In June 2016, the ISU voted to reduce the length of men’s and pairs free skating programs, starting in the post-Olympic 2018-19 season. Announced as one of many votes at that ISU Congress, this decision represents a major change in pairs skating. The 30-second decrease is an 11% reduction in program time.
Pairs free skates are currently set at 4:30 minutes, with a 10-second buffer. This time limit has been in place for 30+ years, going back to the 1984 Olympics. In 2018-19, pairs free skates will be reduced to 4:00 minutes (presumably with the 10-second buffer).
An ISU press release after the June 2016 Congress stated: “A number of proposals to shorten the Figure Skating competitions have been voted in, including the reduction of the number of jumps in Single and Pair Skating.” However, the June 2016 ISU Special Regulations & Technical Rules did not list any reduction in jumps. The only element eliminated for pairs was the choreographic sequence.
Reducing program length and/or eliminating elements from pairs and men’s free skates seems a bit antithetical to the basic principle of the sport moving forward and athletes being challenged to do more, not less. That aside, the next questions become: How will these changes affect pairs free skates? Were these decisions wise? Is additional action required?
Reaction from the pairs community
I spoke with several pairs skaters and coaches about the changes. Most are keeping an open mind, but have reservations about how the changes will affect long programs.
World-level pairs coach Bruno Marcotte said: “I’m okay with reducing the program by 30 seconds. I’m not sure that it will give enough time to the choreographer to create a story or put interesting transitions, but time will tell.”
The elimination of the choreographic sequence drew a mixed response. Some had no issue with cutting the sequence itself, but pointed out that skaters still need time for choreography in the free skate.
“The current requirements for the choreo sequence are vague,” said U.S. pairs skater Josh Santillan. “Our choreo sequence was just part of our choreography at first this year; it would have been there with or without the requirement.”
But Santillan added: “Attempting to tell a story without a break in elements to do choreography is borderline impossible. We need that time for choreography. If anything, leave the length of the program the same [4:30] and remove the choreo sequence. This will ultimately leave room for more freedom, more complex transitions, and more choreography.”
“A program is not just background music for elements,” noted U.S. pairs skater Ernie Utah Stevens. “My team works hard to ensure quality is not only shown in technical elements, but also in the story of the program. The choreographic sequences gives skaters an ability to connect with the music, build audience support, and engage with judges in a meaningful way.”
Several skaters and coaches felt that another element might need to be cut from the free skate to accommodate the shortened program time.
Eric Radford, two-time World champion, said of the time reduction: “I think it could be a good idea. But if they decide to do that, they should get rid of one of the spins in the long program and have them alternate each year. Put the pairs combination spin in the short program, and the side-by-side spin in the long program for one year. Then flip them the following year. With less elements, there would be more time to create a mood and better potential to create more interesting programs.”
Santillan also suggested cutting one spin in the long program and alternating the 2 types of spins between the short and long programs, if the ISU moves ahead with the time reduction. He said these changes would help pairs skaters maintain enough choreography time in free skates.
“As a skater, I can say I already feel like I’m racing from element to element in a program,” said Stevens. “Then we get told in critiques that we don’t have enough transitions. Half of that is that there is simply not enough time to fit everything in. Audiences need to be able to connect to the story of a program and the style of the skaters. I think that’s hard to do in 4:00 minutes.”
Research: Current pairs free skates
Recently, I did some research that led me to similar conclusions regarding the program length change and reduction in elements.
As soon as the rules change was announced, I wondered how the shortened program time would affect pairs free skates. I wanted to look at the question from a numbers point of view; and I wanted to start by learning exactly what a pairs free skate includes right now. Because, before you change anything, it’s a good idea to know your starting point.
So I sat down with a stopwatch and watched 10 pairs free skates from the 2015-16 season, breaking them down element by element. I analyzed long programs from 8 of the top 10 pairs at Worlds 2016, plus 2 other highly ranked pairs. I wrote down each technical element and choreography section and the amount of time it took.
Here’s an example of what I did. This protocol lists the elements in Sui/Han’s Worlds 2016 free skate:
And this is my breakdown of how much time each element actually took in their program:
That’s a sample of what I did for each program. A couple notes about my data collection process:
–The time range I assigned to each element included the preparatory steps (setup), the element itself, and the landing/exit.
– Attributing time spans to elements requires subjective judgment; you have to make an arbitrary call where elements begin/end. Things happen very quickly in skating programs, so this is not easy. Sometimes element setups are straightforward–crossovers with arm movements. Other times, they include difficult steps, turns, or choreographic moves like spirals. However, if the main apparent purpose of steps before an element was to build speed for the element, I counted the steps as part of the element preparation.
