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. 


  1. Brilliant. Would it work to do CoP on technical and 6.0 on artistry, do you think?

  2. Thanks, Xan. Personally I'd much prefer going back to the 6.0 system, because there are so many fundamental flaws with the IJS that no one solution can fix them. But if going back is simply not an option, yes, I think it would be a huge improvement to have a way of scoring for presentation.

  3. Absolutely great entry! I wish the powers that control this sport would change more frequently, so that more flexibility and transparency would enter this sport. That way, they may actually tweak this new system or go back to some form of the old one for the artistic mark, when clearly the post-2002 innovations are taking a terrible toll and stifling a lot of creative skaters and choreographers.

  4. Remember 6.0, when judges could exercise their bias in both the technical mark and the presentation mark? Well, they can still exercise their bias in the presentation (PCS) mark and that is exactly what they did at U.S. Nationals last month! Of COURSE Mirai's PCS should have been a lot higher! But the USFSA knows Rachael has been the most consistent skater at international competitions all season and they wanted to make sure she made it onto the Olympic team. The same thing would have happened under 6.0; it just would have been easier to do.