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.  


  1. Absolutely true. and respect to the delightful Johnny for being that good when normally counts.
    judges are dumb, the destructive force of the politics behind this intrigue won't need long to affect the sport and diminish the interest in it. it's just underrated guys like Weir make it popular and get no credit for that, although the federation shoud've been thankful instead of turning it's back on the real talents and supporting the mass production of "pinocchios" that are not to distinguish from one another.
    Johnny, you rock, pal!

  2. I agree that Johnny should have placed higher but even as an untrained observer (I have never skated but have watched the sport for a number of years) I noticed the lack of difficulty in his skating in between jumps. Whereas Stephane Lambiel or even Patrick Chan (who I believe was overmarked) stayed on their edges in between major elements, I found that Johnny emoted quite a bit but really didn't do much else between the big tricks. Again, I'm not a trained observer but I did notice the difference. No disrespect to Johnny by the way as I do think he had the skates of his life. Unfortunately there were other skaters that were better.

  3. This is so sad, but so true.
    JW was just incredible!
    At least HE and those who saw this amazing performance, know how great that performance was.

  4. Wonderfully written. Completely agree with your take on this. Johnny is the best ever. He gave us two absolutely beautiful performances in this Olympics that I will never forget.

    Evan, Plushy, etc. skated.

    Johnny transcended skating.

  5. Wow, you've hit the nail on the head! The judges and the federations they are in collusion with are ruining the sport they say they love.
    Unless they can figure out how to properly reward a program like Johnny Weir's-- one which brings audiences to their feet and tears to their eyes, they'll simply continue to lose spectators by the droves.
    I wouldn't be surprised to see the US Federation itself bankrupt and out of business in 10 years... what a pity.

  6. Skating died for me at Salt Lake in 2002. It's reallllly dead now. So sad

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  8. Thank you for this article! Completely agree!

  9. I also think Johnny Weir should have medaled. Not won: like other commenters, I could see that Lysacek's performance was technically superior, and he should be rewarded for that. I would have ranked Weir second, and Plushenko third because his was a bit of a messy performance. And I'm far from being a Weir fan, and going into the competition favored Lysacek and Plushenko.

  10. Thank you very much. This is are the best words about what happened at the Olympics.

  11. Very thoughtful post. It seems like artistry is slowly being edged out under the guise of legitimizing figure skating as a sport. The problem with this is that a move toward programs chocked full of athletic feats but lacking in grace and artistic expression will drive spectators away from the sport.

    Most of us don't watch for the jumps, we watch because we're interested in the performance as a whole. Those who aren't fans of figure skating because it's too "dancey" are most likely not going to start watching if the artistic component is removed, for the same reason those of us who ARE fans will STOP watching if that happens: it will be boring.

  12. I came over here via a link in another article about Johnny Weir. Since Torino, when he first appeared on my radar screen, I have recognized him as a special person and skater. I do not think the Olympics or the judged figure skating world will ever give him the recognition he deserves. His brand of elegant, expressive skating may be better appreciated in skating shows. Whether he decides to keep trying to knock down the wall of scored and judged events or chooses to coach, perform in shows or whatever, I want him to be happy and have a great life.

  13. You're right, he was wonderful and I was so sad that he didn't win...

  14. Thank you for this post. I can't remember the last time a male figure skater caught my breath with his artistry. Did you notice that triple/triple combination where he set his arms in that beautiful balletic pose? By the time he was done, I had actually teared up - the choreography and talent was so perfectly matched. I felt that his transitions were perfect for his music - sometimes gliding is exactly what is called for. And even though Scotty Hamilton said it was a mistake, it seemed to me that that step out one of his early spins was on purpose (it fit with theme of Fallen Angel so well).

  15. I'm very glad to see this, because it is my attitude as well. I know I complained to the USFSA and got no answer, even though I wrote twice -- I told them they should protest the results on account of Weir being included in that video the Olympic judges got last year -- no current competitors were supposed to be on it, yet he was, and that's manifestly unfair.

