New Judging System: Boring?


I was at a party a few weeks ago where a friend of a friend (non-skating) told me she’d recently watched some figure skating on TV. Though she couldn’t remember what the event was called, I gleaned from her description that she had probably stumbled upon Skate America on ESPN.

“So do you guys have new judging system, or something?” She looked at me with confusion. I confirmed that this was, in fact, the case, and that it was implemented in response to so-called “Skategate” in 2002. She nodded her head in recognition of the debacle then asked how this new system works. I attempted to explain how it’s now all about accumulating points and how there is a new “technical panel” in charge of identifying the elements. I added a few details about levels and program components. In all, I was feeling pretty good about how I was getting better at describing IJS to the layperson. I concluded my spiel with, “The new system is completely different, but, you know, the more things change the more they stay the same, right?” I chuckled, and raised my wine up a few inches, thinking that me and my new best friend would clink glasses over this universal truth.

But she was asleep.

Okay, she wasn’t really asleep, but her eyes had glazed over and she was obviously sorry she asked, so I immediately hit the conversational ball into her court and inquired what she does for work. Finance. (Now it was my turn for a nap.)

Sports are big business. Skating sells tickets, paraphernalia, and, most lucratively, advertising spots during TV broadcasts. This popularity trickles down to coaches: the more kids (and parents) who see and fall in love with skating, the more kids who lace up for lessons.

People tune in because of the entertainment value. Our sport has provided a lot of entertainment over the years, and not just in the form of scandals. The public has long been enamored with figure skating because it is aesthetically pleasing, difficult, and exciting. The excitement is derived both from what happens on the ice – falls, popped jumps, acrobatic maneuvers, the worst or most triumphant skate of someone’s life – and also from the scores, afterwards.

Fans are sometimes incensed and other times in agreement with the judges, but the point is that, just by virtue of forming their own opinions, they are investing in the outcome. This is what differentiates skating from ballet, for example. Ballet is incredibly beautiful and ballerinas are accomplished athletes, but there are no outcomes or results, so the viewing experience is entirely different. (Some might argue that the experience is superior or more nuanced, but I’m speaking here in terms of mass popularity, and ballet, relative to skating, is under the radar.)    

The successful contest-type reality shows like American Idol and Dancing with the Stars (and Skating with Celebrities, ha!) work on the exact same principles as competitive skating. The performances are entertaining in and of themselves and, then, everybody wants to hear what the judges have to say. (Of course, the judges, especially in American Idol, are as entertaining as the performers; there is a bombastic quality to the judges’ verbal critiques that skating will of course do well to avoid.)

The key is that sports fans want to have confidence in the scoring process: mainly, that the individual judges are knowledgeable and ethical and that the system enables them to reward competence and difficulty appropriately. Basically, it all comes down to fairness and efficacy.

All of this came into question in 2002 when it was revealed that a French judge allegedly made a deal with a Russian judge at the Olympics. Suddenly, impropriety, back-room dealing, and years of questionable tactics were displayed on televisions and newspaper covers around the world. It did seem like something drastic needed to be done. The ISU, headed by Ottavio Cinquanta, (a former speedskater) responded by doling out a second gold medal, slapping a few wrists, and rolling up its sleeves in order to perform surgery on the judging process. 

Whether or not IJS was the result of a complete organ transplant or merely plastic surgery is a matter of debate. It seems to me that it was a little of both: there have been some extreme changes (Accumulation of points rather than comparing skaters! Levels! Scale of Values! GOE’s! Technical Panels including coaches!) and some minor ones (“program components” is the new name for what is basically still the artistic score; there have been a whole host of niggling clarifications regarding the placement of limbs and feet in relationship to the head or the ice surface; and all of it, of course, is still very subjective). Many people believe that, after all this, the current body, IJS, isn’t much healthier than what we had before, and, in fact, it may be worse off.

What I’m interested in, here, is the outside perspective, whether or not it is easy and fun to follow, and whether the entertainment factor is intact. Of course, as a coach, I’m inevitably looking at it from the inside to out.     

Imagine if your old friend, a person you’ve known pretty much your entire life, just got a new kidney, a new brain, a new left arm, and a new face. This would take some getting used to and it would be especially painful if you had to watch him wander around all woozy and disoriented. This is how a lot of coaches, officials and skaters are feeling about skating. We’re trying to be patient and supportive while the sport re-establishes its identity within the new system and we’re working hard to believe that it’s still the same sport we grew up with, that it still has the same heart. 

Meanwhile, the relationship has definitely changed. As coaches, our process of choreographing and strategizing in order to accrue points has necessarily transformed. Unfortunately, information is scattered piece-meal across documents released over the course of months. If you want to learn the specifics of how IJS works in your discipline starting today, there is no one, final place to go.

It is amusing to me that one of the more helpful references is called ISU First Aid, a set of packets prepared for Technical Callers. The implication of this monicker, of course, is that this new system is flawed and in need of rescue. These guides are some of the most thorough documents out there, so many coaches have printed them out and placed them in binders, to lug into the rink. But these pages are by no means definitive, up to date, or user-friendly.  