– One of the technical elements in pairs free skates is a choreography section: the Choreographic Sequence. The ISU defines this sequence as “any kinds of movements like steps, turns, spirals, arabesques, spread eagles, Ina Bauers, hydroblading … etc.” Since this element is experienced by the audience as choreography and not an athletic element, I included it as part of the “choreography” category within programs, for the purposes of my analysis.
– Originally I started this research in 2016, so all programs analyzed are from 2015-16. However, there have been no significant rules changes since then that would affect program structure. A brief look at several 2016-17 and 2017-18 programs confirmed this.
After I broke down the timing for the 10 free skates in the sample, I compiled the data into a spreadsheet. I then calculated an average time, and average percentage of the program, for each element, as shown here:
The following chart shows the average time for each element in the sample:
This chart shows different categories of elements and how much average time they took up in the free skate:
This pie chart shows the split between total technical elements vs. total choreography in the programs in our sample:
Currently, as shown in the sample, pairs programs have a strong technical focus. Just under 60% of total program time is devoted to technical elements. Aside from opening choreography and the designated choreographic sequence, most pairs can only fit in brief 7- or 8-second bursts of pure choreography here and there between elements.
Although choreography accounted for 40.9% of program time in the sample, actual free skate scores from Worlds 2016 showed PCS accounting for 50.5% of total score on average (before deductions):
So it appears that choreography gets a bit less time within programs than the value of PCS scores might suggest.
Other conclusions that stood out from the sample data:
— The structure of pairs free skates is very similar from one team to the next. Most pairs opened their program with 15-20 seconds of mood-setting choreography, then moved to triple/quad twist, a side-by-side jumping pass, and the first throw jump or 2nd side-by-side jump. Most teams closed with 2 lifts in the final minute and a half, along with a death spiral or spin.
– All teams used nearly the full allotted time: 4 minutes 30 seconds, plus 10 seconds’ buffer time. Average program length, by my count, was 4:40 (or 280 seconds).
– The pairs’ timing on most elements was similar. For example, all pairs used between 9 and 13 seconds for the triple/quad twist, and between 18 and 25 seconds for the side-by-side spins.
Research: How will proposed changes affect pairs free skates?
Once I had a good sense of the structure of current pairs free skates, I wanted to look at how the ISU’s proposed changes would affect long programs.
As mentioned earlier, the current plan is to reduce pairs free skates by 30 seconds in length and cut the choreographic sequence.
How will this affect free skates? According to my sample, the choreo sequence currently averages 28.6 seconds in length. If it is removed, with no other changes to technical elements, only about 84.2 seconds of choreography would be left in the free skate, on average.
The total percentage of choreography in free skates would drop down to 33.7%, as shown here:
This change would clearly hurt skaters’ ability to create programs with a coherent artistic theme and interesting choreography. Free skates that are already quite technical in nature would become even more so. Skaters would have less time to show their skating skills, creativity, musicality, and artistry. It’s also possible that audience interest would decrease, due to a lack of artistic value in free skates.
Last month, ISU official Fabio Bianchetti said that the ISU wants to shift the sport’s current emphasis away from pure technique—presumably, toward greater artistry. If that is the ISU’s goal, then why endorse a rules change that would reduce choreography in pairs free skates to just 33%?
As things stand, the amount of total choreography in pairs long programs is already not that high. Cutting it further seems risky and contrary to the ISU’s stated goals. It therefore seems logical that a technical element will need to be cut as well, in order to meet the reduced program time while still maintaining a good balance of choreography and technical elements.
Analysis: What Else Can Be Cut?
My own analysis of what additional elements could be cut led me to the same result that skaters and coaches suggested: Eliminate one spin from the long program. I did consider the pros/cons of cutting each different element, but in the end, a spin seemed like the least painful choice.
Here’s a brief discussion of the pros/cons of cutting each element, explaining why I agree that a spin is the best choice for elimination.
The twist lift is one of the most distinctive and important elements in pairs skating. The quality and difficulty of triple/quad twists among the top teams has risen greatly since the 1990s/early 2000s. It’s also a short element, averaging just 11.2 seconds in our sample. Cutting it wouldn’t save much time, and would mean the loss of one of the most exciting elements.
Throw jumps are also among the most distinctive elements in pairs skating, and they’re probably the single most dramatic element. The height, speed, and risk make throws very exciting to watch. Every throw jump comes with built-in drama—Will she land it?–and every successful landing is a triumph.
Throw jumps have been an area of technical innovation in recent years, generating much press and fan interest. They’re also one of the shortest elements (averaging 10.5 seconds in our sample), so cutting a throw wouldn’t save much time.
Side-by-side jumps are perhaps a more debatable element. Side-by-side jumps are not unique to pairs skating. Also, they’re not a strong element for many pairs skaters. In that respect, the loss of a side-by-side jump from the free skate would be less dismaying than a twist or throw.
