Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Dead Poets and the Battle for the Soul of Figure Skating


I'd like to invite Mr. Cinquanta and the ISU Technical Committee to watch my favorite movie — Dead Poets Society. No, I'm not losing my mind. What could figure skating have to do with movie about poetry and a boys' academy? Everything!

In case you ever watched this wonderful movie, you may remember one of the most powerful scenes in the beginning when the teacher, Mr. Keating (Robin Williams), asks the boys to rip out the first chapter of a book on poetry in which the author plots various measures of the poetry's value on a graph to calculate its greatness.

"Excrement!" Keating declares.

"We're not laying pipe!" he says. "We're talking about poetry. How can you describe poetry like American Bandstand? 'I like Byron, I give him a 42 but I can't dance to it!'"

That's exactly what you've done to figure skating, Mr. Cinquanta. You've chopped up the intangible qualities that are part of an artistic whole, assigned them point values, and then added them up at the cash register to produce results and records that mean absolutely nothing. Zip. They are, in Keating's words, excrement.

Keating goes on to say:

"We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion."

And so is figure skating, when done right. Music is passion, and a captivating, heart-searing performance on the ice is all about passion and connecting with the audience.

How can you plot that? What number, what component score can measure passion?! Ultimately, is that the worth of a John Curry, Katarina Witt, Torvill & Dean, Brian Orser, Gordeeva & Grinkov, Paul Wylie, Stephane Lambiel, Sasha Cohen, Johnny Weir, or whoever your favorites may happen to be? Is that what they're all about? A Code of Points?!

Poems cannot be assigned numbers, and neither can a passionate figure skating performance be looked down upon with enough contempt to be broken up and plotted and assigned ridiculous meaningless numbers for interpretation and skating skill and other magical qualities that we instinctively appreciate as a whole.

"This is a battle, a war, and the casualties could be your hearts and souls," Keating sums up in Dead Poets Society.

He's right. So is the battle to judge the sport and art of figure skating. If we do nothing and let Mr. Cinquanta and his cronies get away with treating art like a calculus equation, we allow them to rip the heart and soul out of figure skating forever.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Addendum to Last Post: More Officials Speak Out


The March 15 entry of Save Skating entitled “Top Officials Say Judging System Seriously Flawed" addressed serious allegations made against the new judging system by high-level officials in the sport: Olympic figure skating judge Patrick Ibens and former referee and long-time ISU official Sonia Bianchetti.  

Since then, more top-level ISU officials have followed up with further stinging criticism of the system. They are Sally Stapleford, former chair of the ISU Technical Committee, and Britta Lindgren, a former member of the ISU Technical Committee. Here are some quotes from their column. Read and weep. Or better yet, join those of us who speak out to keep this system from destroying our sport for good. 


The ISU should reflect on the fact that they’re creating judges that are far less accountable … Incompetent/dishonest judges can sit at the meeting after the event without explaining anything in regards to their scores, and no one can accurately gauge their knowledge or lack of it. 

If you were a honest/independent/ knowledgeable judge you would relish the  opportunity to explain fully your rationale for certain marks/placements, as we both did when we were judging. But the system that is now in place favours mediocrity and discourages independence. 

Sadly some of the creators of this current judging system have never been judges, and, consequently, know very little of what is in the best interests when it comes to producing fair and honest judging... Hopefully now they will realise the error of their ways - which was totally predictable – by blindly going along with a Speed Skating President and his followers.  

When are the ISU going to "wake up and smell the roses?" They need to realise that they should scrap the famous "corridor" and return to a system that encourages judges not to worry about being in the "corridor" or "in line", but to judge fairly/ honestly and independently. 


Join the Facebook group “Bring Back the 6.0 System in Figure Skating.” 

Monday, March 15, 2010

Top Officials Say Judging System Seriously Flawed


“I don’t think that the components are judged fairly … [in order] to stay in that stupid corridor of average marks.” — Patrick Ibens, judge 

“The [program component] marks do not reflect the skating but rather the starting order and the reputation of the skaters.” — Sonia Bianchetti, former referee and chair of the ISU Technical Committee 


And we all turn a blind eye?!  

The discontent with the current judging system among skaters, coaches, officials, and fans alike has been spreading like widlfire in recent years. Yet even the most unhappy of us seem resiged to the new status quo. “Too late to change it,” everyone says. “Let’s try to tweak the rules here and there.” 

Tweak? How can you tweak something that is fundamentally flawed? How can you fix a system that straightjackets skaters into paint-by-numbers programs and doesn’t reward creativity and artistry? And how can you ignore dire warnings from high-level officials in the ISU that the five-year-old judging system — conceived by a speed skater — is not fit to judge figure skating?

Judges seldom if ever speak out about their jobs and their peers. So when international judge Patrick Ibens blew the lid open on major flaws in the judging system, his words sent shockwaves throughout the sport.  

The flashiest quotes from Ibens’s interview concerned dishonesty among judges. (Ibens estimated that only 10 percent of judges are “completely honest.”) But the fact that judges have their own agendas is hardly news to anyone who’s ever rolled up their eyes at a skating result. (And anyone who has not, please raise your hand.) We can’t change human nature — nor can any judging system devised by man. 

But the most serious charges leveled by Ibens (who judged last month at the Olympics) have to do with the way the system itself forces judges into poor and dishonest scoring by punishing them if they don’t mark program component scores (PCS’s) within an average “corridor.” The results are catastrophic, and that’s not inherent in the sport but specific to the International Judging System (IJS). 

