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.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Absolute Judging Is Absolute Hypocrisy

At the Russian Nationals this month Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko scored a jaw-dropping 100 points in the short program, besting his own record by some 10 points. A brilliant performance? A very good one, for sure, but not without flaw. In fact, the program was remarkably similar to the one he skated at the Rostelecom Cup just a couple months ago, with misses on the triple lutz at both events. Yet at his nationals he earned a whopping 18 points more.

“To be honest it was not perfect skating," he told the press. "I would like to thank the judges for the bonus.”

So who cares? Everyone knows that all associations send their top skaters off to the Olympics with the most impressive scores possible. What matters is that the right skaters win. How the judges go about their accounting is none of our business, right? Wrong.

It does matter because the entire new judging system is based on the preposterous and hypocritical presumption that a figure skating performance can be measured in an “absolute,” scientific, indisputable way the same way you time a runner or measure a high jump. The relative judging used under the 6.0 system was discarded. Judges are no longer allowed to do what we as human beings do best: compare. Every element now has a point value. Add them all up, and you get a mathematically indisputable score, they say.

So for five years now we’ve been barraged with claims of record-breaking scores, personal bests, and rankings of skaters based on scores given by different judges from different countries at different times and at different types of events.

And these bogus “records” are not merely for pride or TV ratings. They actually count in decision making, such as the selection of skaters for the Grad Prix Final in a tie-breaking situation. What justice is that?

This notion of absolute judging assumes not only that scores given by any judge in the world is perfectly consistent mathematically to those given by another, but also that judges have no biases, artistic preferences, or standards they wish to uphold in a way even slightly different from that of someone else. In other words, absolute judging assumes that judges are not human. 

Score inflation

At the Grand Prix Final in Tokyo earlier this month, competitor after competitor left the Kiss & Cry with a broad smile, having just topped their personal best score. You’d think they all grew wings! When Johnny Weir posted an 84.6 — an excellent score by all standards — he seemed like a top contender for the title. But then came Nobunari Oda and Evan Lysacek and Daisuke Takahashi, and each one of them posted higher and higher scores, all of them besting their respective records. Meanwhile, Jeremy Abbott, who missed two key jumps, scored a very respectable 76.65 points — that’s only 2 points less than at Skate Canada, where he skated a clean and beautiful short. So much for the science of scoring.

The judges at the GPF were not “wrong” any more than those at Skate Canada were “right.” Their only true duty is — or should be — to place skaters in the right order. Since the dawn of figure skating some judges marked low and some marked high. Some panels as a whole marked low and some mark high. The scores were meanly a means of arriving at a result. Now, however, the scores become an end in themselves for skaters to parade as a badge of honor, as if these numbers have meaning out of the context of the competition where they were awarded.

It’s time to give up the pretense. People judge, not machines. And people use their intuition, they like what they like, and they prefer a skater to another. They’re human.

And as humans we naturally judge relatively, not absolutely, especially when art is concerned. We use the right side of our brains to decide whom we like better. Then we assign a score to fit that judgment — not vice versa. No judging system can change how our brains work. Let skating judging revert to a system that’s made for people, not for machines.

And if that’s not possible, let’s at least not pretend there’s anything absolute about scores in a sport as subjective as figure skating, in which no two people will ever agree about anything absolutely.