“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.
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 (http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/2014/12/i-can-do-better-talking-about-ijs.html). 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.
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.
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?
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.
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 (http://coachtomz.com/category/blog/page/3/).
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.