The corridor or shame

“What I hate the most about this system,” Ibens says, “is that it is made to save the “not-so-good” judges, while the really good judges who are marking the way it’s meant to be (every component separately) risk the chance of being out of the corridor of average marks, and risk getting some assessments. A judge who basically does not know anything can give all the wrong marks or completely guess and their marks fall into an average! But someone who wants to have wide margins between components might be singled out for doing so. For example, when scoring the first three groups at the World Championships, you give between 5.50 and 7.00 and you are in the safe corridor. When the last groups come on the ice, give between 7.00 and 8.50 and you’re safe again!” 

This is a serious allegation — not the kind of thing you can sweep under the rug. Imagine the judges award a skater with a good reputation an extra point on each of the five component scores to make sure they fall within the magic corridor. That adds up to a whopping 10 extra points in the final mark (combined for the short and long program). With many competitions decided by as little as one point (e.g., men’s event at the Olympics) this built-in bias is certain to skew results consistently in favor of skaters with a solid reputation and against those who perform surprisingly well on a given night. 

In plain English, we have consistently wrong results! 

Skaters like Mirai Nagasu or Johnny Weir at the Olympics, for instance, could not break into the medals even with outstanding skates because their PCS’s have most likely been set based on expectations. The risk for the judges was too great to adjust each PCS. Conversely, a Patrick Chan or Stephane Lambiel can do no wrong. Sure, they’re wonderful skaters. But at the Olympics they had all the appeal of a patient walking away from a root canal. Yet the judges didn’t dare mark them down in PCS’s. 

In a friendly response to the Ibens interview, former referee and ISU official Sonia Bianchetti reinforced the general sentiments about this infamous corridor. “The PC marks do not reflect the skating but rather the starting order and the reputation of the skaters,” she said. 

Bianchetti also expanded on another big issue Ibens raised: the requirement that judges mark “absolutely,” without comparing skaters, something that defies both human nature and the nature of our sport. 

The absolute mark debacle

“The only way to be consistent through the whole event is to be thinking all the time whether the marks given now make sense compared to the marks given before,” said Bianchetti, who has served as an ISU official at the highest levels of the sport for more than four decades. 

“Under the IJS the judges are now asked to evaluate performances on an absolute point scale without comparison to any other performance. While this may  be conceivable when evaluating individual elements of a program, for the program components it is not. These are entirely different ways of thinking,” Bianchetti said. 

In other words, art is more than the sum of its parts and doesn’t lend itself to being quantified in points. As human beings we intuitively judge by comparing. We can look at a piece of paper and guess very accurately where the middle point is simply by comparing the two halves. But if we had to guess how many inches across the paper is, we’d not do nearly as well. Why are judges expected to do just that?

These issues are only two of many serious flaws afflicting the new judging system. Skaters and coaches have complained about being too constrained by the system. Fans don’t enjoy performances any longer. Skating is hurting financially as audiences are turning off their TVs. And much has been written about the controversial new judging system in the mainstream media  (as well as in this blog, such as here and here). And yet most people are so afraid that the IJS has become entrenched by now that taking action seems unthinkable.   

But the stakes are too high. Both the quality and integrity of figure skating have been seriously compromised under IJS. Why is it that a few people were able to throw into the trash bin of history the familiar 6.0 judging system, which has served our sport for more than a century, but only five short years after this experimental new system was launched, everyone thinks change is already impossible? It is only if you believe it to be so. 


Join the Facebook group “Bring Back the 6.0 System in Figure Skating.” 

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Let the Complaining Begin!

When Evgeni Plushnko vented his anger over his Olympic defeat he quickly became the laughing stock of the skating public on this continent. Granted, he fueled the flames of ridicule by awarding himself a platinum medal. The surreal atmosphere was only compounded by the Russian propaganda machine which amplified his complaints. Even Vladimir Putin chimed in with outrage. Plushenko quickly became a caricature figure in North America. But back home, most likely he's a hero. Perspective is everything sometimes.

After all, since when is outrage at judging decisions cause for derision in figure skating? Many of the same people who told Plushenko to give back his medal if he didn't like it complained with the same (and rightful) vengeance about Johnny Weir's low placement. And surely we didn't forget about the firestorm of indignation over Sale & Pelletier's loss in 2002. True, the awarding of a second gold medal was made possible by the French judge's confession, not by our collective boos. But long before Marie-Reine Le Gougne became a household name in the skating world, much of the skatedom was up in arms, especially on this continent. 

In other words, when our favorites appear to be scorned, we have just cause to cry bloody murder. When we're happy with the results, the unhappy party is whining. Is this a reasonable standard by which complaints should be judged?  Why is it ok for us to complain but not for others whom we don't like so well? 

The problem with a subjective sport like figure skating is not that there's too much complaining, but that there's no formal mechanism within the sport to challenge a controversial result. If some kind of appeal process were in place it would channel frustration into a formal, orderly process, rather than allow bottled up anger to fester forever with no recourse. 

The new point-based judging system claims to be more objective, but in fact grants judges as much leeway as ever to do as they please. Jumps and spins do indeed have point values that are more measurable than in the past; but the five component marks — which the audience never sees — give judges plenty of room to manipulate results. To hold up someone, all the judges have to do is award the skater one extra little point in each component mark in the short and long program. That's an extra 10 points for the skater's total score, and most events are decided by far less. (To look no further, the men's competition at the Olympic was won by 1.3 points.) 