However, side-by-side jumps should arguably stay for the same reasons as throws: They’re exciting to watch and are an area of technical innovation. Also, like throws, side-by-side jumps don’t take very long. In our sample, the solo SBS jump averaged only 10.4 seconds, while the jump combo was 13.4 seconds.
Lifts might seem a more likely candidate for elimination. Lifts are the most-repeated element in the long program, with 3 lifts in senior pairs free skates. Also, lifts are longer than jumps. In our sample data, the first lift in the program averaged 17 seconds; the second, 13.7 seconds. The third lift, which often includes a carry section, was 17.7 seconds.
Yet, overhead lifts are a fundamental element of pairs skating. As with the twist, the technical difficulty/skill in lifts has grown significantly under IJS. Plus, lifts offer aesthetic as well as technical value.
Lifts also play an important role in helping keep the sport technically balanced and not overly jump-focused. Lifts are highly valued under IJS; a level 4 reverse or Axel lasso lift (7.5 pts) is worth more than a side-by-side triple Lutz or throw triple Lutz. Because lifts are well-rewarded, pairs who don’t have the best singles jumps can still remain competitive if they have strong lifting skills. I believe it’s in the long-term best interest of the sport to reward a variety of skills in pairs skating; particularly the skills that are most intrinsic to the sport, such as lifts.
The death spiral is non-negotiable. It’s the most iconic element in pairs skating. Even casual viewers recognize the death spiral, with its inherently dramatic look. Until IJS, pairs typically performed 2 or sometimes even 3 death spirals in their free skates. The death spiral averaged 15.8 seconds in our sample; so removing it would save some time. But it’s not possible, in my opinion; the death spiral must remain.
Finally, we come to spins. Spins are the two longest technical elements in the pairs free skate. Pairs combination spins averaged 23.9 seconds in our sample; side-by-side spins, 21.6. (If you combine both types of spins, average length is 22.7 seconds.)
The argument against eliminating spins is that spinning is a fundamental core skill of figure skating. However, spins are not as intrinsic/unique to pairs skating as elements like the twist, death spiral, lifts, and throws. If a technical element must be eliminated, then it should be one of the elements least unique to pairs skating, in my view. Pairs spins are not currently an area of technical innovation, and they’re not a critical, or separating, element for pairs, in terms of scores.
Spins have become more challenging under IJS, yet they’ve also become longer and, frankly, more boring. Before IJS, most pairs spins only lasted 6 to 12 seconds. Now, spins last double that time. Yet they are not really more visually interesting.
In terms of audience interest and strategic importance, the negative effect of eliminating one spin seems much less significant than cutting a throw, jump, twist, or death spiral.
Proposal for action: Cut choreographic sequence + 1 spin in free skate
So after looking at the options, I agree with the recommendation of several skaters and coaches: If the ISU is going to reduce free skate time, they should cut one spin from the free skate and alternate the side-by-side and pairs combination spins yearly between the free skate and short program, in addition to cutting the choreographic sequence.
The advantage of this solution is that it maintains the current balance between technical elements and choreography in free skates. The designated choreographic sequence would no longer exist; but the overall percentage of choreography in free skates would actually rise slightly from the current 40.9% to 42.8%, as shown here:
Skaters and choreographers would still have time to tell a story, set an artistic mood, and create interesting transitions. Plus, the pairs combo spin and side-by-side spin would remain in pairs programs (just not both in the same program). Pairs skaters would still have to maintain and demonstrate their spinning skills at every competition.
This change would help preserve the aesthetic appeal and artistic integrity of pairs free skates, without negatively affecting audience enjoyment/interest. All the most exciting athletic moves would remain in the long program, as well as the elements most unique to pairs skating.
Speaking as a longtime fan of pairs skating, I am not in favor of the ISU’s decision to reduce the program length of pairs free skates. There’s a reason why the 4:30 program length has worked for over 30 years: It provides just enough time for pairs skaters to demonstrate all the current required technical skills, while still allowing for a choreographic theme and artistic vision.
Pairs skaters have a greater range of athletic elements to perform than any of the other disciplines. That’s why it makes sense for pairs free skates to be as long as they are. (Interestingly, before 1984, the pairs free skate was even longer, at 5:00 minutes.)
As I remember the glorious 2017 Worlds free skates from Sui/Han and Savchenko/Massot, I know I wouldn’t want either program to be one moment shorter. I’m a fan of pairs skating—why would I want to see less of it?
However, if the rules change to 4:00 stands for pairs free skates, I think the solution proposed in this article is a simple and effective way to meet the new requirement, while still maintaining the artistic integrity of the free skate. I believe it’s the best of the tough choices available.
Note: This article is the first in a 2-part opinion series addressing some of the ISU’s current rules change proposals. The second article will appear tomorrow, October 24.