Thursday, December 24, 2009

Top Contenders Injured: Sport or Battlefield?

With less than two months to go till the 2010 Winter Olympics, two of the male skaters considered to be among the top contenders for the title —  Evgeni Plushenko and Brian Joubert — are sidelined with injuries. World silver medalist Patrick Chan is having a rough season after recovering from a serious injury of his own. Two-time world champion Stephane Lambiel's comback is in doubt in light of his continuing struggle with a recurring groin injury. And 2008 world champion Jeff Buttle retired from competitive skating early this year to save his body from this kind of abuse. Many war veterans come home in better physical shape then Olympic figure skating contenders.

It's too soon to know if either Plushenko, the reigning Olympic champion, or Joubert, the 2007 world champion, will compete in Vancouver. Both expect they will. Even in the best case scenario, however, the training time lost in these crucial pre-Olympic months may impact their ability to do successfully.

Sport and injuries have always gone hand in hand, and skating is no exception. Ice is slippery, blades are sharp, and human muscles and ligaments are not made of steel. But what's happening to the men lately is out of the ordinary — as is the difficulty of what they are attempting to perform.

Plushenko's injury is reported to have occurred while he worked on a mind-boggling triple axel/quadruple toe combination, something never done in figure skating. The quad and triple axel on their own are the two most difficult jumps in the sport. Put them together and you have 7.5 rotations in little more than it takes you to say "wow." And Plushenko is also working on quad/quad combinations as well! Stunning athleticism, but the impact of halting these rotations on the skater's knees, ankles and hips is almost beyond our comprehension. When practiced over and over daily to achieve the consistency needed for competition, serious injury is almost unavoidable.

No other skater is attempting these particular combinations, but the top contenders are trying feats that are not too far off. While learning these jumps most competitors are not old enough to drink or vote. Yet they're punishing their bodies like never before attempting tricks that are nearing the limit of what the human body can do — or what it can withstand. Plushenko already had multiple surgeries on his knees. How many more can he endure? How many of today's skaters will get through their skating careers without doing lasting damage to their bodies?

One may well argue that at the age of 27 and in his second Olympics, Plushenko is old enough to make his own decisions, whatever the consequences. Fair enough. He makes decisions for himself, not for the future of the sport and the youngsters who are likely to try to emulate him. But the sport has a body overseeing it. Does the International Skating Union have no responsibility to draw a line in the sand at some point? It's never easy to do so. But that doesn't mean an attempt shouldn't be made. 

How far is far enough?
Many will ask, how do we know when we near the limit of the human body? Why didn't we stop with the double, the triple, or the triple axel? Why the quad? I argue that there is indeed something very different about the quad.

Incredibly, the jump has been landed in competition for nearly a quarter of a century! Yet how many clean quads are being landed even today for every 100 that are tried? A handful is probably an overestimate, and there are no more than a few skaters in the entire world who can land quads on anything resembling a consistent basis. By comparison, within less than five years after the first clean triple axel was landed, all top men were doing it. Doesn't that difference tell us something? Moreover, those who land the quad are not necessarily the best skaters overall. They just mastered one trick.

That's why we have to remember that the Olympic motto of "Swifter, Higher, Stronger" is not as applicable to figure skating as it is to other Olympic sports. Skating has the unique distinction of being a blend of athleticism and art — a judged sport, not one measured by a timer. We may each assign different weights to skating's inseparable identities, but we can't dismiss either entirely. But if the current trend towards maximizing points under the new judging system continues, all efforts will go into landing increasingly-superhuman tricks. Performing them cleanly and with sensitivity to the music, choreography, and audience enjoyment is becoming but an afterthought.

If this trend continues unchecked, figure skating will lose its identity entirely and become merely gymnastics on ice, with half the sport's competitors sidelined with injury at any given time. Maybe that's perfectly legitimate for the glory of sport. But it's not in keeping with the spirit and beauty of figure skating — and the sport is already paying a heavy price. TV audiences are dwindling, sponsors are turning their backs on skating, tours are folding, and professional skating is but a memory. 

