It’s unclear what problems they are trying to fix with recent rules change proposals
In the last 6 months, the ISU has passed or proposed significant changes to the competition format/judging system of figure skating. The scope of these changes could be far-reaching. Yet, their full purpose and effect remains unclear.
Change can be a good thing–but it should happen for a reason. The trouble with the ISU’s changes is that often, it’s not clear why they are happening or what the expected results are. In this case, I have serious doubts that the new proposed changes will benefit the sport.
Traditionally, changes in figure skating governance tend to take place behind closed doors; but I feel a more public and transparent discussion could benefit the sport’s decision-making process.
In that spirit, I’d like to examine four of the ISU’s proposed changes here and add some thoughts to the discussion. All comments reflect my opinion only. Consider them a first reaction to the ISU proposals–which could change, pending further details.
Rules Change #1: Reduce pairs and men’s free skates from 4:30 to 4:00
Changes are usually meant to solve problems. In this case, I don’t know what exact problem the ISU is trying to solve.
ISU Vice President of Figure Skating Alexander Lakernik stated last year: “I welcome any measures to make our competitions shorter, as currently they are too long and the audience in the rink and TV viewers can hardly survive it all.”
To date, this is the only public statement I’ve seen as to why the ISU wants to reduce program length. But, is this assertion verifiable? Does the ISU know, based on audience exit interviews, focus groups, or surveys, that figure skating fans are in fact bored by the length of men’s and pairs free skates–and that’s why they’re not traveling to events or tuning in on TV? Is there actually a known problem with the length of men’s/pairs free skates? Or has the ISU simply decided this could be a problem?
This is an important question. Because if there’s no problem, then there’s no need to change the length of free skates.
Mr. Lakernik frames the change as a benefit to skating audiences. However, what the ISU is proposing is to decrease the amount of product, or content, that they’re providing to the public. The reduction in program length means viewers will get 11% less skating, or content, in every pairs and men’s competition. Many fans might feel this is not, in fact, a benefit.
There’s also the question of how the change affects the disciplines involved. In my last article, I looked in detail at how the reduction would affect pairs skating. I argued that there’s a valid reason why pairs free skates are a half-minute longer than ladies and ice dance: Pairs have the widest range of different elements to present, of all the disciplines. They simply need more time to demonstrate their skill set.
The men’s free skate is a different case. Men have fewer different types of elements to perform. But what they offer is the highest level of pure athleticism in the sport; the most demanding and varied jumps. This means up to 6 quad jumps in a free skate, or up to 5 different types of quads. Men arguably need more time in their programs because the variety and difficulty of their jumps demands that time.
Men’s free skates have been approximately 11% longer than ladies’ for at least the past 20 years. (Before that, they were even longer.) Interestingly, this gap roughly reflects some research I came across from a 2010 study, which examined world records in various sports and found the following:
A stabilization of the gender gap in world records is observed after 1983, at a mean difference of 10.0% ± 2.94 between men and women for all events … The mean gap is 10.7% for running performances, 17.5% for jumps, 8.9% for swimming races, 7.0% for speed skating and 8.7% in cycling.
I’m no expert in sports science. But could it be possible that the longstanding 11% time difference between men and ladies’ free skates is no coincidence… but actually reflective of the full physical capability of male skaters?
Either way, one thing is more or less inarguable. The men’s long program, as it currently stands, represents the athletic peak of the sport. The top men in the world can score up to 120 points and above in technical content alone in the free skate; the top lady, Evgenia Medvedeva, has only scored as high as 82 points. The firepower that the top men bring to their free skates is truly thrilling and awe-inspiring to see. Many match it with terrific artistry as well.
Renowned coach Alexei Mishin said last year before Helsinki Worlds:
This World Championships will show that men’s singles skating is the leader among all figure skating disciplines, not only in technique, but also aesthetically. This year there will be an apotheosis, because in the current season the number of quads turned into quality.
Mishin’s words were prophetic, as Helsinki Worlds did indeed produce the greatest men’s free skate of all time, by the numbers, anyway: The magisterial, almost otherworldly, free skate of Yuzuru Hanyu, who landed 4 perfect quads and 2 perfect triple Axel combinations while skating, appropriately, to Hope and Legacy.
A 4:00 free skate would not have allowed us to see the full brilliance of Yuzuru Hanyu that night. Every jump in that program played its part, joining effortlessly to create the perfection of the whole. Every jump was needed, appreciated, vital.
The men’s free skate, as it stands now, is the ultimate test for the greatest athletes in the skating world. Making it easier by eliminating 30 seconds and 1 jumping pass is … undesirable, in my mind. Unfulfilling. The greatest can—and probably want—to test themselves to the limit. Let them … and let us witness the magnificence they can produce, at their best.
