A Guide to Scoring Figure Skating at the Olympics

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Have you been watching the figure skating competition at the Olympics and wondering what the heck is going on? Why isn't anyone getting 6.0 scores any more? And why did the guy who fell on a quadruple salchow still win over guys that didn't fall at all?

First used during 2004 competitive season, the International Judging System (IJS) is the modus operandi for the competitive sport of figure skating. It's far more complex than the previous 6.0 system, and understandably creates a lot of questions about competition results from figure skating fans and insiders alike.

Here is a brief primer to help make better sense of it in time to watch the ladies competition in Sochi this week.

A Brief History

At the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002, a French judge confessed to being pressured to take part in a vote-swapping scandal after a questionable result in the pairs competition that rocked the skating world. It forced the International Skating Union to dump the long-esteemed (and infamously subjective) 6.0 judging system and build a more objective system from scratch. The result was the IJS; to say it's complicated is like saying rocket science is basic arithmetic.

The (Im)Perfect 6.0

While the new system is complicated, the old system wasn't a cakewalk either. In the 6.0 system, a panel of judges (anywhere from three judges at small competitions to nine at major elite-level events) would assign skaters two marks for their performances, rating them on a scale of 0.0 (horrible) to 6.0 (perfection). The “technical merit” mark measured the level of difficulty and quality of execution of jumps and spins, and the “presentation” or “artistic merit” mark went for quality of overall performance, including footwork, artistry and interpretation of music. Those two scores were then added together and translated to “ordinals”—that is, if the top skater receives two 5.9s (a total of 11.8), and the next best receives two 5.8s (11.6), 11.8 becomes a “1,” while the 11.6 becomes a “2.” From there, the majority rules. If the top skater got a majority of first place ordinals, they win. To come in second, the next skater would need to receive a majority of second place ordinals or higher. Third place needs a majority of third or higher, and so on. 

After the 2002 Olympic pairs competition, it became evident that the 6.0 system was too easy to scam. The new system is designed to force the judges to dissect a skater's performance down to its individual elements.

...In with the new.

The new system is points-based. Skaters receive two marks for each performance—a “technical” score and a “program components” score—that are added together to form a composite score. Add the two together and the skater with the highest composite score wins.

But it's not as simple as it sounds. There are two sets of officials evaluating the competitors. The first is a “technical panel,” made up of five specialists (including an instant replay video operator) who watch each performance, identify each point-worthy element attempted by skaters, and assign it a base value in points. (For example, attempting a triple axel is worth 8.5 points, per the ISU's preordained rules.) Their evaluation provides one part of the overall technical score for the performance.

The second set of officials is a nine-member judging panel that evaluates the quality of execution of those identified elements, based on a scale of -3 to +3. (Falling while attempting a triple axel could earn a -3 score for that element, for example.) The judging panel's assessment provides the rest of the technical score.

The judging panel also assesses each skater's footwork, flow, skating quality, musical interpretation, and other movements that link the technical elements together to come up with the “program components” score.

Finally, there's an official referee, who oversees everything, to make sure there are no shenanigans afoot.

Racking up the points

To use the recent men's event as illustration of the IJS scoring, Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu won the gold medal in the men's event in Sochi last week, despite two falls and some major bobbles. But Hanyu really knew how to work the system, throwing enough high-scoring elements into his program, and doing (most) of them with style. One could almost hear the cha-chinging of points in the bank as he completed each element, like Super Mario collects coins on his way to save the princess.

Here's how it played out: In Hanyu's gold medal-winning freeskate, his first technical element was a quadruple salchow, and he fell. So the technical panel looked at it and determined that yes, it was a quadruple salchow—in which he takes off on a back, inside-edge of a blade and completes four full rotations in the air—and thus it has a base value of 10.5 points. Boom! Points in the bank for Hanyu.

The judging panel then looked at it, saw that he fell, and gave him the lowest score for execution: -3. (All judges give individual scores, but the top and bottom scores are thrown out and the rest are averaged.) Add them together and Hanyu now has a total of 7.5 points. His next technical element was a quadruple toe loop, which he landed. Again, the technical panel determined that it was indeed a quad toe, so he got a base score of 10.3 points. The judging panel then awarded him 2.14 points for execution (it was a great jump), so he got 12.44 total for the quad toe. Add that to the quad salchow attempt, and the points racked up fast.

Just for comparison's sake, let's look at the first two elements of silver medalist Patrick Chan's freeskate.

Chan landed a quadruple-toe-loop-triple-toe-loop combination right off the bat. Because it was a combination of jumps, the technical panel said it was worth 14.40 points. The judging panel gave him the highest possible execution score of 3. That gave him 17.40 points. (At that point, Hanyu only had 7.5.) He then tried another quad toe, but touched his hand down on the ice during his landing. The technical panel gave him the base of 10.3 just like Hanyu, but the judging panel gave him -1.57 points because of the slight misstep. So he got a total of 8.73 points for the second quad toe, while Hanyu got a 12.44 for his.

In the end, Hanyu attempted more elements with higher base scores, and got higher grades of execution on most of them. The pair ended up with an almost four-point difference in their technical scores, and even though Chan got a higher program component score than Hanyu (by 1.72 points), it was not enough to make up the difference.

In the end, the final score in an Olympic- or World-level competition is actually a combination of the marks from the short program and the long program—so it's possible to do badly in one program or the other, and still win a medal, mathematically speaking.

Oh, and if you have several hours and want to know what every technical element is worth, feel free to comb through the exhaustive ISU rules.

Try out your understanding of the judging rules this week as the top ladies of figure skating take the ice to battle for gold in Sochi.

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February 19, 2014 - 1:00pm
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