Fans never flocked to the sport to see a quad. Ninety-nine percent of those watching can never even recognize it. But they can appreciate a rousing performance, the likes of which we only see once in a blue moon these days. If the ISU doesn't care about these young people's health, maybe it should check its bank accounts and reconsider if these quad combinations are worth the toll.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Mr. President, You Don’t Understand Our Sport


Ottavio Cinquanta's vendetta against artistry in figure skating is nothing new. With every action the president of the ISU has ever taken he’s dragged the balance between sport and art increasingly away from the beauty that has captured the hearts of audiences worldwide for nearly a century.

But by actually claiming in a recent interview that the sport has become "too hard" to create stars, he in fact admits to having driven skating into near-oblivion with his new scoring system while simultaneously showing how precious little he understands about the sport he presides over.

"The standard of skating is increasing and it will be difficult to have stars, because there are big names who perform the double axel only,” he told Reuters. “Now, if you don't do a triple axel you are number 30 in the world championships."

Now?! As it happens, triple axels have been routinely performed ever since the 1980s, a period many consider to have been a golden age of figure skating. That’s two long decades before the International Judging System went into effect. Brian Orser landed the first clean triple axel back in 1981, and by the 1988 Olympics no man was in medal contention without at least one — just like today. And women were doing roughly as many triples back then, too. (Midori Ito was landing triple axels back in 1988 and 1989.)

Yet throughout the 1980s and 1990s we had stars. Big stars that were household names, and big rivalries, the likes of which we don't see anymore. Katarina Witt and the Battle of the Carmens (Witt and Debi Thomas). The Battle of the Brians (Orser and Boitano), Torvill and Dean, Gordeeva and Grinkov, Paul Wylie, Kurt Browning, Michaelle Kwan, Sasha Cohen, and too many more to list. These skaters grabbed our imagination not because they favored art over jumps. They were all superb athletes. What made them great is that they had a balanced package — the true and historic trademark of figure skating. And just importantly, they competed under a system that recognized and reward this precious balance. The current one scorns it.

The difficulty of figure skating doesn't come — or should not — from doing endless series of multiple revolution jumps. Why bother with music then? Or with costumes more elaborate than those of speed skaters? Just line up the skaters and let them jump until only one's left standing. Is that what Mr. Cinquanta wants? Today’s four minute programs pack so many elements back to back that skaters have no time to catch their breath in between elements or interpret music, resulting for the most part in cookie-cutter, error-ridden programs that also put skaters at constant risk of injury.

True, a well-executed triple does add pizzazz to a program when used to accentuate the music. A series of jumps done at random to collect points add nothing to the audience's enjoyment. Difficult, quality skating means performing the tricks in sync with the music, with good form, and clean execution. It also includes a seldom-mentioned but key element of skating: masterful use of edges which give figure skating the flow and effortless feel that separates it from all other sports on blades. 

By using jumps as the principle defining measure of a champion, the system makes skating itself secondary and art irrelevant. As a result it has become increasingly difficult for a quality skater to stay at the top for any length of time and become a star — as Cinquanta himself rightfully noted. All it takes is for the other guy to do one extra jump and cash in a dozen points. Bingo, a new champion is crowned while the old one falls back out of the limelight. 

At first sight it may seem fairer to have surprise after surprise. But in fact it is not, because the real qualities of a champion — something audiences can sense intuitively — extend beyond that one jump to the overall greatness of the performance. That’s something that none of the "component marks" can measure. That's what we remember when we think of someone like Paul Wylie at the 1992 Olympics — not how many triples he landed.

And that's something Ottavio Cinquanta will never understand. Perhaps it’s too much to ask that a speed skater like him understand a sport so different from his own. But if so, I would humbly suggest that he should refrain from overhauling our rules and in the process change the very fabric of our sport. Is that really such an unreasonable request?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Shrinking Judging Panels: A Bane for Figure Skating


