The Product Is Suffering

“If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content.” –Lev Tolstoy

In fall 2013, a milestone passed: The 10th anniversary of the International Judging System (IJS). The IJS was first used at the 2003 Nebelhorn Trophy event, on Sept. 3-6, 2003. This year will mark the 10th anniversary of the IJS at Worlds.

Irina Slutskaya wins gold at the first IJS Worlds: 2005
Irina Slutskaya wins gold at the first IJS Worlds: 2005

I’ve been a supporter of IJS from the beginning. I always found the 6.0 system to be an utterly abitrary and inexplicable system of judging. Yet, this season, I find myself questioning IJS and its effect on the sport like never before. Because the product is suffering. The skating is suffering. The programs and performances we’ve seen this year are not what I want to see in this sport. Of course, lots of fans may feel differently. But that’s how I feel, personally, as a fan.

The Grand Prix season this fall had many great moments, as always. Yet, when you look at the performances as a whole, something was missing. The ladies’ field was weak–as a whole. At Rostelecom Cup, Cup of China, and NHK Trophy, the nonmedalists’ performances were riddled with a myriad of mistakes and falls. Most of the programs themselves were utterly forgettable–one tired retread after another of Firebird, Carmen, POTO, Four Seasons. Although we saw some clean winning skates from the top ladies, we saw very few great programs.

The same applied to the men. Men’s programs have become so technically difficult that, in most cases, they cannot perform them well. The men’s event nowadays is a roller coaster of disappointing performances interspersed with the occasional, rare, brilliant program. Few men can maintain any consistency. We saw men follow up outstanding, Grand Prix-winning performances at one event with near-total collapses at the next. And, like the ladies, only a few men put out great, memorable programs.

It’s the lack of artistically satisfying programs that’s bothering me most this season. Ryan Stevens recently wrote a great article about this issue at his Skate Guard blog ( The question is, why are some of us just noticing this problem now?

I think one reason is that, in the last few years, we were blessed to have some of the most legendary, exceptional talent that’s ever been seen in this sport: Yuna Kim, Carolina Kostner, Mao Asada, Akiko Suzuki, Patrick Chan, Daisuke Takahashi, Savchenko/Szolkowy, Virtue/Moir, Davis/White. All of these skaters were so talented, they could deliver the technical elements necessary under IJS and still create superlative, beautiful artistic programs. Because these skaters were so exceptionally gifted, they made it seem like IJS was working.

Daisuke Takahashi's Blues for Klook: An IJS masterpiece
Daisuke Takahashi’s Blues for Klook: An IJS masterpiece

But now that great generation of skaters is gone. And what is left? Jumps, spins, footwork–and a lot of programs that are barely worth watching.

Is the lack of good performances because of IJS, or something else? Reluctantly, I’ve come to conclude that IJS is the root of the problem. What I’ve always liked most about IJS was that it evaluated and rewarded all aspects of skating—spins, footwork, lifts, as well as jumps. Under 6.0, you could have the greatest spins in the world (like Lucinda Ruh), yet you wouldn’t get much credit unless you could also land triple Lutzes and flips. The fact that IJS quantified and rewarded all the components of skating initially seemed like a big step forward.

But there’s been an unanticipated side effect. Because everything is now evaluated, everything can now–theoretically–be perfect. Skaters know how much an element is worth in base value and how much extra they can get in GOE. They know the perfect—or maximum–score. The simple existence of this maximum score necessarily means that that is what they must strive to achieve.

Haven’t skaters always tried to perform as perfectly as possible? I suppose this should be a skater’s goal under any system. But what’s different about IJS is it spells out what perfection is for an element and the points skaters can get for it. So, whereas the pursuit of perfection under 6.0 was theoretically possible, it’s only under IJS that it’s become an actual logical necessity.

The pursuit of perfection under IJS has been spurred because–increasingly in the last quad–certain skaters actually attained technical perfection in certain elements. In the Sochi team event long program, Yulia Lipnitskaya received the maximum score possible for her Biellmann spin: Level 4 and all +3s in GOE, for a total of 4.20 points. She could not have scored any higher. Volosozhar/Trankov did the same with their triple twist: At Skate America 2013 and twice in Sochi, they received level 4 and straight +3s for their twist. Yuna Kim also came close to scoring the maximum with her 3Lz/3T in her 2013 Worlds LP; she had nearly all +3s.

Sochi: Julia Lipnitskaya's perfect Biellmann
Sochi: Julia Lipnitskaya’s perfect Biellmann

So, the quest for technically perfect elements not only makes logical sense under IJS, it’s also now actually acheivable. And, because some competitors have achieved such virtuosity, the pressure is now on for all other skaters to reach for perfection as well. Because, as a pair, how can you beat Volosozhar/Trankov–with their perfect triple twist and near-perfect difficult lifts—unless you can do those elements or other elements perfectly, too?

