This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on January 30, 2006
Figure Skating's New 'Tamper Proof' Judging not Tamper Proof
Maybe Chicken Little was right. After all, the signs were pretty convincing at the 2006 Canadian FIGURE SKATING championships earlier this month. There were the little black bits of foam insulation that kept drifting down from the roof of the crumbling Ottawa Civic Centre, forcing organizers to dispatch a legion of children and grandmas armed with lint rollers to clean the ice between each performance. A dearth of clutch performances in an event that determined the team that Canada will send to the Turin Games. And the whimpering end to the sport's version of the arms race - the quest for the quad.
Canada's Kurt BROWNING was the first to land it. Elvis STOJKO, his successor, made it his trademark. For years, it was the winning condition in men's competitions, at home and abroad. But under the new judging system adopted by figure skating after the corruption scandal at the Salt Lake games, the top of the podium is no longer reserved for the masters of big air. And as the results in Ottawa demonstrated, the next Olympic champions may well end up being the smartest, instead of the flashiest, skaters on the ice.
Jeff Buttle, last year's world silver medallist, and Emanuel Sandhu, the three-time Canadian champion, both went for the quadruple toe loop in their long programs. Buttle fell (and later turned out - i.e. over-rotated on the landing - of a triple Axel, and doubled a triple loop), but still earned six points for the attempt. Sandhu, who planned the more difficult quad-double toe loop combination, landed his, but was judged to also have turned out, a fault that under the new system downgraded his combination to a jump sequence, worth 20 per cent less. The net result, a score of 6.2.
At the end of the night, when the error-filled programs were totalled up, Buttle had beaten Sandhu and won the overall competition by almost 20 points, largely on the strength of his artistic presentation. And the audience and journalists were left puzzling over how the gap got to be so big, not to mention how both men turned in new personal bests - 266.90 and 247.08 respectively - that rank among the highest scores ever given under the new judging system. "You know what? I won, so it was a championship skate," said Buttle. "It wasn't perfect. But I can feel pretty good that I have room for improvement."
Four years after the scandal in Salt Lake that saw Canada's Jamie SALÉ and David PELLETIER initially denied gold, figure skating is limping into Turin on a wing and a prayer - that the Olympic spotlight will restore its credibility and luster. Attendance and viewership for competitions has fallen through the floor. Stars like Stojko, Salé, Pelletier and Russia's Alexei Yagudin, have moved on to the professional ranks. And several of the sport's remaining big names, including Michelle Kwan of the United States and Evgeny Plushenko, the 2002 men's silver medallist, have been hampered by injury. Figure skating's biggest challenge, however, may be the innovation that was supposed to be its salvation - the new, "tamper-proof" judging procedure.
Gone is the familiar 6.0 system where a panel of judges watched the performances and ranked skaters against each other, awarding two sets of marks, one for technique, the other for artistic impression. In its place is the decidedly fan-unfriendly Code of Points, a system so Byzantine that most skaters and coaches confess to not fully grasping its nuances. Seeking to even the playing field, the International Skating Union created an inventory of every spin, jump, lift, spiral and combination in the sport and assigned each a base mark. In jumps, for example, a simple toe-loop is worth the least, 0.4 points, a triple Lutz is worth 6.0, and a quad Axel the most, 13 points. A panel of technical specialists, armed with instant-replay TV screens, now watches the competition to determine if skaters have completed their elements, and if so, awards them the base mark. A panel of judges - 12 at international competitions, eight at the recent Canadian championships - then grades the quality of each element on a seven-stop scale, adding or subtracting bonus marks. (The amount of the bonus, or penalty, is proportional to the base mark and can change depending where the element occurs in the program.) The highest and lowest scores for each element are discarded, and the remaining judges' marks are averaged to give the move its final value. Those values are then added together to give the overall technical mark, now called the Total Element Score. At the Olympics and other internationals, there's an extra wrinkle to confound attempts to fix the results - while all 12 judges submit sets of marks, only nine of them are used, selected at random by a computer. Still following at home?
The same panel of judges also awards a new version of artistic marks, now called the component score. Skaters get graded between one and 10 for their choreography, transitions, interpretation and timing, execution, and skating skills. Those totals are again randomly selected, pared down, averaged and added together. The technical and component scores have equal final weight. Short program marks count for one-third of the total, the long program two-thirds. And in one last twist, international judging is now "anonymous" so no one, except the ISU's auditing committee, knows whose marks have gone into the final scores. In summary, the only thing that hasn't changed is that somebody wins, and somebody loses.
The Code of Points has been in place for just over a year, and the reviews have generally ranged between tepid and hostile. Its complexity has led to a number of technical snafus - at the Japanese championships in December, Nobunari Oda had his men's gold taken away after he was mistakenly awarded points for a triple jump he didn't complete. At the U.S. nationals in mid-January, Marcy Hinzmann and Aaron Parchem, who placed second in the pairs competition, were incorrectly awarded a 10 per cent bonus for a throw triple loop. The error wasn't enough to change the outcome, but once corrected - hours after the competition ended - their margin of victory over the third place couple shrank from 1.16 points to 0.66.