Coaching is a new business, now. There is a new math and an urgency to keep up with the constant changes. (For further comment on this issue, see my previous posting entitled IJS: Ch-ch-changes. And imagine my amusement/horror when, a few weeks ago, most coaches received an e-mail offer from the PSA to provide IJS updates in the form of text messages!) Officials have had to re-tool as well. Both judges and the technical panelists have had to scramble to figure out what is going on.

I can only assume that if it’s a struggle for insiders to keep up, then it has got to be laborious for fans, as well. But perhaps this isn’t a valid assumption. After all, when that friend undergoes all those afore-mentioned transplants, he seems totally different to you. But if you weren’t as familiar with him to begin with, then maybe the changes in his inner-workings and facial structure wouldn’t seem so drastic. Still, I’ve got to believe that, even to acquaintances, he’s harder to relate to, now; sadly, there’s a distance. 

For example, the media is having trouble explaining IJS. Of course, there is method to IJS madness, but it’s too complex to fit into a quick sound bite (or cocktail party conversation.) I think there used to be a frustrating sense of mystery surrounding the 6.0 System because the method of scoring seemed too arbitrary and abstract. Now, there is exactly as much mystery but for the opposite reason: there is a surplus of information. IJS is not impossible to follow, but it takes a lot more effort. 

Maybe fans didn’t always understand the judging rationale under the 6.0 system, but they did understand that a 5.9 was closer to “perfection” than a 5.2, so they had some sense of context. Besides, this scale was finite and easy to conceptualize. There was a particular thrill when skaters earned a 6.0. The marks themselves often received standing ovations. Is there the same magic or “wow factor” now when skaters achieve a “high score”?

Something else we took for granted with the 6.0 System is that it was unique to skating, a trademark, of sorts. If a person tripped while walking down the street, then recovered with a flourish and a “tah dah!” her friend might clap and say, “6.0!” IJS will not have that kind of pop-culture recognition. Mind you, I’m not arguing for the old system, I’m just taking some notes.    

There are a lot of television fans who say, “I didn’t understand the judging then and I don’t understand it now: I just think skating is beautiful.” But there many different kinds of fans. There are avid fans who purchase tickets for local and international events. Many are observing IJS like hawks and weighing in on skating chat sites. Some speckle the stands at practice sessions and clamor for autographs. There are the fans who, under the old system, before standings were immediately displayed on the jumbotron, would scribble the judges scores into their programs and somehow tabulate the results before they were posted. There was a sort of cultish bravado in being able to do this and there’s no reason for it now.

Many of the most ardent fans are questioning whether the performances are still as awe-inspiring as they once were, now that skaters are beholden to this new set of stringent requirements. Athletes are speedskating from element to element and contorting themselves in odd positions. Many contend that the programs are starting to all look the same, that skating, of all things, is becoming…boring.

Keep in mind that fans all have varying abilities to recognize elements. So while we, as coaches, are watching, we are automatically identifying elements (and now, features, and levels, etc..) but the average viewer doesn’t necessarily even know the difference between an axel and a lutz. To them, all the jumps look the same, so, if all the spins, step sequences and spiral sequences also look the same to them, we have a problem. I’m extrapolating here: If all the skating looks the same to these fans, it’s unlikely they’ll become attached to any one skater and form opinions about his or her outcome. Therefore, their investment decreases and entertainment value, for them, I’m sorry to say, is probably diminished.

While we bury our noses in our ISU First Aid binders, and brush up on our math skills, it’s important to not lose sight of the fact that skating, first and foremost, should be fun for the skaters, and secondly, entertaining to the public. I think it’s critical that we keep tabs on whether IJS is threatening this. After all, if the kids aren’t enjoying themselves and the public dozes off, then we’ll be forced to pursue careers in (snore) Finance.


What are your thoughts? Please add your own two cents.

To read an impassioned open letter to Ottavio Cinquanta regarding IJS, written by Sonia Bianchetti, a long-time International skating official from Italy, click on:

And tune in next week: I’ve been in hot pursuit of useful information on boots and blades…



  1. Susan · November 28, 2007

    I totally agree that explaining (and understanding) the new judging system requires a “how much time do you have to stand here with me?” moment. Be that as it may, I think the new system is far superior to the old. Although the 6.0 system had the wow factor, it reinforced the public’s image of skating as not a sport, way too subjective, should not be in the Olympics, etc.

  2. BA · November 29, 2007

    This is the complaint I hear from “insiders” of our sport… it’s getting boring now b/c everyone is doing the same thing. I am torn on this point. I do think the levels have forced skaters to do positions and holds that are more difficult than those done under the prior judging system. Yet in the same breath, the spiral sequences and spins are losing their former uniqueness. I do like the fact that spins are getting the notoriety and points they deserve. The old system never really credited skaters for fantastic spins.

  3. Yussel · December 6, 2007

    I am thinking Stalin (that’s how old I am) at the very end. You couldn’t pay enough money for new skates. They were like gold…very expensive gold. Now, heat molding, hinge, comfort…I wish I was young.

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