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