Ideas for Change

By Sonia Bianchetti Garbato

The "new judging system" (International Judging System, or IJS) has been implemented since 2004 in International Skating Union (ISU) Championships, including the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Torino. During this time it has been constantly amended with the intent of correcting the many errors and flaws that became apparent after each event. It is still an endless ongoing process. But rather than improving it, the ISU has made it more and more complicated and confusing for the skaters, the coaches and the judges. Every other day, a new Communication is issued by the ISU adding some more minor details. Just crazy!

Despite the famous claim that IJS would be the solution to all of figure skating 's problems, it is widely recognized that it is causing more problems than it has solved. The skaters, the coaches and the judges are increasingly disenchanted with the new system although, in most cases, they only whisper their dissent backstage for fear of retaliation from the ISU. And worst of all, there are now an unbelievably high number of severe injuries even among Novices.

As Michael Abernethy wrote in a very interesting article following the World Championships in Canada: "Because skaters are earning points for each move, they are encouraged to push themselves to do more, bigger tricks. Why earn a few points with a triple-double jump combination that can be cleanly executed when you can earn a lot of points with a quad-triple combination that you may or may not pull off? And so skating becomes a dog and pony show, with each performance crammed full of jumps, spins, and fancy footwork, leaving little time for artistry or elegance. Of course, skaters still get scored for their artistry under the new system, but the artistry score alone won't get you to the podium." I could not agree with him more!

The Winter Olympics in Torino were the perfect example of the disaster produced by IJS. It was a "falling contest", in which the winner was not the skater with the best and most artistic program but the one who remained standing more than the others. Not to speak of the 2005 World Championships in Moscow, which I referred to as a "survival event".

As it is well known, the Technical Specialist (a professional) together with an Assistant (another professional) and a Technical Controller (a judge) assign each element of the skaters (other than jumps) a "level of difficulty", while the judges assign a mark for the quality of execution. The higher the level of difficulty, the higher the score. The most evident negative effect of the system is that it assigns the highest number of points to the most unattractive and sometimes most dangerous moves in skating. This applies to all disciplines.

While the criteria of assigning a certain value to the jumps and the jump combinations can make sense, provided that the judges correctly evaluate the quality of the element executed (which has not always been the case so far, in my observation), it is wrong and harmful for all the other elements. The current base values and levels reward doing a lot of "features" poorly, over doing something less difficult really well. If we simplify the use of base values and levels, and leave to the judges the duty of rewarding the difficulty and the quality of what the spins and steps look like, the skaters will clearly see that doing something well is more important and will be rewarded, and will then be more motivated to pursue quality over poorly executed difficulty.

Although the IJS offers some positive aspects, it needs to be deeply changed in some of its basic concepts if we want to save the most important feature of our sport: its art. The skaters who competed in the ISU Championships and the Olympic Games in Torino in 2006 had been trained and brought up according to the old "6.0 system" and had only to adjust their skating, even if with great difficulties, to the new requirements. Still, even for them, the consequences were a total disaster. Now a new generation of skaters is coming up and the danger is that they will all look like acrobats rather than figure skaters.

The overwhelming number of requirements, conditions and restrictions imposed by the rules, especially in spins and step sequences, as well as in lifts in ice dancing, is killing the creativity of the competitors. The sport is losing its beauty and its artistry, and its popularity continues to go downhill. To reach the highest level of difficulty, the skaters all execute exactly the same kind of elements, thus making the programs look like photocopies, one more boring and uninteresting than the other, with the girls looking like contortionists of the Cirque du Soleil.

In my opinion, definite factors for the jumps are acceptable and can be retained, with some revisions to better reflect the actual diversity in the difficulty, but different should be the approach to the spins and the step sequences.

At present, in spins, to achieve a Level 3 or 4 the skaters must execute a prescribed number of turns on each foot, or in each position; must change the edge or the direction of rotation; must pull their boot-skate of the free foot up to their nose in the most un-aesthetic position, or kiss their knee in sit spins. The result is that all the spins look the same. In most cases, they are very poor, slow, travelling and ugly, although very complicated; not to mention the Biellmann spin, which has become a kind of recurring nightmare.

