Saturday, December 10, 2011

Rewarding Failure Diminishes Sport


If you tuned into the men’s competition at the Grand Prix Final you must have felt like Alice in Wonderland, watching a totally different event from the one ranked by the judges. The worst part is that there was nothing peculiar about this competition. This pattern of madness repeats itself event after event. Little wonder the sport is losing its last shred of credibility.

Blatant favoritism is nothing new in figure skating, although it is reaching unprecedented heights when Patrick Chan takes to the ice. To belabor this well-known point is a tedious pursuit. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or ISU judge to realize the man couldn’t lose if he tried (which he usually does).

But even such shameless bias is only a small part of the story. The reason why such manipulation can happen in the first place — why a skater can smash into the boards or botch jump after jump yet keep winning — has to do with the system itself. From the onset, the International Judging System was designed to reward failure, much the same way grade school kids are rewarded with A’s for effort. If not revamped (or better yet, put through the shredder), the system will put figure skating — already on the endangered species list —into the grave for good.

Common sense dictates that when a skater steps out of jump, puts his hands down, lands on his rear end, or crashes into the boards, he failed. Under the 6.0 system, the attempt was marked as such. A jump that ended in a bad fall was considered a non-jump. Under IJS, however, such fiascos are considered successful jumping attempts that get nearly full credit. If sufficiently rotated, a jump counts as done even if the skater plays Zamboni. The only difference between the splat and the jump landed vertically is a slight deduction for grade of execution.

Take a fall on a quad toe loop, for instance. What the judges do is start with the base value of 10.3, just as if the jump had been completed. Then they deduct a trifle, say 2.7 points or so, and you still rack up some 7.6 points! That's nearly as much as a perfectly executed triple axel! For an outright fall!

Where else but in figure skating is failure rewarded with such generosity? Imagine telling your boss you couldn’t complete an important project, but could he please give you that promotion anyway because you tried real hard and the task was so difficult? I don’t know about your boss, but mine wouldn’t take too kindly to this notion.

Yet that’s exactly what's happening in skating. Try, miss, hit the jackpot. Not surprisingly, skaters at all levels who know they can’t land a jump will go for it anyway to get that all-important partial credit. The result is that the audience pays good money to watch splashfest after splashfest, while skaters suffer increasing injury rates trying to hang on to jumps that are not landable.

“A for effort” can arguably do some good for little kids whose self-esteem needs a boost. Olympic skaters should not be in dire need of such propping up. What other reason can there be for lavishing points on a skater for botching jumps? They’re difficult, supporters of the system will argue. Surely skaters must be rewarded in some way for rotating four times in the air, right? Wrong. Are gymnasts awarded gold medals if they don’t stick a landing, never mind if they land flat on the mat or step out of bounds? Not funny. Then why should skaters be held to different standards?

A jump is spectacular, beautiful to watch, and technically difficult if, in addition to rotating it, the skater can gracefully finish the rotation in the air and then land on that thin steel blade with speed and grace. All other means of completing the jump — whether by sitting on the ice or arresting the fall by whatever other desperate means — does nothing to promote either the beauty or the difficulty of the sport.

Botched jumps are an eyesore, period. If nothing else, they should result in an automatic deductions in the component score, aka presentation mark. For all the difficulty of a quad, there’s nothing artistic about crashing on landing. Giving nearly full credit for failure at the highest levels of competition is a slap in the face of those skaters who land their jumps well and diminishes the very notion of sport. The practice also leave audiences baffled and frustrated. No wonder fans are abandoning figure skating in droves and skaters are performing to empty arenas. Soon it will be just them and the judges in the house.