    I also believe that Weir should have had the bronze medal, if not the silver, for his magnificent long program; his short program was also underscored, but his long was massively underscored and once again, it was manifestly unfair.

  16. It's all about politics.It's a shame for ISU that Johnny ended up the sixth.He should be above Patrick Chan.
    A person who knows about figure skating can understand this.Judges manipulate the sytem.Evgeni Plushenko should have won.Judges said that they didn't give him higher ponts in the SP because he skated in the first group,and they admit that he should have 5 points more!Completely nonsense.Skating groups determine the olympic champion...All the western media attacked Evgeni but now as a results he is even bigger.Legend as always.True winners are Evgeni and Johnny.When it comes to Lambiel,yes he wasn't as usual.Too much pressure.Not all of them had the support that Lysacek had..

  17. Johnny did what no other skater that night did -- he made figure skating appeal to a mainstream audience (such as myself) who originally did not know/did not care about skating. Perhaps I am not qualified to give my opinion, as the technicalities and the new judging system evades my understanding...but I am a musician and I could see how wonderful his performance was, how attune his movements were to the music in such a way that I vowed to work harder on my own performances so that I could one day I can play like how he skates. In today's world, although there are many great men and women who try to change the socio-political atmosphere, it is so rare to find someone who inspires through their art. His performance stunned me -- and other skaters, I felt, were certainly doing their tricks but there was something Missing. Johnny had that Something. Not to beat down Lysacek, but his rendition of Rimsky Korsakov's Scherazade was so unconvincing both choreographically and artistically, it was almost like he was not even aware of the music playing in the background.

    He is truly a unique performer who deserves much more than to be handed a "badge of mediocrity" by those judges who wish to see him and his style of skating disappear. His performance is the one that stands out to me, the only one that challenged my mind not only to work and progress on my own art, but philosophically as well.

  18. I totally agree that Johnny Weir's performances were the most artistic and beautiful of all the skaters in Vancouver. The long program brought tears to my eyes - it was THAT beautiful. Judges were only looking for the number of jumps, the type of jumps, the number of spirals, the number of spins, etc. but even THAT is not the problem. See, Johnny got HIGHER technical marks than Takehashi in the long program, the judges gave him LOWER marks in his ARTISTIC merit marks...which is the most unbelievable thing. From what I have read, he ALWAYS has received higher artistic scores than technical. But in this case, the judges clearly stated "we don't like your style JW..." by giving him lower artistic marks. They could not deny his technical expertise, which is clear to all, and since "artistic merit" is so subjective, that is the place they marked him lower in order to get the result THEY HAD PRE-DETERMINED THEY WANTED EVEN BEFORE THE LAST GROUP SKATED. It wouldn't have mattered if Takehashi had fallen ANOTHER time, they still would have given him higher marks because they LIKED HIM better. SO, you see, you cannot take the human element out of a judged event, and the only way Johnny Weir can win in Olympic events will be to either master the Quad before 2014 or have 10 triples or combinations that add up to the same number of points with more spins and tricks like Evan did. Sorry to say that, and it may remove some of the soul from his routine, but if he wants the podium he'll have to blow them away in a manner that they cannot deny and be PERFECT AGAIN over and over. He CAN do it, he has the talent. Does he want to play by those new rules? Remember, he came up in the old marking system too, so he still is adapting and he will have to make those choices. I think that's why he didn't skate Worlds...he realized that his program didn't do it even if he skated it clean, so he really needs new programs. Perhaps a new choreographer who is only working FOR HIM, or a team or choreographers? It's ludicrous that Evan and Plushy and the others got such higher marks in artistic merit when their programs were robotic, manic, mechanical, and unmoving. I'm not a pro, I just really want to see him win. He deserves it. He is beauty in motion, perfection in motion, and deserves to be acknowledged. The fact that they've left him out of the Stars On Ice shows is adding insult to injury, and reveals that there is ugliness in the belly of the sports world that is truly harmful. If I were JW, I'd be suing Stars On Ice/USFSA for discrimination in hiring. But then he'd suffer more discrimination via backlash, so his only recourse is to kick their asses even more in Sochi. And maybe get his own ice show together.