So far, the Code of Points also appears to be considerably more forgiving than the previous system. Where the old standard used to be that a clean skate - and in the men's competition, the quad - were needed to hit the international podium, errors, even big ones, are no longer fatal. In his long program at the Trophée Bompard in Paris last November, Buttle fell on his quad attempt, stepped out of one triple Axel, singled another, and still won, again, mostly on the strength of his component scores. "For sure, it wouldn't have been possible to win like that in the past," says Buttle. "But when people complain about it, I think that's a little bit of the old mentality - we see an error in the jump and automatically assume the skater should be in the bottom group. But what if you excel in all those other areas?"
There have also been suggestions - most notably after Russia's Irina Slutskaya won last year's European championships despite a horrid performance - that judges are using the new component marks to "place" skaters, just like the bad old days. "They changed a scoring system and that wasn't the problem," says Jon Jackson, a former U.S. figure skating judge and one of the whistle-blowers in Salt Lake. "It was about judges who cheated, and a culture of corruption in figure skating that allowed it to happen again and again."
The ISU made only token efforts to clean house, says Jackson, who has just published On Edge, an exposé of the sport's backroom dealings. Marie-Reine Le Gounge, the French official who in Salt Lake placed the Russian pair, Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, ahead of Salé and Pelletier, and Didier Gailhaguet, the president of the Fédération française des sports de glace who pressured her to do it, have finished their 36-month suspensions - though an Olympic ban endures - and are eligible for reinstatement. The Russians, who were allegedly set to return the favour by voting for a French ice-dancing couple, were investigated but never punished. (At least not in any conventional fashion - one of those implicated, Chevalier Nusuyev, head of the Russian youth sports federation, died in a mob-style hit in Moscow last August.) And things are getting even worse, says Jackson, who was part of a failed bid to start a rival international skating body. The crooked judges continue to cut deals, and the honest ones, scared of being singled out by the ISU's auditors for giving "inappropriate" marks, are going along with the herd.
Sonia Bianchetti Garbato, who was a senior member of the ISU for 25 years, is also an outspoken critic of the new system. "It hasn't given back any credibility to our sport," she says from her home in Milan. "And it has thrown away the emblem of our sport, the 6.0. Something that meant perfection and was the dream of every skater." Bianchetti Garbato, who last year published her own tell-all, Cracked Ice, holds the Code of Points responsible for even more sins. Element-driven programs are causing injuries as skater's bodies break down under the intense training, she says. And artistry is being sacrificed in the quest for points. "Figure skating is losing its beauty. It is turning from a graceful sport to a difficult sport."
And whether it's the lingering stench of scandal, or the challenge of the new judging system, there's no denying that audiences are increasingly tuning the sport out. Canadian TV ratings for the 2004 world championships were barely half of what they were in 2001. Viewership for the Skate Canada international has dropped 22 per cent in five years. American TV ratings are even deeper in the toilet. At the Canadian championship in Ottawa, there were plenty of empty seats.
But defenders of the new system point out that fixing something as broken as figure skating was bound to be difficult. Paul Martini, who won a pairs world championship for Canada along with Barb Underhill, and is now a commentator for CBC TV, cautions against a rush to judgment. "It's a birthing. It's a brand new world. It's going to take some time, people." While he agrees that the Code of Points has leached some of the "soul" out of performances, he's optimistic that the competitive fires will soon burn again. Besides, today's problems pale against the long-term benefits of a cleaner sport. "As a commentator, I don't talk about the judges anymore," says Martini. "It used to be that one person, like Le Gounge, held the balance of power. That's not the case anymore, and that's huge."
And what shouldn't be overlooked is that most skaters like the change, especially the detailed marking system that lets them know precisely what they did right and wrong. At the Canadian championships, the first stop after the kiss and cry for many competitors was a computer set up in the hallway so they could check out the judges' reports. Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon, the Canadian ice-dancing champions and a legitimate medal threat in Turin, were on the verge of quitting the sport before the system was changed. "There was no clear explanation of why and how certain results were happening," says Dubreuil. "At the 2004 Worlds in Germany, we skated three perfect programs, the best we've ever skated at a championship. And our marks were much lower. It was a heartbreak." Where rankings only seemed to change if someone smashed through the boards under the old system, the Code of Points has turned ice dance into a real competition. Buoyed by the changes, the couple are enjoying their best season ever, with two golds and bronze so far on the world circuit. "I think this year we managed to bring the package all together," says Lauzon. "We're mentally and physically stronger, our choices for music this year were right on, our choreography is amazing, everything is falling into place. The judging system just makes it easier to get the rewards."
For the victims (ultimately the victors) of Salt Lake, the raging debate over the Code of Points seems a bit of a canard. On the phone from a Smucker's Stars on Ice tour stop in California, Pelletier says the system is an improvement, but a cosmetic one. The ISU needed to clean the house, not just change the bedding, he says. "You can have the greatest system in the world, but to me the credibility of the people administering it just isn't there." He and Salé, his new bride, skate on the same tour as their co-gold medallists in Salt Lake, Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze, with whom they have become good friends, although they never discuss the scandal. The crowds for the professional exhibitions are still good, but Pelletier says he understands why the amateur scene is hurting. "I don't watch wrestling because it's fixed. Why would anybody watch figure skating if they think it's the same way?" Salé and Pelletier will be in Turin working for NBC next month, watching intently from the sidelines. They both hope the Olympics will be an important milestone on the long road back to credibility for the sport they love, but their experience has made them pessimistic. "If somebody cheats now, we'll never find out," says Pelletier. "That's the beauty for the ISU."
Maclean's January 30, 2006