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

can’t understand.

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

the excitement.”

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

old days.

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)