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.


  1. It's interesting that in arts education this issue has been engaged with long ago. Standards and set objectives are achieved... and marked...with a clear understanding of how subjectivity works within such frameworks. If only figure skating would acknowledge the artistic within the sport then we could start to address such problems.

  2. The purpose of a figure skating competition is to determine which skater gave the best performance on a given day.

    A great deal of research has been conducted into the marking skills of human beings in general. Absolute marking, in general - but even more so in a sport like figure skating - is considered inappropriate. It is practically impossible to quantify objectively the quality of any element of a skater’s performance. Marking by comparison tends to be more stable.

    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 - and that is a comparison.

    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.

    On what basis can Choreography, Composition, Interpretation of the music be considered worth 7 rather than 7.5? Where is the definition of a perfect “Performance/Execution” worth 10? In which way can “beauty” be defined as perfect? The judges have very little specific guidance for what marks to give, and if they are forbidden from comparing the marks they gave at the beginning of an event or to a previous skater, how possibly can they assess a correct mark? And on what basis can a certain mark be considered right or wrong?
    Only by comparing the various programs one with the other, can a judge decide which one deserves more. So "absolute" judging makes no sense, especially in program components.
    It is another flaw of the system.

  3. If IJS were limited to the short program where every movement and specific, stringent requirements have always existed, it would work adequately. Long is where the art form should flourish and that is what has been lost.
    Interpretation and choice of expression it what distinguishes Skatings live art from most other 'sports'. It's so much more than just a sequence of tricks.

  4. Possibly a second rate speed skater should not be dictating a sport that requires a truly creative interpretation, a sense of music, and Oh YES athletic ability. This is paint by numbers ! Isn’t it time to have a change of leadership, the ISU is not the British Royal family, what about term limits, what about alternate sports in the position of leadership?
    Until someone with a creative mind, who understands what the sport is about, takes the reins, nothing will change. There is nothing to look forward to, Salt lake City is a perfect example, you don’t change the system, you fire the judges for life and move forward but then that would require a modicum of intelligence, with the present “Royal family” That will NEVER happen. Again has anyone every heard of term limits?

  5. Thanks to the four posters above who left very insightful comments. I agree with you all, including the comment that the point system could be applied to more technical parts of the competition but not others. But I'd split it up differently. If we have to have a "code of points" at all, use it for the technical mark, in the short or long. (I find that a lot of short programs are actually more artistic than the longs). But for the second mark, to the extent that it presumes to measure art in any way, shape, or form, use the 6.0 system. Art cannot subject to mathematical equations.

  6. Great point about Nationals score inflation being clear evidence that the system is anything but an exact science. Skating has lost so much in the transition from 6.0 to CoP. And if CoP is not accurately measuring performances, what have we gained??

  7. The problem for me, as a long time skate fan, is that I no longer have any idea about what the final skate score refers to! We are given a component score at the end of each performance that means nothing, and brings about a sense of anti-climax for the viewer. With the old system, a dramatic build up of tension with 6.0 after 6.0 lead to a fabulous crescendo for the winner and an emotional response that was spontaneous and did not need someone to squint at the scoreboard on their team to extrapolate the result before a rather muted celebration. I also very much liked seeing which judges were completely out of sync with the general scoring system. Bring back judging accountablity please - and of course, viewing drama!!