So let's drop the pretense of objectivity and face up to the fact that our inherently political sport is as prone as ever to injustice and discontent. Any process that encourages accountability can only help. Granted, we'd have mayhem if every skater who felt scorned were to file a formal appeal with the ISU. But at the very least a federation should be able to do so in extreme cases.  

The one major downside of such an appeal process would be that the complaint could well turn out to be heard by a kangaroo court. With the ISU in charge of both the initial judging and the appeal, it's highly unlikely that many if any results would ever be overturned. But at the very least it would make judging more accountable by putting the judges under the spotlight. 

Right now judges avoid all scrutiny by the public or media. The entire process is veiled in secrecy as none of the individual marks that make up the scores are posted at the end of a performance. The audience and often much of the media have no clue how the judges arrived at their decision until the judges are safely out of the building.  

Imagine, however, that judges would be forced to face a press conference to explain their scores once a complaint is filed. If their scores are justified, they would have nothing to fear. If they're not, it may make the judges think twice about playing politics with athletes’ lives again. Even if no action is taken, at the very least the system would be more transparent, allowing people to listen to all arguments and understand what happened a little better. And who knows? Maybe once in a blue moon, a wrong could actually be righted even without a French judge in the eye of the storm.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Was Plushenko Defeated by an Email Controversy?


"The judges used to have one mark to monkey around with. Now they have five,” columnist E.M. Swift recently wrote in Sports Illustrated. 

Truer words have never been spoken about figure skating and its mystifying component marks. Just consider the men's competition in Vancouver and the newfound obsession with one of the elements that make up these intangible marks: transitions. 

As everyone knows by now, shortly before the Olympics got underway U.S. judge Joe Inman created a maelstrom when he sent out an email to some 60 skating insiders raising questions about how Evgeni Plushenko is being judged on transitions, a key element under the new judging system and arguably Plushenko's weakest point. The email and the ensuing controversy accomplished two things: 

  1. It went a long way towards helping defeat the 2006 Olympic champion, and may have made the difference between gold and silver.
  2. It proved once again that you can monkey around with the International Judging System every bit as much as with its predecessor. The hypocritical claim that there’s anything "absolute" about the scoring now, or that the system is somehow less prone to political shenanigans is hogwash.  

None of this is to dispute the outcome of the men’s competition. Evan Lysacek of the United States defeated Plushenko fair and square. Not only were Plushenko’s transitions weak (or non-existent), but his program was poorly constructed and front loaded with jumps. But all that’s besides the point. 

Given the razor-thin margin of victory and the way Plushenko used to be marked in previous events, it is highly unlikely that the reigning Olympic champion would have been upset under normal circumstances. But Inman threw a monkey wrench into this competition. 

Once the news was out, the controversy spread like wildfire, fueled by a media that smelled blood. Within days it became a scandal of Olympic proportions, even before the opening ceremonies got underway. What happened behind the scenes from that point on is anybody's guess. But here are some facts to ponder.  

In the two previous international events in which he competed this season, Plushenko skated the exact same programs as in Vancouver, yet he received higher transition scores than most or all his competitors — generally in the 7 to 7.5 range, slightly but not much lower than his other component marks. At Europeans only Stephan Lambiel had a higher transition score. And at the last Olympics in 2006, Plushenko won with a 7.75 for transitions — the highest score of the competition. 

Fast forward to the 2010 Games. Plushenko's transition mark in the short program was 6.8, a mark Plushenko had never seen in his life. And in the long program, ten men had higher transition scores than the reigning Olympic champion! This sort of thing just doesn't happen every day in figure skating, particularly on an element that hardly anyone ever paid any attention to before. Jumps are different. You can’t hide a botched triple axel. But a component mark? 

Are we to believe that this major change of heart among international judges is entirely accidental and unrelated to the controversy involving Inman's email? Were the judges simply swept away by the glow of the Olympic spirit and decided to mark Plushenko down for his poor transitions? If so, you must also believe that Sale & Pelletier were awarded a gold medal in 2002 out of the goodness of the IOC's heart. 

The math is simple, although the speculation will go on forever. Plushenko lost 1.85 points to Lysacek in transition scores, while the final point difference between them was less than that: 1.31 points. The scores were just. But would they have come out the same way without the Inman controversy? We’ll never know. 

But this incident demonstrates that politics continue to rule skating every bit as much as ever. Either Plushenko was marked correctly in Vancouver, in which case he was held up in previous competitions, with utter disregard to the poor quality of his transitions. Or else, if he was marked fairly before, the scandal sunk Plushenko at these Games and helped put Evan Lysacek over the top. 

Whichever scenario you prefer, this controversy shows that the new judging system is as open to bias and prejudice as the one it replaced under the pretense of cleaning house. The only thing that's changed is that under the 6.0 system we knew exactly who awarded offensive marks. Now politics as usual thrives just as much, but under the veil of secrecy and anonymity. 

Friday, February 19, 2010

Performance of the Night Buried in Politics and Component Scores


While the U.S. celebrates its first men’s figure skating gold medal in decades and the rest of the skating world engages in a war of words over the merits of the victor and the value of a quad, the real highway robbery at this Olympics is flying under the radar screen, largely ignored or shrugged off. 

