Figure skating scoring is not what it used to be

By Tracee Hamilton
Friday, February 26, 2010; D01

VANCOUVER, B.C. What hath God (and Marie-Reine) wrought?

Remember eight years ago, when scandal rocked the Olympics and French figure skating judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne filled the Great Salt Lake with her tears and we all pounded the keyboards demanding a change in the sport's scoring system?

What the heck were we thinking?

The sport is certainly more fair than it was in 2002, when what many had suspected was finally confirmed: that judges colluded to rig the voting to help each other's skaters. In Salt Lake City, the arrangement was that the Russians would get gold in pairs and the French would win the ice dancing. Le Gougne was the French judge who allegedly was part of the fix. In the end, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge was pressured into giving gold medals to both the Russian and Canadian pair, and the International Skating Union was pressured into revamping its old 6.0 scoring system.

Under the new system, the medals in Vancouver have been awarded, in all cases, to the correct skaters. Former gold medalist and NBC commentator Scott Hamilton agrees. "Perfect. Pretty much perfect," Hamilton said. "The results have been spectacular." And that's the most important thing: The sport's results no longer veer into the embarrassing and inexplicable.

But -- and I say this gently -- some beauty has been lost. Presentation, interpretation, expression -- whatever you want to call it, some of the sport's inherent grace, some of what appealed most to those who could see beyond the sequins and makeup to the athleticism and artistry -- has been sacrificed in an effort to make the scoring more objective.

Frank Carroll, who coached Evan Lysacek to the gold medal, told reporters earlier this week there likely will never again be the "legendary artist" such as Peggy Fleming or Michelle Kwan because "the new system is all technical, technical, technical."

Fans used to swoon over Kwan's fabulous spirals, which seemed to go on forever. Those would never make it into her program now; with all the elements that must be accounted for, there's not enough time.

"It's so hard not to look like you're just gathering points," Kwan said. "Yu-na is able to make a performance."

Ah yes, Kim Yu-na. Like Lysacek, Kim has found a way to wring every point she can out of the system and look good doing it. During Thursday night's long program, she was so vastly superior, the only competition was for second place.

"She owns and operates the scoring system," Hamilton said. "If it was a 6.0 system, it would be hard not to give her 6.0s."

This topic was danced around a bit during the men's competition as well, but was lost amid the quad-or-no-quad debate. That was an interesting distraction but misleading. The central issue was that Lysacek worked the system to perfection, and silver medalist Evgeni Plushenko didn't. The quad won't win a competition, but strict adherence to the rules will.

For every Lysacek or Kim, there are dozens of skaters who are still struggling to master the system. Sasha Cohen, who won the silver medal in Turin but didn't make this year's Olympic team, said last month during U.S. nationals in Spokane, Wash., that she spends her routine counting instead of performing. (This reminded me forcibly of Gilbert Arenas -- remember him? -- after he became obsessed with assists and began counting them during games.)

This focus on mental math can somewhat diminish the casual fan's enjoyment of the sport. Commentator Dick Button warned NBC viewers before nationals that they were not going to see the skating "we necessarily like the most."

"We have to remember that this is a judging system based on points," Button told NPR. "It's the point value that counts [for] each of the individual moves."

Jump combinations are still valued highly on the score sheet, but the "transitions" -- the moves and footwork that skaters perform while moving across the ice for their next jump combinations -- are important as well. Lysacek and Carroll made the most of those. Skaters who dismiss such elements lose points but also give performances such as Plushenko's -- athletic, but more disjointed than graceful.

"They're so busy having to do all these things," Hamilton said. "A lot of skaters haven't taken the time to work on the artistic element. But the best are doing everything."

The system cuts both ways. It certainly doesn't reward artistic performers such as American Johnny Weir. Weir is graceful and fluid, his programs are clean and his music complements his choreography instead of serving as background Muzak. (His flamboyance also may work against him, which is ridiculous. Of course rhinestones sparkle a little brighter when Weir wears them. They know they are home.)

Weir wasn't medal-worthy here, but he probably should have finished at least one place higher. The heavily Canadian audiences thought so -- both nights, his scores were greeted with lusty boos.

Of course, the system isn't set in stone. The pendulum has swung from a completely subjective free-for-all to a points-driven strait jacket. It eventually will swing back to some middle ground. Perhaps reducing the number of technical requirements would be a place to start.

"You could eliminate a jumping pass," Hamilton said. "That would open up about 20 seconds."

Twenty seconds. It's better than nothing.

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