Better How?

The closing day of Skate Canada in Victoria, BC, David Dore, second vice president of the ISU was quoted extensively in a Canadian Press news release, including the following comment about the impacts of IJS on skating, "A very good byproduct of this [the introduction of IJS] is you're seeing a lot better skating than you ever saw.  The bar has really been raised.  That wasn't the intent. The intent was to fix up the judging of it. What has happened is that the skaters have responded. Their programs are far harder now than they used to be, especially in men's skating. They're very, very exciting. They're doing far more complicated stuff than people ever did before."

In what parallel universe I would ask?  Or by what standard?

Prior to IJS, in the glory days of the late 1980s through late 90s, the ladies did all the triple jumps through triple Lutz, and two ladies managed the occasional triple Axel.  Several ladies prior to IJS executed triple-triple jumps, including the difficult triple loop - triple loop from Tara Lipinski, as well as other triple-triple combinations from several other ladies.  It was the norm for the top ladies in a championship event to land 6 or 7 triple jumps, and to stand up on nearly all of them.

Prior to IJS, the men did all the triple jumps, and several men mastered quad toe loop and quad Salchow.  Among the top men, it was the norm to land triple-triple combinations (such as triple Axel - triple toe loop) and even quad-triple combinations.  It was also the norm for the men to land 8 to 10 triples or quads.  For both the ladies and the men falls among the top skaters were rare, and the goal was to do the most difficult content you had mastered cleanly and with quality, in a beautifully presented program.

Prior to IJS, the pairs executed all the most difficult lifts, and all of the triple throws, except throw triple Axel, and even pre-IJS one team was working on that.  Pre-IJS the quad twist had been achieved by two teams.  In side-by-side jumps, teams executed jumps through triple Salchow.

Today, a few ladies attempt triple-triple combinations, and a few triple Axels have been landed.  The level of difficulty is no greater than it was pre-IJS.  And where 6-7 triples were once common, and falls rare, the opposite is true.  One now sees championship ISU events, and even Olympic gold medals won with just 4-5 triples.  Events seem more about determining who falls down the least as skater after skater makes serious errors or outright wipe up the ice.

Since IJS, no higher quads have been added to the repertoire of the men.  The maximum achievement is still quad toe loop, or a rare quad Salchow.  Typically, the top men in a championship event land 7-8 triples or quads, no better then pre-IJS and maybe even slightly less frequently than previously.

Except for the addition of throw triple Axel this year, the difficulty of the jumps, throws and lifts in pairs is no higher than it was pre-IJS, nor are these elements more common.  On the contrary, the variety in the lifts is distinctly reduced compared to pre-IJS.  Since IJS has been adopted, hydrant, helicopter, knuckle lifts, etc. have all but disappeared.  Every team seems to do two lasso type lifts that look virtually the same (or are the same).

For the power elements (jumps, throws and lifts) in singles and pairs content is no more difficult now than it was pre-IJS.

One obvious change since IJS, is that spins have gotten more complex, but also slower, and more repetitive, with positions repeated within a program and from skater to skater.  It is not uncommon for a skater to use the positions on the first foot of a change foot combination spin as a separate combination spin on one foot, and to repeat a given "difficult variation" in as many of the allowed spins as they can get away with.  No longer do we see a "blur" spin, which requires great strength and precision of body position and control, but under IJS is considered merely a level 1 upright spin of no great value.  So perhaps spins are somewhat better that before, or perhaps not, depending on what the criteria for "better" are.

In step sequences, some skaters are attempting more difficult steps, but do so in slow motion as they grind their way down the ice at a snail's pace, all the while twitching every body part they can, to get that all important "use of the body" feature, as though being able to stay on their feet while gyrating like they are having a seizure is good skating.  So maybe step sequences are a little better, or maybe not.  And again, by what criteria?  At least spiral positions now are held long enough to recognize the skater can really do a spiral, but there were also beautiful spirals, properly held, pre-IJS.