Maybe it’s the fault of a moronic judging system that’s only capable of dissecting edges and splitting hairs on transitions, never taking stock of a performance as whole or the magic of the moment. If you prefer, chalk up the atrocity to the same old cancer that’s been eating at the heart of the sport’s credibility since its inception: judging bias, a wrong that no scoring system known to by man can right. 

Fact is that on the night of February 18 one competitor skated his heart out more than any other. With the skate of his life, Johnny Weir put down a performance of Olympic caliber that was technically as difficult as that of the winner — if anything, even smoother, with jumps landed like butter and artistry flowing through his every pore. Eight triples, all of them landed and finished off with graceful flow and precision. The performance didn’t seem strained, calculated, contrived to gain points at every step but exuded the joy of skating that was once the hallmark of our sport. 

For that, it didn’t go unrewarded. The audience jumped to its feet as one. It was the kind of moment the Olympics are supposed to be all about. But the magic went straight over the judges’ math-filled heads, and Weir got buried in sixth place. The judges found the program lacking — in what, heavens only knows. They rationalize it, to be sure, in mathematically indisputable ways. After all, art is simply a mathematical equation under the International Judging System. You can slice it every which way, score umpteenth components and spew up a global score that only computers can understand. 

Problem is, none of the rationalization holds water. Everyone with a good pair of eyes or glasses knows Johnny Weir laid down a medal-winning performance and the judges were too blind and prejudiced to score in the moment. Their decision was made months in advance. Whether they didn’t like Weir’s tassel, his fur controversy, his poor placements over the past few years, his reality show, or his pink mats in the Olympic village, it’s all besides the point. At the Olympics they did not judge what they saw on the ice. 

Could this have happened under the 6.0 system? Sure, but probably not in this case. The old system was every bit as corrupt as the one that replaced it (under the laughable pretense that it would eliminate human bias). But at least it was transparent. The audience could see every mark from every judge right up there on the screen. Had Johnny Weir — who received perfect 6.0’s under that system — received a string of 5.2 last night, the booing alone would have made headlines. Instead, he got a global score of 156.77, which means nothing to anyone. So the booing stopped quickly, muted by utter incomprehension. 

Few people care what happens to skaters who don’t medal, but predetermined judging is just as wrong regardless of whether it happens to the gold medalist or the sixth place finisher. Or the 25th. Skaters who stumbled out of jumps on Thursday night, who sat on the ice, and who otherwise couldn’t move the audience to more than a polite applause got higher scores than those who skated cleanly. 

Patrick Chan and especially Stephane Lambiel are quality skaters who on a good night of competition deserve every mark that’s handed so lavishly to them. But neither of them had that kind of night at this Olympics. They fell or stumbled. Lambiel was uninspired and uninspiring, something that rarely happens to him. Even the jumps he did land were so close to a sitting position that most of the credit he received must have been for his uncanny ability to save them. Patrick Chan stumbled both in the short and the long, sitting on the ice on the second triple axel. Yet both of them placed higher than Weir, who didn’t miss a beat. 

Changing the judging system clearly can’t change human nature. But what it did do is create a system that cannot see the forest for the trees. The judging is so mired in technicalities and math it completely loses track of the performance as a whole — the spark, the connection to the audience, and the intangible magic that defined our sport for more than a century.  

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Remembering the Champions: Olympic and Otherwise


As the Olympic torch completes its journey to Vancouver, we are increasingly reminded of the glory of past Olympic champions and the indelible mark so many of them left on the sport of figure skating. There are many of them indeed, and it's on their shoulders that new champions rise to greatness. 

But by focusing so narrowly on Olympic gold medalists to the exclusion of all others, we do a disservice to the sport. This is true for all sports, considering that the difference between gold and also-ran is sometimes measured in milliseconds. But it is even more so for figure skating, a judged sport in which the Olympic title is not always decided by objective measures but by intangibles, such as reputation or the whim/taste/politics of the judges. Until the last couple of decades, champions were often crowned on the basis of compulsory figures, not performance abilities. And with the new scoring system, in close competitions even random luck  could make the difference, as the computer throws out some of the judges’ marks at random. 

So this is a good time to remember that the difference between gold and silver is not necessarily as deep and wide as history books and endorsement contracts would lead us to believe. 

Many skating champions who lack the most coveted of titles have often had as big an impact on the sport as the greatest gold medalists at the Games. In fact, some of them have won more medals and dominated the sport for a longer time than some Olympic champions whose star at times faded quickly after a moment of brilliance. How many people in middle America would be able to identify Sarah Hughes, Alexei Urmanov, or even Shizuka Arakawa, in spite of their well-deserved victories? Chances are a lot more casual Olympic viewers would recognize the names of Michelle Kwan, Brian Orser, Sasha Cohen, Paul Wylie, Kurt Browning, Irina Slutskaya, Todd Eldredge, or Toller Cranston, depending on how far back their skating memories reach. 

The path these skaters carved was not blazed on one night, but over long years of competing at the highest levels of the sport. Stardom and longevity go hand in hand in a sport focused on personality as much as figure skating. Remember the media circus around Sasha Cohen’s attempted comeback at the U.S. Nationals just last month? Cohen doesn't even have a world title to her credit, let alone an Olympic one. Yet she has something more highly coveted and rarely seen these days: star quality. She captivates, and the cameras follow her every step, indifferent to accolades. 

