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Figure Skating's New Judging System

As I write this I'm looking forward to this week's (14 March - 20 March) World Figure Skating Championships in Moscow. I fearlessly predict that at least one judging controversy will have skating fans in an uproar.

Up until the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City (US), fans delighted in arguing over the results of competitions, but most assumed that the orders of finish were generally the result of honest differences of opinion. (There had been a few incidents of blatant dishonesty, such as two judges caught on tape playing 'footsie' during another competition.) But by and large, the judges were assumed to be honest. All that changed after the pairs competition, when French judge Marie-Reine LeGougne blurted that she had been pressured to place the Russian team in first place. She later recanted that statement, but the cat was indeed out of the bag.

The head of the International Skating Union (ISU)1, Ottavio Cinquanta, used the uproar following LeGougne's announcement to force through a new judging system that supposedly would address the issue of corrupt judging. The old system, known as the 6.0 system, assigned skaters numbers to rank them. The numbers themselves had no intrinsic value or meaning; they were simply placeholders that allowed judges to decide who finished first, second, etc. The new system, known as the Code of Points, instead assigns a point value for each skating move and a grade-of-execution for how well the skater performs the move. For example, if Joe Skater does an iffy 'flying goombatz' during his program, he may get 7.5 for the goombatz itself but -3 for poor execution. All of these points are added up to arrive at a cumulative total for the skater's programme. The winners are decided by total points accumulated during all phases of the competition. (The details of the system are more complicated than that, and computers are needed to handle all the calculations. You can find the details on the ISU's Web site - see link below.)

In addition to introducing the Code of Points, the ISU also instituted a couple other changes. First, individual scores are no longer linked to the judge who awarded them. In other words, the judging is now anonymous. Second, not all judges scores are used. Out of a panel of, say, 14 judges, maybe 3 of them will have their scores discarded. Again no one, including the judges themselves, will know if their scores count. ISU officials insist that the new system is objective and that these changes will make it more difficult for any judge to game the system and affect the results.

If you are rolling your eyes over this last assertion, you're not alone. Serious skating fans almost uninformly hate anonymous judging. They insist that anonymity simply hides corruption, rather than weeding it out. In fact, before the 2003 World Championships in Washington, DC, a group of fans got together and formed SkateFAIR, an organization that tries to promote openness and accountability in judging. (SkateFAIR was born one day when one member of the Yahoo Skatefans group said, 'You know, we could stage a protest...'.) Also during 2003 Worlds, a few members of the ISU announced the formation of the World Skating Federation which they hoped could wrest control of figure skating from the ISU.

To date, the Code of Points has been used at a number of international competitions and this year will be used for the first time at the World Championships. It has enough of a track record for an observer to note that inexplicable results haven't disappeared. The recent European Championships saw Russian skater Irina Slutskaya win the long program with a lackluster performance over skaters who performed more energetic and technically difficult programmes. It's becoming obvious that judges are using the component scores to rank the skaters; so much for the assertion that the new system is 'objective'. In addition, it is not true that the new system can't be gamed. For example, the highest and lowest scores are dropped. A judge who wishes to affect the outcome need only give a skater a 'mistake' score of 0.95. This will accomplish a couple things. One, if this score is not dropped, then he'll know that he is one of the judges whose scores are being counted. Two, if the 0.95 is dropped, it also means that the 'real' low score will in fact be counted, thus lowering the skater's total. This is significant when medals can be decided by hundredths of points. (Inexplicably, under the new system mistakes like a 0.95 can't be changed, even if video replay shows that it truly was a mistake. You can roll your eyes at that one, too.)

It's probably obvious by now how I feel about the new system. Any judging system is only as good as the people doing the judging, and herein lies the trouble. The Code of Points is a solution in search of a problem. The Salt Lake City controversy resulted not from a flawed judging system, but flawed judges. Rather than a Code of Points, figure skating needs a Code of Ethics which is rigourously enforced. Unfortunately the ISU appears to have a history of slapping the hands of corrupt judges (the two 'toe tappers' caught on television served six-month suspensions) and dealing harshly with whistle-blowers. This sends a message, loud and clear, and does irreparable damage to the sport's credibility.

Having said that, I still love figure skating. I love the combination of sport and art, the spectacle of difficult athletic feats done with ease and grace. Heck, I even love the sometimes-atrocious costumes. But I no longer take the results of competitions seriously. And this is a sorry state of affairs.

The skaters deserve better. Their coaches deserve better. Fans deserve better. The honest judges (yes, I believe there are plenty of those) deserve better. Unforunately, at this point, the ISU doesn't appear to believe it.

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1The governing body for both figure skating and speed skating.

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