What sports other than figure skating can you think of in which a working judge or key official could go missing smack in the middle of a major international competition without any kind of public announcement or explanation? And that only three short months before the 2010 Olympic Games! 
Just five years ago such an incident could not have happened in our sport. With nine judges posting marks for the world to see, a substitute would have had to be summoned on the spot. But with today's judging system, in which the anonymity of the judges is sacred and the winners determined by a convoluted point system, judges can come and go as they please without anyone being the wiser for it. 
Instead of judging the men's event at Skate America two weeks ago, Ms. Florence Catry de Surmont of France was watching the competition from up in the stands. Meanwhile, the event went ahead with only eight judges instead of the planned nine. (And the French skater missed the podium by half a point.) The circumstances of the vanishing judge are unclear and ultimately irrelevant. Quite legal, the whole affair. Nine judges are not required in the new judging system, in which transparency has gone the way of the horse-drawn carriage. Eight—of which only five count towards the final score—are just as good. As long as the computer can randomly keep some of the scores, toss out others, and then spew out some sort of global score, all's hunky dory. 136.24. Wow. Crystal clear, isn't it?
But does anyone remember how this wonderously muddy new system came to be?  It was all because of a judging scandal involving another French judge, Marie-Reine Le Gougne, who admitted to an unsavory deal at the 2002 Olympics. The International Skating Union (headed by a speed skater) cooked up a controversial new system that was supposed to be less prone to the whim of judging deals and biases. 
The result: a system in which no one knows which judge from which country posts which mark — nor even which of the scores count towards the final result. No one in the audience sees any of the dozens of individual scores or points awarded that go into the magic brew — only the resulting global score which determines the winner. 
Meanwhile, the number of judges is shrinking so fast you'll have as many empty seats on the panel as you have in the stands. 
The alarming thing about the goings on at Skate America is not that the event was judged by only eight judges, but that a judge can walk away (or be sent away, whatever the case might have been) and no one seems to think it's unusual enough to report on it. Not a peep in the news. 
Nor does anyone question the accuracy of the results with so few judges on the panel, even when all nine are judging. Of these, only five scores are actually averaged to determine the outcome after two others are tossed at random by the computer and, of the remaining seven, the high and low mark are discarded. At Skate America only one judge’s score was tossed instead of two, so statistically it didn’t change the reliability of the results. But the incident is a further reminder of how perilously unreliable the results are under the new system compared to the old 6.0 system, with its solid nine-judge panel. 
A little reminder: Originally the new system required 12 judges on each panel, with a minimum of 10. That number was decreased last year as the sport's popularity went into free fall and the ISU couldn't afford to pay the expenses of sending its own judges to international events. The fact that the downturn happened in the years following the implementation of the new system doesn't seem to concern the ISU in the least. 
Since the whole point of the new system was to keep bad judging at bay, consider what happens when there are fewer judges on a panel. When the computer is done throwing this and that score out, you're left with only five scores to be averaged. Now if even one judge does not judge correctly, the impact of this misconduct on the final outcome is enormous statistically if his or her score ends up being one of only five that count. Moreover, the fewer judges on the panel, the fewer countries are represented, further increasing the chance for national bias to rear its ugly head.
So let's drop the pretense. Responsible and transparent judging was never the intent of the new system. Placating the cries for change in the aftermath of an inconvenient scandal was. The result is a system disinterested in accuracy and obsessed with protecting the anonymity of judges while leaving the audience in the dark.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Bring Back 6.0 Judging, for the Love of Skating


Facebook Group Asks for a Return to 6.0

If the International Skating Union were a corporation, it would have filed for bankruptcy by now. If it were a government, it would have been voted out of office. But as a private association with no accountability to anyone, it can preside over the most devastating decline in the popularity of the sport in recent memory — and refuse to do anything about it. 

Just consider this: In 1999, ABC signed a five-year contract with the ISU for $22 million a year. Today, the ISU struggles to find anyone to cover its major events and ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta was quoted last year as saying he would “give away the rights” if necessary if someone would only telecast of the 2009 World Championships. The ISU is in such dire straights that it had to reduce the number of judges for World and Olympic competition because it cannot pay their expenses!  

Audiences for skating are vanishing, tours are folding, TV ratings are plummeting, sponsors are turning their back the sport, and skaters can't pay for their training expenses. What could have gone so wrong? 