Or consider Brian Orser, first known for landing the first clean triple axel in competition and then for combining his athleticism with artistry to dominate men's figure skating throughout the 1980s. He missed his first chance at gold in 1984 because of compulsory figures, even though he defeated Scott Hamilton to win both the short and the long program. Soon thereafter, he and Brian Boitano captivated world attention with their epic "Battle of the Brians" rivalry, which culminated at  the 1988 Games with one of the closest results ever. 

A decade later, Michelle Kwan won nine U.S. titles, five world championships, and two Olympic medals.  But as fate would have it, neither of the Olympic ones were gold. Does it matter so very much? Obviously so. But should it? Do the accomplishments of a Brian Orser or a Michelle Kwan add up to a whole lot less than those of the skaters who edged past them on a fateful night of competition? 

How about Paul Wylie, one of the most beloved artists in skating history? He didn't even need a national title to be a fan favorite throughout much of the 1980s and early 1990s. His surprise silver medal performance at the 1992 Games was one of those unforgettable moments in Olympic history, arguably overshadowing Viktor Petrenko's gold medal win. 

Then there's Toller Cranston, who along with John Curry in the 1970s made artistry in men's figure skating a new standard of excellence for decades to come. Curry deserves the lion’s share of the credit, both for leveraging his talent into Olympic gold and for his extraordinary musical sensitivity and style. But the era of men's artistic skating was heralded by his competition with Cranston, an artist whose expressive style and dazzling costumes — much like Johnny Weir’s today — made it possible for male figure skaters to express themselves in ways never before seen in the sport. 

Many others who “failed” in their attempt at Olympic glory deserve credit as well for pushing their rivals — and thereby the entire sport — to greater heights. Debi Thomas pushed Katarina Witt to become a better jumper. Midori Ito’s superhuman leaps, including her triple axel, served notice that ladies skating was on a par with the men’s. Irina Slutskya kept challenging Kwan, who in turn pushed their younger rivals, who eventually leaped ahead of them both. 

Evgeni Plushenko didn't win his gold medal till 2006, but his rivalry with Alexei Yagudin in 2002 made them both better skaters and may have paved the way for Plushenko's own success, which he now carrys into yet a third Olympics. Kurt Browning never won as much as an Olympic medal, let alone a gold, yet he became one of the most popular entertainers on the pro circuit, a legacy that many Olympic champions would envy.  

None of this is to take away from the many Olympic champions whose legacy in the sport is unquestionable and everlasting: Dick Button, Peggy Fleming, John Curry, Dorothy Hamill, Robin Cousins, Scott Hamilton, Katarina Witt, Torvill  and Dean, Gordeeva and Grinkov and so many more. They have changed our sport for the better, but not because of a lucky night of competition. They had lasting power, rose to the occasion when it counted, and had an impact on the sport in the years following their competitive victories as well. 

The Olympics is a time to trumpet their accomplishments. Yet it takes nothing away from their glory to remember and honor many of those who are not part of the most exclusive club of gold medalists but who have nonetheless enriched our sport just as much. Many of the silver and bronze medalists in Vancouver will no doubt do the same.

Olympic Podium Predictions

Since everyone's playing the game, here are my not-so-daring medal predictions for Vancouver. All my attempts at anticipating the Big Surprise are eluding me, but I can feel it in my bones that it's just around the corner.

I'll only comment briefly on the most hotly-contested men's event ever. With at least eight amazing athletes in serious contention — not just for medals but for the Olympic title! —picking three is tantamount to reaching into the bag and picking three names at random. Then again, the computers will throw judges' marks out at random as well, so it's all statistics and math. Go figure.

That said, I'm going with Plushenko, given his status as reigning Olympic champ and his consistency on quad combinations that are so richly rewarded by this judging system. I have Patrick Chan on the podium because the judges love him — and are sure to love him even better in front of a home crowd. But any of these eight men have almost the same odds of landing on that podium: Plushenko, Abbott, Chan, Lambiel, Lysacek, Oda, Takahashi, and Joubert. And who knows? Johnny Weir is all fired up. If he skates the program of his life he could throw a monkey wrench into everyone's predictions.

The other events are too self-explanatory to comment — except to note that I'd have placed White & Davis first had the Olympics been held in any other country. Or in an alternate universe in which politics and ice dance didn't cross paths. 


1. Evgeni Plushenko
2. Jeremy Abbott
3. Patrick Chan
4. Stephane Lambiel


1. Shen/Zhao
2. Savchenko/Szokolwy
3. Mukhortova/Trankov
4. Pang/Tong


1. Yu-Na Kim
2. Mao Asada
3. Miki Ando
4. Joanne Rochette


1. Vitue/Moir
2  Davis/White
3. Domnina/Shabalin
4. Belbin/Agosto

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Skating Needs a Presentation Mark Again

Much of the Monday morning quarterbacking after the ladies final at the National Figure Skating Championships revolved around the nit-picky deductions that dropped Mirai Nagasu to second place behind Rachael Flatt. The more well-rounded Nagasu seemed to have outperformed her rivals with a jump-packed program that also had superior polish and maturity. The judges, however, marked her down for slightly underrotating a couple of jumps, errors that eluded even the commentators on NBC.

But the controversy goes way beyond who should have won this national title. At the center of the storm are fundamental flaws in the current scoring system that run like fault lines through the heart of the sport. The most alarming of these is the system's utter inability to reward artistry on a scale even remotely comparable to that used for technical elements (read “jumps”). 