The same applies to the step sequences, with the twizzles now the prevailing obsession in ice dancing.

The spiral step sequence, which was one of the most beautiful elements in the Ladies’ programs, has now become as ugly and unattractive as possible, with the girls turned into computers counting the number of seconds they hold the free leg in each position and on each edge. The same applies to the lifts in ice dancing. Less than three seconds, more than three seconds! So it is no longer the music that dictates what to do, how and when, but arithmetic! This cannot work in figure skating. I am more convinced than ever that a simple upright or cross- foot spin, with many rotations, at great speed and well centred, such as Stephane Lambiel used to do, or a "simple" spiral sequence such as those of Michelle Kwan or Sasha Cohen, is by far more attractive and worthy than any of those crazy "beauty killers" we are seeing today.

The ISU claims that the skaters are free to execute the elements they prefer and they are not obliged to choose those with the highest factor of difficulty. This is a joke! The skaters and their coaches are anything but stupid. They compete to win and if to win they must include in their programs the elements with the highest possible factors of difficulty, they will do it. They have no choice. They are not responsible for the future or the popularity of the sport. This is the responsibility of the ISU leadership!

Some drastic changes must be introduced before it is too late.

The judging now is far from being satisfactory. I would say is worse than ever both on the technical side (Grade of Execution, or GOE) and the Program Components.

The marks awarded by the judges for the quality of the elements executed do not reflect at all the actual difference among the best, the mediocre and the poorest competitors. Not to mention the Component marks, which are merely used to place the skaters.

This is not apparent at first sight. Because of the hundred of points appearing on the score boards or in the protocols, the skaters, the coaches, the press, and the judges themselves have no idea of what these points mean in terms of the classification.

But the picture that appears is simply distressing if one calculates the results indicating also the placements awarded by each judge to the same competitor in total, or in the different sections of the event, or even in each individual element or the Components, as Dr. George Rossano has done and published on his web site

For instance, at the Olympic Games in Torino, in the Compulsory Dance, the winners, the Italian couple Barbara Fusar-Poli & Maurizio Margaglio, received the following placements from the panel:

J1 J2 J3 J4  J5 J6 J7 J8 J9 J10 J11 J12
8  2 4 2 3 6 2 3 1 6 1 1
33.63 39.5 37.96 39.78 39.29 37.45 37.98 37.66 39.91 37.90 39.81 41.58

I cannot remember such a huge variety of opinion, at least among the first 5 places, with the old 6.0 system. Of course some ISU officials will claim that this is a good sign because it shows that the judges do not base their judgment any longer on the name or the reputation of the skater rather than the skating! For me it is just poor judging while the ISU, with its usual fairy tales, tries to justify the fact that the judges are confused and are no longer able to judge properly!

And what about the random draw of the judges? With such a spread of marks and placements, depending on which judges have been selected, the result could have varied from first to fifth very easily. Is this fair to the skaters? It is like a coin toss. The random draw is another flaw of the system, especially when it does not guarantee a fairer result but is only used to make secret judging even more secret! Much better would be to use the marks of all the 12 judges, deleting the highest and the lowest.

Another interesting example, published by Dr. Rossano, is the placements in the Ladies Free skate, in what should be one of the most obvious of the skills to be judged: the jumps:

Ladies Free Skate Jump Points


J1 J2 J3 J4 J5 J6 J7 J8 J9 J10 J11 J12
ARAKAWA Shizuka 2 1 1 1 1 1 1 2 2 1 1 1

39.40 39.40 42.40 41.40 40.40 40.40 38.40 39.40 40.40 44.90 41.40 39.40
COHEN Sasha 9 10 7 11 8 5 8 12 11 8 10 12

33.10 33.10 35.10 34.10 34.10 35.10 35.10 32.10 33.10 34.10 34.10 32.10
SLUTSKAYA Irina 10 7 9 7 10 9 9 3 7 10 5 9