Volosozhar/Trankov's triple twist receives the highest score possible
Volosozhar/Trankov’s triple twist receives the highest score possible

Good is no longer good enough. Increasingly, perfection is necessary.

How does the quest for perfection affect skaters? The first effect is almost automatic: As skaters work harder and harder to improve and refine their technical elements, the rest of their skating almost inevitably suffers. Some skaters still find the energy to create great programs and perform them at an extremely high level. However, for the majority, the program becomes little more than a framework for the elements.

Consider a skater like Javier Fernandez. Even Fernandez, as great as he is–with charisma to spare, quality choreography, and great PCS–cannot give his programs the full artistic expression they could potentially have. This is particularly so in the long program–a minefield of quads and triples. Although I enjoy the character he’s portraying in his Barber of Seville program, I’m convinced it could be so much better if Javi only had the energy and freedom to really perform the program full out. But he must save much of his energy for three quad attempts.

A charming program that could be even better
A charming program that could be even better

At least he presents interesting, character-driven, musically and choreographically engaging programs. Although many skaters pay lip service in interviews to developing their programs and their overall skating, in actuality, their focus is very obviously on the elements. They whip through their programs with lots of arm movements and counters and rockers, but what they’re really focused on is jumps and spins. The audience can sense the lack of connection between skater and music—even if the judges choose to ignore it.

So, the quest for technical perfection leads in many cases to artistically unsatisfying performances.

It also has another, almost worse effect: In some ways, it’s draining the joy out of skating.

Years ago, you might see a great champion like Kristi Yamaguchi or Todd Eldredge skate pretty well but make a few mistakes in their program. They’d shrug afterward and look a bit rueful. But they’d still be smiling when they took their bows and went to the kiss-n-cry. Because they knew that, all things considered, they’d still put out a good performance overall.

I feel like we don’t see that kind of reaction much anymore. This season, when the music has stopped, I feel like I’ve seen either total joy—if the skater landed every jump, like Elena Radionova—or something close to despair. I’ve seen so many performances this season from ladies who landed 5+ triples but still looked really upset when they’d finished. Because they knew they’d fallen short of perfection, and they’d pay a price. (Not to mention the saddened, crestfallen faces in the kiss-n-cry as the underrotation calls started rolling in.)

It’s not like I want skaters to be happy about making mistakes. But I also don’t want to see them destroyed or devastated by it, like Anna Pogorilaya was at the GP Final. Things have gotten to the point where anything less than perfect just doesn’t cut it. And that’s just a lot of pressure to put on anyone.

I feel like the pressure for perfection has affected fans, too. Some fans seem to expect outstanding performances every time skaters take the ice. And the emphasis on technical elements has affected how we experience programs. Do we even watch a spin anymore for simple enjoyment of how it expresses the music? Or are we just looking at it as an element: How fast is she spinning? How high is she holding her leg? I’m not saying we shouldn’t appreciate the technical difficulty of spins. And it’s fun to read and evaluate protocols–I enjoy it, too. Yet at the same time, I don’t want to lose sight of the simple beauty of skating, beyond the elements.

I’d feel more hopeful about the whole situation if the ISU showed any ability or willingness to make reforms within IJS. But I don’t see that. Instead, it seems like practically the only changes the ISU makes in the system are to rack up the difficulty and deductions. Has skating benefited in any way from the increased underrotation penalties this season? I’d argue it hasn’t.

As I was briefly looking through the IJS updates this spring, I had to shake my head at ISU Communication No. 1860, which announced a new difficult feature in twizzles: “Executing Twizzles with the head bent all the way back with the face to the ceiling.” Hmm, that’s difficult—but isn’t it also a tad bit dangerous? If I were an ice dancer, I don’t think I’d want to be twizzling while staring at the ceiling. The ISU did later release a correction, changing it to: “[Twizzles with] the head clearly bent off the vertical axis to the side, to the front, or to the back.” Well, at least you don’t have to look at the ceiling to get the feature. But seriously, why is this change necessary in the first place, and what does it really add?

In a recent blog post, noted technical coach Tom Zakrajsek suggested the U.S. stop using IJS at the lower levels of skating (

Tom Z: Drop IJS at lower levels of skating
Tom Z: Drop IJS at lower levels of skating

Zakrajsek argues that the stringency and inherent harshness of the system discourages kids from competing. When kids don’t do well in lower-level competitions, and their protocols spell out exactly how far away they are from the desired level of competency/perfection—well, many choose to walk away from the sport rather than continue down an uncertain and difficult path. And I can’t argue that that decision doesn’t make sense.

I don’t like seeing so many unhappy, sad faces after performances. I don’t like seeing so many robotic, mechanical, uninteresting programs. I love competitive figure skating, but I feel like something needs to change. I think many others feel the same.

