By the Numbers Figure Skating

The Olympics are always nostalgic for me: I was an aspiring competitive figure skater in my youth and was in my prime during a time of great growth in public interest in the sport. My competitive years were in the early half of the 1990s, falling squarely at the time of names still great and notorious in the sport: Kristi Yamaguchi, Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding, and Michelle Kwan. I was that wide-eyed kid glued to the television during the Winter Olympics thinking I might someday be able to work my way there. Alas, it wasn’t to be—other interests and talents took over as I went into my high school years and I changed course to become a professional musician. (And while I was a natural jumper, I lacked the grace between the jumps.) But the Winter Olympics still retain a lot of their glimmer for the pre-teen still inside of me. And my background means I know what the heck the skaters are doing, on a more technical level, out on the ice. It’s my insider baseball.

When I was a skater, there were requirements for programs but there wasn’t a strict points system set up to reflect those requirements; judging was done more on feeling and whimsy. It amounted to subjective judging that was highly prone to bias. It meant that skaters who didn’t embody the right body type or skin color were often marked down erroneously. However, skaters’ artistic abilities were rewarded equally to the jumps. Many don’t remember this time because we’re all used to a strict points system now. At least it seems that way, given the reactions of many to the team competition in figure skating at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics.

To summarize: In the men’s long program, the US skater Adam Rippon skated a nearly clean program full of triple jumps (but one under rotation). And he came in below both the Canadian and Russian men, both who fell. How could that be? The relatively recent points system awards points based on the difficulty of the elements attempted and skaters recoup some of those points even for attempting harder elements. Both men who placed higher planned harder elements, such as quads, and recouped a higher amount of points for attempting and falling on those elements than Rippon’s clean but lower hanging fruit triples.

The sport, however, still hasn’t found a great way to account (judge) for artistic elements, known as the component score (vs. the technical score). The sport may have become a showcase for the latest high-octane tricks and jumps but we all know the difference between a jumping machine and a skater who can sell a performance. And this is where I personally have difficulty with the scoring in the men’s long program.

The Russian skater Mikhail Kolyada had a lackluster performance, seemingly bored or uninterested after some of his tricks didn’t go as planned. But Rippon’s movement, through his delicate choreography, radiated all the way from the tips of his toe-picks right through to the tips of his fingers. Rippon was breathtaking and a clean program just added to his beautiful skate. Yet their component scores were nearly identical: 86.22 for Kolyada and 86.78 for Rippon. Anyone watching those two programs would easily see that their components were wildly different qualities and that the component score should have reflected that difference. But that’s the danger of competing in a sport where there will always be an element of subjectivity. Any attempt to enumerate the artistic score more than it is would be criticized for prescribing what it means to be artistic. I’ll also agree that Ashely Wagner was the victim of lower-than-expected component scores at Nationals, but whether or not she deserved to be on the US Olympic Team is another issue entirely.

Many of us “old-timers” (which aparently I am, not sure where the cut off was!) bemoan the points system, which we feel effectively took away the incentive for artistic creation in the sport. Exhibition programs and touring shows have sort of picked up that slack. But we also remember a time when the sport was even less fair than it is today. I can only hope, though, that the judges think hard about the place of component scores and award those points judiciously in the individual competition. Figure skating is one of the unique sports disciplines with an artistic element and it should be embraced rather than squashed.