Just compare the spread in judges' scores for the two sets of marks. The difference between Flatt and Nagasu on the technical element score was a whopping 12.11 points in the long program. Yet Nagasu only outscored Flatt in components by seven hundredths of a point (0.07)!  For the top four ladies the technical spread was 22 points while the component one only three. How can artistic impression ever begin to influence an outcome when jumps make such a monumental difference compared to all else? 

The women's final at Nationals is a particularly telling case because Sasha Cohen — a skater almost universally recognized for her exquisite artistry — was in the mix. The placement is not at issue. Even Cohen's fan club would not claim she deserves a trip to Vancouver. She had too many errors while her young competitors skated technically difficult and clean programs. She would have lost under any judging system. But under the old 6.0 system, we would have seen a huge gap between her technical mark (say a 5.2) and the artistic one (maybe a 5.8 or 5.9). Flatt would have still won, but based on the first mark only. 

The opposite happened in Spokane. Sasha Cohen, the artist, was marked nearly two points lower in program components than Flatt, whose reputation is for her athleticism. No doubt the judges can rationalize their scores, but to anyone with a good pair of eyes it adds up to gobbledygook. This lack of discrimination between skaters who are artistically in completely different categories may be the most hair-raising injustice of the new judging system, even if the most invisible one.  

Proponents of the new point-based system will correctly point out that it does one thing the old one could not: it injects a semblance of objectivity in what's still a profoundly subjective and political sport. Once a competition is over, you can explain to the skater how each score was reached. The audience may have left Spokane confused, but Mirai Nagasu knew exactly what cost her the title.  

But if the technical score can be justified that way, the "artistic" one cannot. There's no reason for the second mark to follow a point system that was never designed to measure art. Not only is the resulting score meaningless but, with rare exceptions, it is virtually the same for all major contenders. A Sasha Cohen or Mirai Nagasu cannot stand out as artists unless they land every jump perfectly. 

Artistry cannot be sliced up like salami into components. Art must be judged as a whole, because it always adds up to more than the sum of its parts. And performances are made up of intangibles the audience feels but cannot put into words. Under the 6.0 system you didn't need to be a technical specialist to know what it meant when a performance earned a perfect mark. Now there's no equivalent. 

What skating competition needs is two separate panels of judges — one to count seconds and rotations and one to look at the performance as a whole. Their respective scores would balance each other out to produce a winner who succeeds in blending both the athletic and artistic identities of figure skating. Without such balance artistry will shrivel altogether and the sport will complete its current transition towards gymnastics on ice. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sasha Cohen Brings Star Power Back to Skating


Sasha confirms she’ll be at Nationals. Sasha’s in town. Sasha has a new website. Sasha has posted a journal. Sasha will practice in four hours. In three. In two. Sasha is on the ice. Wow, the speed. Sasha is running through her program. She looks like the old Sasha. She only missed the flip in practice. Sasha is back. Watch video of her practice at …

And so it goes, twitter after twitter rolling in for the past couple of days faster than the returns in the Massachusetts Senate race. Cameras follow the diminutive 25-year-old every step. Hundreds of articles about her have sprung recently — dozens about her first practice alone! If the Queen of England were to waltz into Spokane she couldn’t attract more attention than has been lavished on Sasha Cohen, whose last competition was back in 2006 — an eternity in figure skating. 

In the years since, we’ve had three different ladies’ champions. I dare any of the readers here to stop one hundred people on the street in Middle America and ask them to name any of them. Odds are not one could. Some may actually name Sasha Cohen or Michelle Kwan instead. (For the record, they were Alissa Czisny in 2009, Mirai Nagasu in 2008, and Kimmie Meissner in 2007.)

So why do we need Sasha Cohen to get us excited about figure skating once again? She’s not Olympic champion, yet her aura shimmers more intensely now than ever. Many would blame the lack of interest in women’s skating on the poor international performance of the current crop of young American ladies. A fluke, they’ll say. Bad luck. You can’t always have world champions, right? 

Funny thing, though: the United States has had no such streak of bad luck since the 1960s, when a tragic plane crash wiped out the entire U.S. skating team.  Since then we’ve had ice princess galore, from Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill to Elaine Zayak and Rosalynn Sumners in the early 1980s, Debi Tomas, Caryn Kadavy and Jill Trenary in the late 1980s, and then Kristi Yamaguchi, Nicole Bobek, Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski and Sasha Cohen in the 90s and beyond. (And this does not even count the Nancy & Tonya soap opera of 1994.) 

What could have happened since to bring America’s ice-queen-making machine to a screeching halt? Could it be mere coincidence that this sea change happened after the International Skating Union replaced the 6.0 scoring system with a new one, which measures the value of a skating performance in points awarded like coins dropping out of a slot machine? 

The fascination with Sasha Cohen’s comeback attempt can be explained to some extent by her  uncommon grace and artistry, but it can’t account for the full circus around her presence in Spokane. After all, national champion Alissa Czisny is also known for her elegant skating and photogenic looks. Yet she and her competitors lack something that Sasha Cohen exudes like few others: star power. 

There is no simple recipe for this kind of magic, but ingredients include force of personality, competitive success, and most importantly sometimes, longevity in the sport. None of the skaters today can match any of the above, least of all the staying power. Not one of these ladies has had even one uninterrupted successful season. People remember stars and the larger-than-life rivalries between them. They recognize their faces on TV, root for or against them, and are inexplicably drawn to them. 