The sport cannot stand to lessen in any way—to make shorter or smaller—the ultimate that it can give.
Rules Change #2: Reduce jump values
The ISU announced a proposal to reduce the value of jumps last month. Some jumps would be devalued by as much as 10% or even 15%. This plan “should produce a better balance between the technical and components scores that now is in favor of the technical part,” said Fabio Bianchetti, chair of the ISU Technical Committee for Single & Pairs Skating. Bianchetti added: “This is the direction line I am working on with the intent to make a radical change for the future development of the sport, hoping to bring back the popularity that figure skating used to have in the past.”
Again, the same questions arise: What problem is the ISU trying to solve? And does the change actually solve it?
In his remarks, Bianchetti seemed to suggest that the ISU feels the sport has become too technical–not sufficiently artistic–and that this is negatively affecting the sport’s popularity. Is there actual evidence to support this? Has the ISU conducted research to determine that fans are drifting away due to lack of artistry? My personal opinion is that the ISU is probably right and that, in many countries, the lack of public interest in figure skating may be related to a lack of artistic impact and personality in programs. However, before taking major steps to change the judging system, shouldn’t they at least establish this as a point of fact?
Next: If the problem of lack of artistry exists, how does the ISU know that quads and other difficult jumps are primarily to blame? How do they know that incentives to do long, complicated level 4 step sequences and long, complicated level 4 spins aren’t just as much to blame for tedious programs as quads? How do they know that incentives to put most jumps in the second half of the program—creating a dull first half—aren’t as much to blame? The ISU is taking a blunt approach—reducing jump values–to a problem that’s actually deeply embedded in the entire judging system.
IJS rewards technical difficulty in every aspect of the performance, not just in jumps. That emphasis on difficulty above all else runs through every step of every program. Skaters must focus on doing the most difficult footwork; not the most musically effective steps. They must do certain types of spins, and long spins, rather than using the best spin position for a certain musical moment or doing a shorter spin. They must do the most difficult jumps–even if it means increasing jump preparation time at the expense of choreography. All through every program, skaters and choreographers must make choices based on IJS’s incentives for technical difficulty, rather than on the artistic integrity of the program.
If the ISU is serious about increasing artistry, they can’t just change jump values. They have to address the entire mindset of the scoring system.
The ISU could do several things to reduce the level of technicality and allow for more artistry. They could set limits on jumps. They could cap the number of jumps placed in the second half. They could reduce the number of features rewarded in leveled elements. They could make more elements unleveled (like the current choreographic sequence). These would be clear steps to reduce the overall technical difficulty of programs.
The current proposal, however, instead sends a mixed and murky message: “You can still do quads; you just won’t get as many points for them.” “We want to see more artistry, but are not easing incentives for element difficulty. So, you still need to do max difficulty.”
If this rules change is implemented, it seems likely that singles skaters will continue to attempt many quads and triple Axels, since those jumps’ point differential—and, therefore, strategic advantage–over other triples is still significant (even if less than before). A recent analysis from Italian Eurosport skating commentators Massimiliano Ambesi and Angelo Dolfini reached the same conclusion. A data analysis from figure skating writer Sarah Rasher also found that the changes in jump values might not affect event outcomes as much as might be expected (although it would give somewhat greater weight to PCS). Overall, it seems questionable that devaluing jumps will allow a significantly greater focus on artistry.
Meanwhile, the change in program length, reduction in jumps in men’s free skates, and reduction in jump values, will all lead to programs that have less technical difficulty and are less athletically demanding than the long programs we see today.
Simply put, these changes will move the sport backward technically.
What sport moves backward? Records are made to be broken, goals are meant to be set higher. These changes would seem antithetical to the fundamental Olympic motto: “Higher, faster, stronger.”
It’s legitimate to try to manage the sport to increase its audience appeal. And there are ways that the ISU encourage greater artistry. For example, they could factor program component scores higher. As discussed, they could reduce technical difficulty in spins and footwork, to give skaters more artistic freedom in the programs. They could look at changing the components categories to encourage artistry (choreography/interpretation) over technical difficulty (transitions). They could even throw out IJS entirely and build a new system that would better value artistry.
Bottom line: It’s absolutely reasonable for the ISU to want to encourage greater artistry. But they should not do so by devaluing triple and quad jumps. The technical legitimacy of the sport rests on those jumps.
Rules Change #3: GOE range increase
This change, already approved, will take effect next season. Judges will have a wider range of grade of execution (GOE) marks available, moving from the current -3 to +3 range, to a wider -5 to +5 range. Also, “the interval between the scores would be set at 10 percent of the base value, as opposed to the current system, which has no standardized relationship to the base value,” according to IceNetwork’s article last month announcing the changes.