Can it be merely a coincidence that all this has happened in the aftermath of the most revolutionary overhaul ever in the way the sport is judged? 

In one big swoop in 2004, more than a century of skating history was turned on its head. The 6.0 judging system, which had served the sport from its earliest days through its biggest boom, was tossed aside and replaced by the International Judging System (IJS), a convoluted new scoring system based on a “code of points” and devised under the leadership of a speed skater.
The focus now is not on the performance but on accumulating points every second of the program, regardless of the artistic value of the elements that award them. The routines all look alike as skaters dip into the same bag of tricks and lay them out in the same order to maximize points.

Skaters and coaches, reluctant for years to speak out against the new skating order, can no longer keep silent.  
  • Johnny Weir: “The judging system is killing the sport … I'm longing for the day where you can see a beautiful program, where you can feel an emotion from it and not be adding up the points in your head.” 
  • Evan Lysacek: "[6.0] became an everyday, commonly used phrase, a brand … Losing that brand has been very difficult, and the sport took a hit."
  • Brian Boitano: "[The new system] is just really screwed up. We should just go back to the old 6.0."
  • Keauna McLaughlin: “You are so limited in what you can do that everyone is just going to wind up doing the same thing because there is no room for creativity.” 
  • Coach Carol Heiss Jenkins: "I don't think it's a fan-friendly system … In the old system, 6.0 was perfect. It's hard to know what the best is anymore. I miss that." 

Facebook: Bring Back 6.0 

In response to this growing unhappiness with the system, a group was formed on Facebook asking for a return to 6.0 judging. Members of “Bring Back the 6.0 Judging System ” include reigning Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko, world champions Tai Babilonia, Debi Thomas and Elaine Zayak, and a large number of world and national medalists and world-class competitors such as Mark Mitchell, Naomi Lang, Doug Mattis, Kati Winkler, Stefan Lindemann, Craig Heath, and dozens more. Coaches — such as Evelyn Kramer, Audrey Weisiger and Jose Piccard — have also jumped on the bandwagon. 

Nearly 900 people joined the group, even though the membership is limited to those active on Facebook and skewed to Facebook's young members, most of whom barely even remember the 6.0 system. Under the circumstances, the size and high-profile membership of the group is a powerful statement about the growing dissatisfaction with the IJS at all levels of the sport.

Not everyone is of the same mind, of course, particularly the judges. One of them wrote to me, “It's so much easier judging each element on its own instead of having to remember each and every element a skater did in the program.” That may very well be true. But the system should not be a matter of convenience to the judges but of benefit to the skaters and the sport. Besides, the judges are so focused on awarding points and deciding on levels of execution that they can’t see the forest for the trees. How can they even claim to maintain a perspective over the big picture when they have to constantly enter points on a computer screen throughout the entire performance? 

Most importantly, the system doesn’t merely change the way the sport is judged, but also the way it’s performed. Figure skating looks profoundly different now compared to just a few years back. No judging change in the history of the sport has ever done that. 

Ultimately, art is more than the sum of its parts. It is appreciated holistically and needs to be judged the same way. Artistic impression cannot be sliced up into five arbitrarily-selected components, like vegetables in a salad shooter.  

The perfect mark was not only a recognizable and beloved brand in figure skating, but has been the hallmark of all judged sports, whether skating, gymnastics, diving — even Dancing with the Stars. Judging an artistic pursuit cannot be turned into a mathematical equation. The result of attempting to do so is that creativity, innovation, and artistic statements in figure skating are things of the past.
If nothing changes, no one will ever get a perfect mark again. Audiences will never cheer or boo a mark, nor know which judge gave which mark. Judging is anonymous and incomprehensible. At the end of each performance (and following a painfully long wait) one mysterious, ugly global score is spewed out by a computer and announced to a confused audience: 147.86. Whoopie. The silence is deafening.

The time is ripe to ask the ISU leadership to at least consider the possibility that the new system has failed before the last fan walks into the sunset. It’s the fans, after all, who make or break the sport. For the love of skating, let's bring back the system that’s worked since the dawn of figure skating. Let’s return to 6.0. 

To join the Facebook 6.0 group, see 

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.