehensible than it used to be.
And that’s frustrating.
Fair and understandable should not be too much to ask.
The women skaters’ see-through suits are more transparent than
the complex charts, computers and mathematical formulas judges are
using at the Vancouver Olympics to differentiate one triple axel
from another. In revamping its scoring system to make it less prone
to fixing by crooked judges, skating is leaving befuddled
spectators out in the cold.
Don’t just take my word for it.
Here’s Terry Dinsmore, picked at random from the crowd that
packed Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum for the Olympic pairs
competition. She was lost, so much so that by mid-point through the
evening she was wondering why she was there. The fact that her pair
of $420 tickets were a gift from a business contact offered some
“I just get really frustrated when the scores come up because
they have no context for me,” she complained. “It takes away from
That the sport is doing such a wretched job of explaining its
grand-sounding International Judging System to confused souls like
Dinsmore is truly unfortunate. Because, actually, the scoring now
is far better and fairer than under the old method that was ditched
after the judging scandal that blackened skating’s name at the Salt
Lake City Olympics in 2002.
That, for those who’ve preferred to forget this fiasco, was when
the International Olympic Committee ended up having to award two
golds in pairs after a French judge ‘fessed up that she’d been
pressured to favor the Russians.
So farewell to the old system where 6.0 was perfect and the
crowd could have a little fun hissing when the judges – are you
blind, stupid or what? – only awarded 5.2s or 5.3s for a
performance that clearly deserved nothing less than a string of
5.9s and teddy bears thrown onto the ice, to boot.
Trouble was, it wasn’t very scientific.
Those who skated first were at an immediate disadvantage because
judges, keeping their powder dry for those later in the show,
weren’t going to award them perfect marks no matter how well they
executed their toe loops, twizzles, salchows or death spirals. And
that wasn’t fair.
In Vancouver, husband-and-wife pair Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo
skated first in Sunday’s short program, but still got the highest
score of the night. That would have been almost unheard of in the
Reputation isn’t so important, now, either.
Previously, star skaters had an undeniable advantage, equivalent
to Tiger Woods being allowed to tee-off yards closer to the pin
than everyone else. Judges were less likely to squander their 6.0s
on unknown skaters if big names were coming up later in the night.
That meant the champions were harder to dethrone than they are now
which, again, wasn’t very fair.
As relative unknowns, the American pair of Mark Ladwig and
Amanda Evora would have, under the old system, struggled to place
better than 15th. Going into Monday’s free skate, they were
delighted to rank 10th – a feat due in no small part to the fact
that their skating, like everyone’s, is now judged on its merits
not on how famous skaters are.
So far, so good.
What skating needs to do now is ditch the elitist attitude. That
means not treating spectators like idiots who could never
understand the system even if they tried.
Scores on Sunday were announced without explanation – 76.66 for
Shen and Zhao, 75.96 for second-placed pair Aliona Savchenko and
Robin Szolkowy, 57.86 for Evora and Ladwig, etc.
It could have been the weigh-in of a gardening club’s giant
marrow contest. As it turned out, Shen and Zhao’s score set a world
record, so at least spectators could guess that they’d done OK. But
was 65.36 for Canada’s Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison good or bad?
More importantly, was it what they deserved? How can the
uninitiated know? They can’t.
Not surprisingly, the crowd response was often subdued. Not much
of an ambiance. You could sense that people didn’t feel as if they
were being involved. And that, at an Olympics or anywhere, can’t be
good for a sport.
The answer is not bringing back the old system. Fairness for the
athletes trumps spectator comfort any day.
But tweaks would be nice, so the scoring works not just for
skaters but for the people who watch them, too.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The
Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org.