On the surface, this seems like the least problematic of the current proposals. GOE plays an important role in helping skaters earn deserved points for high-quality elements; many would argue there’s no harm in extending the mechanism further.
However, the devil will be in the details with this proposal. The allowance for additional quality points (up to +5) likely means the ISU will add new criteria for earning those quality marks. And that’s where the slope gets slippery.
Adding new criteria essentially becomes another way to raise the difficulty quotient for athletes. It can also have unforeseen consequences. When the ISU added ‘Tano/Rippon criteria to jump GOE, did they really intend for Russian junior ladies to start ‘Tano-ing and Rippon-ing every jump? Likewise, the ISU needs to make decisions carefully in assigning further automatic negative GOE criteria for jump mistakes.
There’s also another issue to worry about with increased GOE range: Reputation judging. I believe most judges make a good-faith effort to assign GOE marks fairly; but it’s still the case that highly ranked skaters are more likely to pull in high GOE scores for a given element. A lift that might be scored as a +1 lift for a low-ranked pair can easily become a +2 lift when one of the top pairs is performing it. What if judges who already hand out all +2s/+3s to top skaters simply move to all +4s/+5s under the revised scoring? The effect of reputation judging could be magnified. This is an issue that the ISU should monitor closely in the first year of implementation.
If used responsibly and correctly, though, a wider range of GOE marks could be helpful in distinguishing between, and rewarding, skaters’ performances.
Rules Change #4: Replace current short/long programs with technical/artistic programs
This proposal is the furthest from implementation. It may not even be voted on by the 2020 ISU Congress; and would likely not be rolled out until after the 2022 Olympics. I’m glad this change is far from reality because, to be frank, I think it’s a very bad idea.
Once again, the relevant question is: What problem is the ISU trying to solve? What is wrong with the two current programs in figure skating? For clues, let’s examine ISU Vice President Lakernik’s comments about the programs in August 2016:
Now, these programs are too similar and the difference is only the number of difficult elements, by example in singles, the number of jumps. A long-term plan is to have two quite different programs: one more technical and one more artistic. The technical program could be something like current short programs or free skates. The artistic program could contain less difficult elements with a focus on the program presentation. The programs could be equal in length. This way, we can increase the number of medals by having technical, artistic and maybe overall winners.
Lakernik’s remarks do not make a case for any significant problem with the existing programs. He argues that they are too similar. But why is that an issue? How does it hurt the sport?
What could hurt the sport is attempting to arbitrarily–and artificially–separate the two central aspects of figure skating: Technical skill and artistry. The combination of these skill sets is precisely what makes figure skating unique and compelling.
A purely technical program, with an emphasis mostly on jumps, would raise certain questions. If artistry was not a focus, would it even be necessary to skate to music or have choreography? How would skaters with similar jump content, but notable differences in skating skills, posture, or line, be scored? Most importantly, would audiences be interested? (The Aerial Jump Challenge has been happening for several years in Colorado Springs … but I don’t think it’s a big draw.)
However, it’s the proposed artistic program that raises bigger questions. How is a primarily artistic program to be judged? How is it to have any legitimacy? How is it different from a show program? Most important, without many difficult technical elements, how can it possibly be seen as a sport worthy of its own Olympic medal?
The viability of an artistic skating event in the Olympics is a serious issue. There’s more to figure skating than the Olympics; but the sport’s overall popularity and health is, to some extent, dependent on the Olympics. Figure skating’s recent decline in popularity in North America and Europe has many likely causes, but does roughly correlate with an increase in highly controversial figure skating results at the Olympics, particularly in 2002 (pairs), 2010 (men), and 2014 (ladies). My fear is that, every time a scandal arises involving figure skating at the Olympics, the sport loses more traction with the general public. Why introduce an artistic program that might generate more controversy, due to a lack of clear/quantifiable judging criteria?
I remember the technical/artistic programs at the World Professional Championships in Landover, Maryland, in the 1980s/90s. (This is not a new idea.) The format was okay … for a professional competition. I looked forward to the technical programs, where the professional stars would put out their best technical elements along with great choreography. The artistic program? It seemed more like an applause-o-meter event.
I find it odd, and ironic, that the ISU is suggesting an artistic program at precisely the moment when it is steadily losing credibility in its own judging of artistry. After a dozen years of IJS, with its strong emphasis on technical difficulty, the importance and recognition of artistry/presentation in figure skating is arguably at it lowest point in some time.
