Thursday, January 8, 2009

Art, Not Math: There’s No "Component Skating"


The biggest cliché in our sport used to be that skating is a sport as well as an art. Today, that's the biggest myth. Skating is increasingly a sport masquerading as art, and even that merely due to the requirement that the endless series of jumps are to be executed as part of a routine set to music. Many of the competitive programs today have more in common with those of male gymnasts than with the art of a John Curry.

The reasons are many, but the prime culprit is the four-year-old judging system that has quietly but greatly reduced the weight given to the presentation skills and made a mockery of how these skills are measured in the first place. For all the controversy surrounding the "Code of Points," at first glance it appears to have retained one feature of the familiar, century-old 6.0 system: skaters are still awarded both a technical mark and one that ... well, must have something to do with artistry, for what else is there?

A closer look at the second mark reveals how little it does to measure art — not that anyone even claims it does so. After all, those who concocted the new system named the second mark, most creatively, "component score." What it actually assesses is a patchwork of randomly-selected categories that have little in common with each other and even less with our notion of beauty on ice.

What's more, to the extent that it does measure quality in its idiosyncratic, arbitrary way, that score counts for so little by the time it’s all added up that it might as well be considered a tie-breaker of sorts than be glorified as an equal partner to the technical score. There's nothing equal about them.

Under the 6.0 system, skaters were awarded a technical and a presentation mark by each judge, which were compared side by side, judge by judge. World and Olympic titles were often won or lost based on one extra tenth of a point on the presentation mark on one judge (especially in later years when the second mark also acted as a tie breaker in the long program.) So a 5.7 for technical and 5.8 for artistic would beat not only a 5.7/5.7 but even a 5.8/5.7. No one in their right mind could have ignored that second mark.

Consider what happens with the Code of Points now, where points are not compared judge by judge but piled up for various elements like stacks of dishes. The technical and component score may look similar, but their actual impact on the competition tells a very different story.

Take the men's competition at the last Grand Prix Final. The difference in the component score between the highest and the lowest mark awarded to the five competitors was about 5 points. But the difference between the best and worst technical score was a whopping 22 points. The reason for this discrepancy is that, with rare exceptions, the individual component scores tend to be remarkably similar for all top competitors. One tenth here, three tenths there – that's out of a grand total of some 200 (!!) points. What are the odds that those few points will make or break a skater? It could happen, but a single jump combination can win you an instant 14 points in less than a second. Boom! Each jump landed, even poorly, is the equivalent of hitting the jackpot. Twelve points here, seven points there … you can almost hear those coins jingling every few seconds.

But what does a pointed toe and beautifully arched back give you? What about a program skated with pathos, flow, deep edges, and a tingling sense of musicality? On a lucky day maybe a few extra points. Hardly worth killing yourself for. Everything else being equal or nearly equal, sure, every point counts. Competitions have been won or lost by less. But given the limits on the time and effort skaters can invest in their training, what would you rather focus on the most? Landing that quad even if it kills you, or making sure your body looks good while you do it?

But what does it measure?

It's bad enough that the value of quality skating (or is that "component skating"?) has been greatly reduced. But what on earth does it measure? Can it really be that intangible quality that makes our spines tingle? If so, by what divine inspiration can the Powers that Be in skating claim to have unlocked the formula to the mystery of art? Some of us appreciate good form, with nice extensions and pointed toes; others are dazzled by great speed, agility and fancy footwork; yet others appreciate humor and character depiction.

But most of us simply fall in love with a program because it touches our hearts, which is what art is supposed to do. Moreover, we can tell when one skater's overall package is superior to another's without executing any fancy computations in our mind. That’s not to negate the intrinsic subjectivity of the sport, which no system can eliminate. But we, as human beings have an innate ability to compare and asses using our instincts (as long as we’re knowledgeable about the subject we’re assessing).

The best computer scientist on earth could not program a machine to judge an impressionistic painting. After all, a child will draw a tree that looks much more like the real thing than Claude Monet’s does. Yet most of us will still give the thumbs up to Monet.

Art is judged in its totality, not in its parts. Its power lies in its ability to move us. You don't need to be a neurologist to know that we use the right side of our brains to appreciate art. That's also where intuition originates, which we use to judge art. It's also the side concerned with the whole, not the parts. How can we then break down this natural process by slicing up art into "components" — the job of the other side of our brains?

Yet the international judging system has the chutzpah to claim that it can successfully assign scores that measure these qualities the way you tack on prices to cereal boxes on a supermarket shelf. The technical element mark may lend itself to that process. But art cannot and does not. The current attempts to do so demean the sport and are well on their way to ruining it.

Compounding the problem is the fact that some of the elements that get included in the second mark (like transitions or speed) would arguably belong in the technical score, now reserved almost exclusively for jumps and spins. When we lump everything else together in the second mark, we further dilute the value of those elements of skating that we associate with art and beauty.

So if we enjoy art in its totality, we must judge it the same way, too. And when a performance is so electrifying, for whatever intangible reason, that it succeeds in spontaneously bringing 15,000 people to their feet at the exact same time, it should sometimes be awarded with something that in this day and age does not exist any longer: a perfect mark.

As long as the International Skating Union continues to judge art with tools fit for IRS accountants, it should not be surprised that TV audiences flip channels to the weather station. And if the Code of Points is truly the best way to judge skating, maybe the ISU can use it to let us know whether Beethoven's Ninth is superior to Handel’s Messiah. 


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