Stars like Cohen just don’t come along anymore, and it’s not the fault of the extremely talented ladies competing at Nationals this week. None other than ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta said in a recent interview that under the current system, the sport has become “too difficult” to still produce stars. Indeed it has. Long programs are packed so tightly with multiple-revolution jumps and combinations, contorted spins, and other difficult elements that most skaters have no time to catch their breath, interpret music, or connect with the crowd. A select few — such as Jeremy Abbott last weekend or Johnny Weir at other times — manage to create magic in spite of the system. But even they have trouble delivering a high level of performance for any length of time. With a few exceptions, the new scoring system has turned the sport into gymnastics on ice, and its popularity has been in free fall since. 

As for Cohen’s comeback, the jury’s out until next weekend. For now she remains a wildcard. But regardless of what happens when the music starts and the judges touch their magic screens, Sasha Cohen has been a boon for ticket sales in Spokane and for TV’s ability to sell skating to national audiences once again. The ISU is no doubt praying very hard that Cohen will be on her way to Vancouver soon to do the same for the sport at the Olympics. 

But praying won’t result in stars for the sport. Rethinking the system that fails to produce them would be a far better alternative. 

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Quad: The Big Loser at Nationals


Mocking most predictions of its supremacy in the sport, the almighty quad proved itself once again to be if not irrelevant, certainly the most overrated trick in figure skating

In the men’s short program at the National Championships all skaters who tried it — successfully or not — kissed their Olympic dreams goodbye. The top five, including the entire U.S. men’s Olympic team, had no need for it in the short.

The only successful quad attempted by a member of the U.S. team was landed by national champion Jeremy Abbott in the long program. But quad enthusiasts can't credit his victory to the jump, since Abbott outscored his nearest rival, Evan Lysacek, by a whopping 20 points. (Lysacek tried and failed in his quad attempt.) In other words, the quad was but a bonus for Abbott, whose title was secured by the overall quality, choreography and perfection of his two programs, as reflected in his spectacular component marks. So the only Olympian to do a quad didn’t even need it.

To paraphrase Johnny WeirAbbott didn’t out-quad his competitors. He outskated them.

Therein lies the trouble with the quad. Skating has always been about the whole package, not one trick, and those who rely on one jump to win are often cursed by it. Anyone remember Vern Taylor? You don’t? He was the first to land the triple axel back in 1978. He finished 12th at that world championship.

The quad may be a great trick to have in your repertoire today given its high point value in a point-based scoring system. But not only can it ruin your chances if you try and fall, but it can cost you everything even if you do land it. Just ask Ryan Bradley.

“I wanted something this season to set me apart from some of the other boys,” said the popular 26 year old, who ended up finishing one placement short of making the Olympic team.

How cruely ironic that he succeeded in that singular goal yet  may deeply regret it for the rest of his life. Bradley landed all his planned quads: one in the short and two in the long. But he’s not going to Vancouver. After landing his quad in the short program, he failed to do the easier jumps and dug himself a hole from which he couldn’t crawl out.

Bradley’s experience is not uncommon. So much energy and focus go into this one jump that skaters often lose their focus for the rest of their programs. Czech champion Thomas Verner is another example of a quality skater who consistently lands quads but can’t hold on to the rest of his programs. Even former world champion Brian Joubert has often missed easy jumps after first landing a quad.

Some may argue that while the quad may not have been a factor at Nationals, it could well be the decisive one next month at the Olympics. Sure it might. But if history is a guide, I wouldn’t bet my savings on it. This prediction has been made for a couple of decades now, Olympics after Olympics, Worlds after Worlds. And with a few odd exceptions here and there, it was always the best all-around skaters who stood on top of the podium, not the one-trick ponies.

Ryan Bradley’s coach Tom Zakrajsek, who also coaches last year’s national silver medalist Brian Mroz, was so sure the quad would be needed at Nationals that he brought in Timothy Goebel to work with his pupils. What he didn’t take into account was that Goebel, the king of the quad, never translated his quad-jumping into either popularity or a national title. As for Bradley and Mroz, they finished 4th and 6th, respectively in Spokane.

Conversely, former U.S. and world champion Todd Eldredge may well blame his Olympic curse on failing to master the quad. But most likely, what cost him an Olympic medal was not his inability to do the quad, but his unwillingness to give up trying. Arguably it was everyone's obsession with the quad, not the lack thereof, that cost him a medal. When he skated with his heart and no quad, Eldredge brought home the gold.

History, as always, will be the ultimate judge. But so far it seems to have shown the quad to be not the maker of champions but the curse of would-be champions. Is it worth the risk? The consequences? And the injuries? For now, you be the judge.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Controversy and Rumblings Galore as Nationals, Canadians Get Underway


As skaters worldwide step into the most intense pre-Olympic spotlight at the U.S. Nationals, Canadian Nationals and European Championships, few people are paying attention to a high-level public conflagration about the way these competitions and the upcoming Olympics are being judged.

"If the scoring is anonymous, there is no accountability," Dick Pound of the International Olympic committee was quoted as saying in interviews such as this one in the Toronto Globe and Mail. "You have to be accountable for your marks, not hide under some shield of anonymity."

"Those are irresponsible comments," blasted William Thompson, the chief executive officer of Skate Canada, noting that in a case of a major scandal, the ISU can find out what score each judge awarded.

Thompson may be technically correct, but everyone who can spell “transparency” knows how safe from scrutiny and crowd booing judges are when no one in the audience can see a single mark, associate it with the nationality of a judge, or otherwise have the foggiest notion how the global mark flashed on the screen ever came to be. 187.2. Clear as mud.