33.00 35.00 33.00 35.00 34.00 33.00 34.00 39.00 37.00 33.70 37.00 35.00
SUGURI Fumie 6 6 8 5 5 2 6 7 5 5 4 4

36.70 35.70 35.00 37.00 36.70 36.00 35.70 36.00 37.70 36.00 37.70 37.70
ROCHETTE Joannie 1 2 3 2 3 4 2 1 1 2 2 3

40.70 38.70 38.70 40.70 37.70 35.40 38.40 43.70 41.70 42.70 39.70 37.70
MEISSNER Kimmie 7 8 4 6 6 3 7 8 8 4 7 8

36.20 34.50 37.20 36.50 36.20 35.50 35.50 35.50 35.50 36.50 36.20 35.20
HUGHES Emily 4 5 2 9 2 7 3 4 3 3 6 7

36.80 35.80 38.80 34.80 37.80 33.80 37.80 37.80 37.80 39.30 36.80 35.80

"So, in the Ladies Free Skate, was Emily Hughes the second best jumper, or the ninth?  Was Kimmie Meissner the third best or the eighth?  Was Irina Slutskaya the third best or tenth?  For perhaps the most obvious of the skills (jumps) the judges show a huge variety of opinion. Whether you look at results from a single event segment or an entire event, the marks under IJS produce results that are uncertain, and open to question half the time, or more.  This is grossly unfair to the skaters and must be fixed". 

The problem is how. Here under some ideas:

1. Abolish secret judging and the random draw, and use a panel of 12 judges in ISU Championships and the Winter Olympic Games.

Secret judging is perceived as a way to hide intrigues or deals among the judges and is detrimental to the credibility of the sport, especially with so much riding on the opinion of the judges. The only way to compensate for that is by having a lot of judges participate in the decision.

2. Adopt the same criteria as for the jumps in assigning Levels of Difficulty to all the elements.

Each element should be given just a basic Level depending on its difficulty (as it is now for the jumps). In spins, the basic Levels must be reviewed since it is not correct to consider the camel spin, for instance, as difficult as an upright spin. Even a 5-year-old child can tell that a camel spin is more difficult than an upright spin!

The same principle applies to step sequences, death spirals, etc. The basic factors should be carefully studied and discussed by the Technical Committees with the coaches and some top skaters to make sure that they really reflect the difficulty of each element.

Then, the Technical Committee should provide a simple and clear description of the essential characteristics of each element, such as the basic position, minimum number of revolutions, the number of revolutions or positions on each foot in case of change of foot spins or spin combinations, or in death spirals the minimum number of revolutions of the lady after the man has attained the pivot position, and so on.

For example, all the different spin types can be divided into just a few levels of difficulty:

Spins with no change of foot and no change of position

Upright Spin Difficulty 1

Layback Spin Difficulty 2

Sit Spin Difficulty 2

Camel Spin Difficulty 2

Spins with change of foot and no change of position

Upright Spin Difficulty 2

Layback spin Difficulty 3

Sit Spin Difficulty 3

Camel Spin Difficulty 3

And so on for spins with change of foot and change of position, flying spins, flying spins changing foot for landing or spin combinations up to Difficulty 4.

The same concept should be applied to the step sequences: straight line, circular, serpentine and spiral in singles, pairs and ice dancing, as well as to the death spirals.

It will then be the duty and the responsibility of the judges to establish with their marks the extra value added by the skaters through their ability and creativity: number of revolutions, new and original positions, speed, quality of the spin in general; use of complex turns, changes of skating or rotational direction in steps, speed, depth of the edges, extension of the free leg, etc.; in death spirals number of revolutions exceeding the minimum number required of the lady after the man has attained the pivot position, and so on.

3. NO Level if a jump or throw is marred by a fall.

In case of a fall or landing on two feet on any jump or throw jump in single or pairs, the concerned element should be considered as a non-executed element and called by the Technical Panel as a NO Level element and not marked by the judges either. No longer should jump attempts with a fall be rewarded nearly as many points, if not more, as a completed jump of a lower level. It makes no sense that a quad attempt with a fall scores more points than a clean triple

4. No downgrading of triple or quadruple jumps if they are not fully rotated.

A quadruple toe loop, for instance, not fully rotated in the air, should be considered as a poorly executed quadruple toe loop to be penalized by the judges with -3 and not as a poorly executed triple. With the present system, the competitors are penalized twice: by downgrading the jump and by applying a GOE from -1 to -3.