The product we have now—competitive skaters’ programs & performances—could be so much better. The IJS needs major reform, in my opinion. I would never want to see the sport return to 6.0. But there’s got to be a middle ground somewhere that will take us back in the direction we want to go: Toward skating that is technically accomplished–but also beautiful, memorable, and joyful.


13 thoughts on “The Product Is Suffering

  1. as a former competitor and coach even i am losing interest in the sport. for the majority of skaters these days all there is to look forward to is…..are they going to land the jumps or not…….and if they don’t , well oh well. and we wonder why machito has retired early. so discouraging for skaters like him who aspire to artistry as well as jumping. i wonder how long jason brown will last in this environment and he is an amazing talent.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tracey

    I couldn’t agree more with this article, and what Tom said about early competitive skaters. In Canada we have a non-competitive program skaters can go through, but still go to competitions for “fun” in that stream…. but getting the list of do and don’ts, and what a skater can get penalized for (like doing a spiral with an arm raised, instead of flat out to the sides at jr.bronze level skating… REALLY?!?!) and lose points on that makes it much less fun – and that is in the non-competitive stream!! I have come back after being away for 15years, and I can’t say I’m wowed by the changes and can only think “no wonder we are losing ground every year in this sport.” I feel like they are trying to make all skaters equal under this system. But Skaters aren’t all equal, and to try to push them to that is killing their creativity and individualism on the ice. Where is the middle ground? I’m not sure. But I hope someone can figure it out.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Steve Muteham

      I agree with what you say Tracey, it seems to me that competitive sport world wide is being run by politically correct morons who want to level the playing field so much that there is no room left for individuality, just every body looking the same and doing the same things.


  3. ar

    Some of us, for the record, also find nothing fun about reading and evaluating protocols. Reducing what was a beautiful and artistic sport to a serious of math equations is not entertaining in the least.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. No kidding. If I want to agonize over math I’ll stick to past performances in horse racing. Trying to figure out, let alone explain to friends and family who are casual skating viewers, why a performance that LOOKED clean and enjoyable to watch is actually not going to win or even medal because of this underrotation here or that spin being a revolution short or the leg not straight in the are there is tiresome.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Tracey

        ah, and you nailed it on the head! We remember skaters as being great skaters not because of the numbers, but because they made us FEEL something when they preformed, and isn’t that what the core of skating is? To connect to the music, the ice and the people? It is very rare to find a skater who can master all the elements of skating (skills, technique, artistry) but we are judging great skaters as if they need to be the full package- that I think, is impossible for most skaters to ever truly achieve, but they know is the expectation. Perhaps in trying to make it more fair across the board, the pendulum swung too far.


  4. Chris Schmaltz

    What about those days when someone would actually DO a layback. A beautiful layback with creative arm variations, a proper free leg position, and a toe flexed parallel to the ice is much more difficult to preform than a Biellmann spin.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And musicality. When a layback not only matches the music but grows with it (a la Sasha, Michelle, Oksana), the effect is sublime…it captures emotional, rhythmic and dramatic nuances in the music with a level of detail that even balletic choreography often cannot reach.


  5. patrick

    As a former judge I can say that skaters do know they still need the perfection on the difficult jump elements cause that is what the judges really see! I mean… every judge can see a great spin and reward it a +3 GOE but still this judge doesn’t know if it’s a level 2, 3 or 4. So skaters that are good spinners manage to stay close to the top because now they get marks for their spins as mentioned in this article. However… skaters that land the difficult jumps know that they also will get very high component scores cause most judges still have problems with judging the components the way they should be judged. Knowing this, one can say that there isn’t much dufference between the old and new system! Land the jumps and you will get higher component marks and end up close to the podium (old and new system are the same) The one’s with the great spins but can not jump will end up losing all of their credits won with great spins but lost it by the mistakes on jumps. When the program is over and a judge looks at his screen and sees nothing but -3’s, -2’s or 0’s he knows…. this wasn’t a great program so the components should be low even though there are three +3’s for the spins.


  6. Connie

    I am a skating fan and agree that since the IJS has been in, the skating has gotten a bit boring because skaters all do pretty much the same thing! What I miss is the artistry of skaters like Michelle Kwan. I miss the freedom the skaters had-they skated for the enjoyment they gave those who were watching! I would like to see a blending of IJS and artistry so we the audience can once again feel like we are “skating” with them😊


  7. I’m not a judge or even a skater, just a person who loves watching skating. Where are the skaters like the Canadian Toller Cranston who took risks but oh could he ever feel the music! He told a story when he skated. It was a beautiful thing to watch. Artistry is just as important as athleticism in my opinion.


  8. “The audience can sense the lack of connection between skater and music.” and “it’s draining the joy out of skating.” These. The system-written standards for ‘perfection’ (plus the politics) kill the beauty of this sport. Great analysis, thanks for sharing!


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