Tough to Judge

Times Staff Writer

From the ashes of the scandal that incinerated figure skating’s credibility came massive reforms to a judging system that had been laughably easy to corrupt.

Change was needed long before Marie-Reine LeGougne, a French judge assigned to the Salt Lake City Olympic pairs competition, said she had been pressured by her national federation to vote for a Russian duo in exchange for Russia’s vote for a French ice dance team. Although she recanted, she and the federation president, Didier Gailhaguet, were suspended for three years and barred from judging at the Turin Games.

Scolded by the International Olympic Committee and scorned by a global audience, the International Skating Union rapidly overhauled its judging and scoring procedures. The system that will crown the Turin champions was introduced in September 2003 and was gradually phased in to widespread use.


The familiar 6.0 standard has been replaced by cumulative scores derived from prescribed values for each jump and spin. Judges’ names are no longer linked to their marks at international competitions, and a computer randomly chooses nine scores from every 12-judge panel in calculating scores.

Instead of a mark for technical merit and a mark for artistry, judges consider an array of criteria in compiling a total element score for jumps and spins and a program component score, which encompasses skating skills, transitions, performance/execution, choreography and interpretation.

For fans, calculators are a must. So are translators: The detailed result sheet from the long program Sasha Cohen performed to win her first U.S. championship last month shows that she did a CCoSp4, an LSp4 and a CCoSp3. Runner-up Kimmie Meissner’s routine included an SpSt3 and a 1A. (See accompanying story and chart.)

Poetic, it’s not. An improvement, it is, though it has some flaws.

“It’s a mixture of good and bad,” said John Nicks, who coaches Cohen and is preparing for his 13th Olympics as a skater or coach since 1948.

“It does reward a skating routine that has difficulty placed in it. It challenges skaters to be better and have better edge control and turn control. But I think there’s a lack of understanding and a lack of some enjoyment on the part of the general public. People always knew what a 5.5 or a 5.9 meant. They don’t yet understand what a 123.7 means.”

Last month in St. Louis, the system was used for the first time to determine the U.S. champion, and it ran smoothly, said Ron Hershberger, president of U.S. Figure Skating. The Salt Lake City scandal, he said, “was terrible, a real black mark for the judge involved because it caused suspicion about the whole system. But if it provided the impetus to make improvements and changes, maybe it’s something we had to go through.”

The system’s key feature is specifying values of elements, allowing skaters to aim for certain scores in planning programs. There’s also a grade of execution that’s added to or subtracted from the base value. A technical specialist identifies each element and is supported by a technical controller and assistant technical specialist; video replay is available to verify their decisions.

Judges score the quality of each element and program components. They no longer compare skaters and place them in relation to each other, instead evaluating them purely on performance. After a computer randomly selects nine scores from each 12-judge panel, the highest and lowest marks are eliminated and the average is calculated from the remaining scores. Jumps landed in the second half of a program earn a 10% bonus.

“The new system pushes me to be great,” said three-time U.S. men’s champion Johnny Weir of Quarryville, Pa. “There’s not a time for breathing. You have to give 100% all the time. It’s very hard, but I think it’s making all the skaters stronger as far as being an athlete is concerned.”

Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist and now an NBC commentator, said he interpreted the spate of injuries this season as a consequence of skaters pushing too hard to master tough jumps or spins and pad point totals.

“Now that they’ve put a lot of pressure beyond the jumping on the spins and the footwork and the entire routine, what’s that going to do to people’s physical health?” Hamilton said. “And I think that’s one thing that really needs to be looked at.”

Critics say that programs have developed a stifling sameness because skaters repeat specific moves that judges have previously given high marks. Sonia Bianchetti, a former judge and referee who has written extensively about the sport, said that after watching the European championships she wondered “what is left of the art” of figure skating.

“The programs, in all four disciplines, have been homogenized; they look exactly the same with the same step sequences, the same spins and spin combinations; because the rules are constraining the routines, they have taken away the freedom of the skaters,” she wrote in an essay distributed to fans and journalists.

“We are no longer seeing the skaters’ passion, the skaters’ joy during their performances; we are only seeing skaters suffering and struggling to get to the end of overly demanding programs. There must be some reasons behind this disaster and I think the ISU leaders should start to reconsider the whole structure of this Code of Points system.”

Nicks agreed that innovation has waned. “The originality some skaters had is being reproduced,” he said. “Maybe that’s a challenge for us coaches and choreographers, to come up with something new.”

Evan Lysacek, the U.S. men’s runner-up last month, attributed the repetition to caution on the part of skaters, coaches and choreographers as they learn the new rules.

“People are a little bit hesitant to go out on a limb in an Olympic year,” said Lysacek, who trains in El Segundo. “I think the system itself leaves plenty of room for originality, but we’re going to go with what we know is a level 4 [move] in an Olympic year. The future is a lot more encouraging for trying new things.”

David Wallechinsky, an Olympic historian and author, said the system hasn’t eliminated the possibility of cheating or collusion.

“I like the idea of scoring moves that puts them on par with gymnastics,” he said, “but the whole idea of having 12 judges instead of nine and we don’t know whose score counted, that’s not going to change anything. If you’re going to bribe judges, it’s not going to cost that much more to bribe 12 instead of nine.

“It’s just outrageous that you don’t know which judge is attached to which score. Even boxing judges are accountable for their scoring.”

Hershberger acknowledged that no system is foolproof but said this system “reduces the risk to the greatest extent possible” because of the random selection of marks and elimination of high and low scores. “You’d have to get more than one or two people to skew the result,” he said.

He also said he initially opposed judges’ anonymity, but some U.S. judges told him their peers felt more comfortable to vote their conscience and avoid pressure from their federations when their names weren’t linked to the marks they gave. Federations send judges to major international events. “Though it may not be the politically correct position to take, better take the correct position than what’s politically expedient,” Hershberger said.

Accountability for judges, he added, was addressed when the ISU established an officials’ assessment committee. “If that’s not producing good results, we can take a look at it again,” he said.

“It is a new system, and there are adjustments that will be made, such as to the scale of values. It wouldn’t be surprising to see more adjustments, especially after you’ve used the system a few more years.”