"Perhaps we actually prefer our figs with a whiff of scandal. And that booing the judges was part of the fun," wrote Newsweek sports writer Mark Starr in a special to the Everett Herald.
Incidentally, Skate Canada’s William Thompson is the same one who also led the macho-man campaign to keep Canadian skaters from donning elaborate costumes at the Olympics. They detract from the athletic performance, he says. Maybe Pound could also remind him that skating is an art as well as a jumping contest?

Marketing the International Judging System

But if you have a problem with the new scoring system, not to worry. The U.S. Figure Skating Association has a cure for everything. As the controversy about the muddled scoring continues, the federation has published a new guide to the system, to be distributed at Nationals in Spokane. The USFSA's Skating magazine is also running a series of articles on decoding the system. Will a slick brochure and related fun and games translate into either transparancy or accuracy?

Fans will are also be treated in Spokane to super-duper "SkateBugs," which will allow them to listen to various audio commentaries during the senior events. No doubt the yakking in their ears will greatly enhance the live viewing experience. Maybe they should have just stayed home and watched on TV without having to stuff anything in their ears?

Meanwhile, the plunging popularity of the sport is catching the attention of sports writers nationwide, including the New York Times' Jeré Longman, who suggested the sport may need another Tonya Harding to pump some life into it. "The spotlight has dimmed to a 40-watt blub," he wrote.

The contorted judging system that five years ago replaced the 6.0 system was intended to eliminate corruption in the aftermath of the pairs scandal that rocked the 2002 Olympic. So instead of knowing who awards each biased mark, we now know nothing at all.

“Sure, it could be biased, but at least it was explicable bias," Starr writes. “Now, numbers roll up as if on a gas pump. The points formula is based on the idea that nobody trusts anybody. It’s totally incomprehensible. Really, what could a mark of 98.60 possibly mean to anyone except on a thermometer or an algebra test?”

Finally, a rash of articles about the quad went from mourning its presumed demise to suggesting it single-handedly holds the key to Olympic glory. A big thanks to Johnny Weir for his common-sense reminder about what figure skating is all about:

"You don’t have to out-quad somebody,” he said . “You have to out-skate somebody.”


Sunday, January 10, 2010

Cinquanta’s Power Play Shows Disdain for Skaters and Sport


When Ottavio Cinquanta brought the full weight of the ISU to bear on 19-year-old Yu-Na Kim, pressuring her to compete at the Four Continents Championships just three weeks before the 2010 Olympics, the skating world gasped with indignation. This was not merely a misguided request to Kim personally. The top official of the International Skating Union openly threatened sanctions against Kim’s Korean federation if their top skaters didn’t submit to his demand. Such a heavy-handed action demonstrates Cinquanta’s disdain for figure skaters and his disinterest in showcasing the sport in its best light at the Winter Games next month.

This is hardly the first time a skater was asked by a skating association to participate in an event against their will. As far back as 1975, Dorothy Hamill missed her senior high school prom because of a show she was forced to skate in. But when it comes to major events, such as Worlds and Olympics, officials have always tried to balance the needs of sport against those of the athletes. Cinquanta did not, and his request crossed a line most people intuitively feel should not have been crossed.

With the support of both her coach and federation, Kim turned down the request. It was the only sensible things she could do, as Michelle Kwan recently indicated in an interview. But with a sport as political and subjective as figure skating, how can she not fear consequences knowing she has upset the ISU apple cart and put her own federation at risk of sanctions? No athlete should be subjected to such stress under any circumstances, let alone at a time of maximum Olympic pressure.

Kim aside, the scheduling of the event itself boggles the mind and demonstrates the ISU’s indifference to the needs of elite skaters worldwide. Just weeks before the world gathers for the largest and most prestigious sporting event on Earth, the ISU saw fit to schedule a competition in Korea that’s of minor interest at best even in non-Olympic years. (Four Continents was conceived in 1999 to serve as a qualifying for Worlds. It never served its original purpose.)

To compete in Korea, skaters training in Europe and America must face long transcontinental flights during winter months, interrupt their training, subject themselves to severe jetlag, and potentially expose themselves to illness or injury. How dare the ISU request that of athletes at a time when they are preparing for the most important competition of their lives? The timing is so bad, in fact, that skaters at the U.S. Nationals can only make it to Korea in time if they leave Nationals before the end of the exhibition.

Whatever possessed the ISU to hold this event this season and schedule it at such an unfortunate time?  Clearly Cinquanta saw it as an opportunity to cash in on the new-found popularity of the sport in Korea, where the competition is being held. What happens to the skaters a few weeks later at the Olympics is of little interest to the ISU president, whose sport is speed, not figure skating.

Contributing to such short-sighted action is the sorry state the sports finds itself in today. Just a decade ago networks were signing contracts with the ISU for tens of million of dollars. Today, the ISU struggles to find anyone to cover its major events. Figure skating has seen a dramatic reversal of fortunes and loss of revenues in recent years. But instead of trying to squeeze the last dime out of Four Continents, the ISU would do far better to take a long hard look at state of the sport, its extremely controversial judging system, and consider what might have contributed to the steady decline in figure skating’s popularity.

When justifying Kim’s decision to turn down Cinquanta’s request, her coach and former world champion Brian Orser explained it best: “What we have to do is put the skater first," he told the Chicago Tribune . Clearly, Cinquanta and the ISU are doing the exact opposite.