The Impact of the IJS in Club Competition

By Minnie Sanderson

Without a doubt, the International Judging System (IJS) has been perhaps the most popular and critical topic among the elite sector of competitive figure skating over the past six years.

Questions that have been brought up since it has come into use include: its effects upon the overall performance aspect of the skaters; its popularity with the general public; and finally, the issue whether it is helping to grow figure skating.

These are just some of the many issues that are constantly brought up among the media, officials, skaters, coaches and fans at national and world-level competitive events. Of course, these discussions are always seem to generate some of the most informative and interesting stories of the competition.

Still, in spite its growing pains, the figure skating community seems to be settling in quite well with IJS and seems to be adapting to it effectively.  Currently, many believe the overall standard of the sport has increased in many ways, primarily as a result of the introduction of IJS.

One area worth examining in this regard is the impact of IJS on ‘local’ non-qualifying events -- the competitions held by skating clubs throughout the year.  This segment of the skating community is paramount in the U.S., since it where all of the country’s up-and-coming competitors begin their competitive careers and are showcased. These competitions also represent a huge pool of young athletes from which talent can be spotted and developed, which is always exciting.

Most American competitive skaters participate in these non-qualifying events early on in the season as a means to strengthen their performance skills and to exhibit their abilities in front of officials. This way, they have an advantage going into U.S. Figure Skating qualifying events (Regionals) later in the year.

The largest non-qualifying in the U.S. can draw several hundred competitors and can include 600-1200 starts (each performance in a competition is referred to as a start).  There are also large annual competitions in the U.S. that cater specifically to pairs and dance competitors.

Some noteworthy examples of major skating stars who have come up through the American non-qualifying ranks over the years include Sarah Hughes, the 2002 Olympic Champion who went home at age five with a first-place victory in a low-test group at the Darien Open in CT in the late 80s where she performed a clean double toe.

Nicole Bobek, the former U.S. Ladies champion and Liz Manley, the 1988 Canadian Olympic silver medalist also earned initial acclaim at American non-qualifying events back in the 1980s. According to officials, both of these skaters each wowed the crowd, and officials, when they were young and coming up the ladder at the Lake Placid Open Championships in upstate New York.

In September 2003, Johnny Weir, the 2008 U.S. World bronze medalist, began his famous comeback season following his Dallas debacle with a stunning victory at the Mid-Atlantic Championships in New York City. Later that January, Weir claimed the 2004 U.S. Championship men’s singles title.

One thing is for certain--the role that non-qualifying competitive events in the U.S. is critical to the development of skating talent in the U.S..

In recent years, non-qualifying events have evolved with the changes of the sport as most of them have begun using the IJS to mark skaters competing at the Juvenile level on up. In turn, these competitions have taken on a whole new meaning and personality, if you will, and have helped improve the overall standard of skating at the local levels.

In order to properly mark the skaters under the IJS system, many of the clubs who sponsor these competitions invested in the proper computers, video equipment and calculators. Although equipment can add up to a rather large expense, it is an investment worth its weight in gold, according to numerous officials and technical specialists. Those clubs who do not have the IJS equipment either borrow from a fellow club or use the old-fashioned method of a pen and paper, which is just as effective with properly trained staff.

Perhaps the biggest revelation of all in spite of these new changes and adjustments is that IJS has benefited the skaters in a major way. Jumps are cleaner, spins have better positions and are more centered, and the connecting steps and footwork are performed with improved edges, power and flow.

Many of the skater’s programs from the No-Test level on up are more honest. There are now clear-cut rules for elements, and the athletes are abiding by them. Cheated jumps are being marked down, as are gray-area spins with indistinguishable positions. Unbalanced footwork and sloppy choreography is also being downgraded, based upon the overall results of the different groups from beginner to the senior levels.

Ultimately, the new system has served as a primary catalyst for dramatically improving the standard among these skaters in recent years, which bodes well for the future of the sport.

Peter Burrows, the reputable Olympic and World singles and pairs coach, puts it this way. "The new system demands a high standard from a skater in every way, which is great. For example, if you cheat a jump, you’re dead—you’ve got to have these elements down pat," he said at the 2008 Eastern Championships in Raleigh, North Carolina, in November.

This coach certainly knows his stuff. In April, his student, Christine Mozer (SC of New York), won the Novice Ladies Short and Free Skate events at the 2008 Darien Open. Both of her programs featured a high, clean double Axel and nice triple Salchow.

Meanwhile, footwork has emerged as another spotlight element at these events. Skaters from the No-Test level on up are performing impressive straight-line footwork sequences in their programs that are well balanced and defined by nice edgework. Moreover, these sequences are not over ambitious, which is nice to see.

Finally, for many skaters their spins look very good. It seems as though there are better basic positions from the lowest levels on up, without too much emphasis on feature positions. Although the ubiquitous Biellmann spin seems to still pop up frequently, it seems to be a somewhat less-trendy thing among the skaters these days, especially among the lower level kids.  This is a good thing, since officials have been touting the importance of skaters obtaining good basic spin positions before they begin doing all of the feature moves.

"The basic positions have to be well established before you can put features on them," said Gale Tanger, a top U.S. Figure Skating and International Skating Union official at the 2008 Professional Skaters Association Conference in Chicago this past May.

In terms of artistry, it is clear that many coaches and choreographers are working hard to make sure they follow the IJS rules and regulations. Programs are becoming more inventive and interesting, and reflect the personalities of the skaters nicely, for chaoches and choreographers who have grasped the demands expected of the skaters in the Program Components..

"I think you really have to go with your own vision and point of view, and this helps you to follow the rules," said David Liu, an acclaimed U.S. choreographer.

In the end, the IJS seems to be working well in U.S. Figure Skating non-qualifying competitive. This system has only been up for approximately six years, while the 6.0 system had been used for about 75 years. So for still being in a somewhat ‘young,’ IJS has already helped to make great strides for the sport here in the U.S.

"This is a train that’s already taken off—either you get on it or you don’t get to go," said Liu.

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