So my suggestion is to get rid of the "downgrade" concept but change the point values for the GOEs so that ANY element so poorly executed as to deserve a GOE of –3 should get no more than 25% of the base value, regardless of its difficulty.

5. Define the values of GOE points.

The use of the GOE points by the judges has been, so far at least, most disappointing.  The judges give too many marks in the range of -1 to +1, and not enough 2s and 3s.  This is due to the training they have received and the fear of the famous "corridor".  To fix this, the judges need to be better trained, and have a better understanding of what each GOE should be.  The fear of marking what they truly believe also needs to be removed.

But, even if used correctly, the GOE points, as they are conceived now, do not produce a fair and acceptable result. As the base value of an element goes up, the value of the GOE does not keep pace.  So by the time you get to the quads, a GOE of -2 or -3 does not take away enough points compared to the base value, and a GOE of +2 or +3 does not give enough points compared to the base value.

Example: at present, a triple toe loop is worth 4 points, and if executed badly for a GOE of –3, the skater gets 1 point, which is 25% of doing it successfully. For a quad toe loop the base value is 9, and with a GOE of –3 the skater gets 6 points, which is 67% of doing it successfully, and as many points as a clean triple Lutz, which is a real aberration. A cheated triple or quadruple jump may get more points than a well executed triple or double!

In other words: for a triple toe loop, -3 takes away 75% of the base points and +3 adds 75 % of the base points.  For quad toe loop, -3 takes away only 33% of the base points and +3 adds only 33% of the base points.

My suggestion is to get rid of the Scale of Values tables and use the following instead:

- 3 is 25% of base value
-2 is 50% of base value
-1 is 75% of base value
0 is 100% of base value
1 is 125% of base value
2 is 150% of base value
3 is 175% of base value

According to computer experts, this proportional approach solves MANY mathematical problems in the system and is an easy software change.

6. Reduce the number of the Program Components to a maximum of three, with the marks ranging from 0 to 6, marked to the nearest 1/10 point.

For example:


The marking of the Program Components has been most disappointing in all these years. As it is described in the rules, it is much too complicated and idealistic. The judges have great difficulty in evaluating the skaters’ performance by assigning credible marks to five Program Components with 7 or 8 different criteria each. This is perfectly understandable, especially when they have been concentrating on pushing the correct buttons during the whole program. Many judges confess that at the end of a program they do not have any idea of the program as a whole and of which marks to assign. Pre-judging and the reputation of the skater prevail. This was more than evident in all the major events of the past seasons.

Therefore, in my opinion, the reduction of the number of the Program Components, as well as of the number of the requirements for each, with the marks ranging from 0 to 6.0, would definitely be an improvement for the judges and the skaters.

During the past seasons, as we all could witness, very seldom did a competitor receive marks above 7, and never a 9 or a 10. Now, with the 6.0 system, the top competitors did get, and deserve, 5.9 and even 6.0 for an excellent performance. Just to quote one: Alexei Yagudin in Salt Lake City at the 2002 Olympic Games received four 6.0 marks in free skating. Is it credible that since the IJS has been introduced, the skaters have all become less than mediocre? An explanation can be that the judges are not used to the new marks, nor are the public and the fans. Perhaps to re-introduce a 0 to 6.0 scale would help the judges to give credit to the best skaters, and would also make the fans happy!

I realize that I am very likely just whistling in the wind and the chances that these ideas will be taken into consideration by the present ISU leadership are very few. But I cannot give up fighting for what I consider vital for figure skating.

The Romans used to say "Gutta cavat lapidem" (water breaks down stone). I am confident that among some of the competent and clever ISU Office Holders who remain, the idea that the system must at least be adjusted will prevail. So let’s hope for a victory in the nearest possible future, before figure skating dies.

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