CALGARY, FEB. 23 -- The collective eye of nine beholders decides what is gold medal quality in Olympic figure skating. To be a judge is to be an arbiter of what is beautiful and what is not, a decision that can irritate entire nations.

Puccini versus New Wave, a part of the hair to the side or the middle, and a loud color that is perhaps not quite appropriate for this finicky sport can determine who gets a medal. Judges have little other than the proper execution of a triple jump and their personal taste to decide these questions.

"I don't want to say my life will be over if I don't win the gold medal," said U.S. skater and 1986 world champion Debi Thomas, who begins competition in Wednesday's compulsories. "We're just a bunch of skaters doing our best and the rest is up to the judges. After that, it's not our responsibility, it's theirs."

The guidelines are simple: Figure skating is judged by nine panelists from different countries who are not allowed to consult about marks, a perfect one being 6.0. In the compulsories that count for 30 percent, skaters receive a combined score based on body line, flow, control and precision of three required figure eights. The two-minute short program worth 20 percent has seven required elements and judges subtract for errors on jumps, landings, spins and footwork.

In the long program, which can last up to 4 minutes 40 seconds and counts 50 percent, skaters are judged on technical merit and artistic presentation. But how this is determined is complex; while a fall requires a subtraction of 0.2, a bobble or slip doesn't have to count.

Interpretation of the music, innovation in choreography and an intangible blend of technique and artistry are paramount. As Czechoslovakian judge Vera Spurna told the Associated Press, "The important part is not written in the rules." Within those guidelines are excuses for nationalism, a caste system that makes it almost impossible for a less regarded skater to earn good marks, and outright subjectivity.

Physical beauty can be vitally important, and reigning world champion Katarina Witt of East Germany has been accused of being a mediocre technical skater who seduces judges with charisma. Some here have criticized her costumes as being too revealing.

"This can't be changed, it's inherent in the sport," Witt said. "We don't measure times. The artistic area is different for everyone, we all have our tastes and opinions."

Thomas summed it up flatly. "It's definitely a Miss America sport," she said.