ISU judges increasingly struggle with evaluating artistry separately from technical execution. Skaters who land a lot of clean jumps tend to get high PCS, whether or not they have good programs, whether or not they have good posture, carriage, musicality, or line. Particularly in the singles disciplines–and ladies, especially–a skater’s PCS score is closely related to their technical score.
No doubt entire studies could be done on judges’ inability to separate artistry from technical performance. While I can’t provide such detailed analysis right now, the evidence is constantly around us. The current season is just starting, but we’ve already seen examples of egregious PCS judging, such as Carolina Kostner losing every PCS category to Evgenia Medvedeva in the Rostelecom free skate last weekend, despite a transcendent performance that was clearly artistically superior. A regrettable situation, which the ISU should be embarrassed about. Yet it happens so frequently, so commonly.
Admittedly, judges’ task in awarding PCS is made harder by the disparate components categories they must evaluate. Choreography and interpretation are artistry-based categories; skating skills is a technical category. Transitions and performance are an uneasy mix. How this odd group of categories was drawn together to produce an overall “components” mark remains a mystery. These days, judges tend to issue similar PCS marks across all categories per skater. Sadly, this only further reduces their own credibility, as it’s clear to even neophyte skating fans that a skater may shine in performance quality but not in skating skills (or vice versa).
The increasing linkage between TES/PCS, as well as the prevalence of corridor PCS judging, has led to another problem: Artistic “relativism” in the sport. After years of emphasis on technical elements, I feel like there is now little consensus, among fans or judges, of what in fact constitutes superior artistry. A few rare skaters, such as Kostner, Patrick Chan, Jason Brown, and Stolbova/Klimov, are widely considered to be especially strong in PCS and get an according bump. However, aside from these few, PCS is increasingly malleable and indeterminate.
In her last season in 2016-17, three-time world champion Mao Asada had some of the most beautiful programs of her career, with her characteristic liquid step sequences and beautiful spirals. Yet because she wasn’t landing her jumps, Mao got 8.0-range PCS marks. Meanwhile, World champion Evgenia Medvedeva routinely receives mid-9.0 PCS marks. But general opinion on her artistry is in fact divided. For every fan of her skating, there are others who complain of overacting, imperfect posture, and interchangeable programs.
Is Medvedeva a great artistic skater? Is Mao? What constitutes a great artistic performance now? Does anyone even know? After 12 years of IJS, the only certainty is that whoever has the highest TES likely wins (and also gets high PCS).
Into this confused climate, the ISU now wishes to introduce an “artistic program with a focus on the program presentation.” It’s a dicey proposition at best for a judging community that, of late, seems unable to distinguish what does and doesn’t constitute artistry in figure skating.
Fabio Bianchetti said the full proposal for new technical/artistic programs might not be ready for a vote until after the 2020 ISU Congress. Does this mean the ISU will seek to develop a new type of judging system, or at least new set of criteria or element weighting, for an artistic program? Because such a development would, frankly, be necessary to even begin to judge an artistic program.
A final question: Would an artistic program satisfy audiences and win more fans to the sport? No one can know the answer, but I have strong doubts. I fear viewers would quickly realize that the artistic program they’d be watching is … not a sport. How can a sport exist without a firm basis in technique? Without technique, it’s an art form. Not a sport.
Current ISU leaders would do well to remember the words of former ISU official Sonia Bianchetti Garbato: “Figure skating is, and must be, the perfect blend of technical prowess and art.”
Technique and art must co-exist in a competitive skating program; both ever improving, and both indispensable. The concept of separate artistic and technical programs is a chimera, a false path, a wrong direction, in my opinion.
The ISU is charged with the good governance of the sport, so its decisions will stand. But until final decisions are made on all these rules changes, it seems appropriate to debate the proposals within the community. Major changes demand careful thought and analysis: It’s necessary to have a clear understanding of the problems before you create solutions. The proposed changes would significantly affect everyone in the skating world—skaters, coaches, choreographers, judges, viewers. As such, I think it’s fair and important that they get a full hearing.
It’s in this spirit that I’ve offered my thoughts—as someone who cares about the development of the sport.
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Articles of interest
ISU official: ‘Radical change’ could be on the way. IceNetwork.com. September 2017.
Lakernik hints at changes to IJS. IceNetwork.com. August 2016.
Ambesi’s Kiss & Cry. Italian Eurosport commentary (translation/transcription).
Statistics, Scoring, and Last Weekend’s Men’s Highlights. TheFinerSports.com. September 2017.
“Women and Men in Sports Performance.” J. Sports Sci. Med. June 2010.
“Fit but Unequal.” Washington Post. February 2014.
“We Thought Female Athletes Were Catching Up to Men, But They’re Not.” The Atlantic. August 2012