On the execution side,  falls and other errors are rampant among even the best skaters.  Johnny Weir won the bronze medal at Skate Canada with a Free Skate with major errors/simplifications on five jump elements, and two spin elements where he did not achieve the attempted levels.  That's 7 of 14 elements, a 50% error rate on the elements attempted!  The winner, Lambiel, and the current World Champion, had four major errors/simplifications in jump elements (half of them) by executing double Axel instead of triple Axel twice, and missing two quad toe loops.  How is this better skating than pre-IJS?

Even in presentation, it is a stretch to claim that programs have improved since the introduction of IJS.  The criteria for presentation now codified in the IJS Program Components were developed from criteria already in use to a large extent, though never written explicitly into the rules.  The idea that a program should have a theme and that the theme should be purposefully threaded through the program can be found in programs going back 20 years, such as Torvill & Dean's "Bolero" and the subsequent development in Ice Dancing in the 80s and 90s when free dances increased in complexity of subject matter until the point was reached that dancers issued press releases before competitions to explain just what the heck their programs were about (examples being the Duchesnay's, and Anissina & Peizerat).  In singles, one can look back to Brian Boitano and others for theme based programs.  Kurt Browning developed this to the highest level in his story-programs such as "Casablanca", and in doing it Browning managed to land quad jumps and stay on his feet through an entire program.  To this list you can also add the outstanding spins and wonderfully artistic programs of Paul Wylie, and more recently the wonderfully constructed programs of Alexei Yagudin, or Michelle Kwan's programs at the peak of her powers in 1998.  All of this up to two decades before IJS.

The idea that skating is "better" since the introduction of IJS is an absurd fiction that is not supported by a comparison of program content currently accomplished compared to programs in years past.  What can be said at best, is that since the introduction of IJS some skaters are unsuccessfully attempting content more difficult then pre-IJS, and in doing so many competitions become huge slop fests as skater after skater go down in flames attempting things they cannot do consistently, if at all -- which is hardly an improvement overall.  Further, it is somewhat of a misnomer to say that the attempt at more difficult content is due to IJS.

IJS is primarily an evaluation and computation method for scoring a competition.  The core business of IJS is the mathematics of scoring a competition.  In tandem with the introduction of IJS, however, the ISU also introduced numerous changes to the program requirements rules and the skating standards rules.  These changes could have been introduced under 6.0 scoring.  The basic reason they were made with the introduction of IJS, was that IJS forced everyone to think again about what belongs in a skating program, what a skating element should consist of to be considered "correct", and what the value of one element should be compared to another.  These are questions that could have been asked under 6.0, sometimes where, but not always.

Perhaps the most significant reason why skaters are attempting more difficult programs and frequently making a mess of it, is that the new well balanced program requirements require a large number of elements to be executed.  For the 2006 ISU Congress, U.S. Figure Skating tried to get passed a reduction in the number of elements in the singles Short and Free Skating programs.  This attempt was, unfortunately, unsuccessful.  Over the past few years, the element mix in pairs and dance has been revised, and the number of elements reduced.  In singles, however, the number of expected elements is a crushing burden for most skaters.  In this regard, it is interesting to note that in dance and pairs the frequency with which teams currently wipe up the ice is not significantly greater than pre-IJS.  That problem is mainly confined to singles where, for example, Senior Ladies are expected to execute 11 jumps in a fully populated program, and the Men 12, more than were typically executed in the past.  While in Juniors, the singles skaters (as young as 13) are expected to do the same number of jumps in a fully populated program as the Seniors, but only one less spin -- and all in significantly  less time.

The main areas where the mathematics of IJS is specifically responsible for the look of what we see today on the ice are: one, IJS awards significant points to difficult elements that contain catastrophic errors making wiping up the ice a worthwhile strategy; and two, the IJS point structure determines what elements and features are worth including in a program, and which others fall by the wayside.  Nearly all other aspects of the programs content rules and skating standards rules that have changed the look of skating are really independent of IJS as a calculation method.  IJS does require that the skating standard and program content requirements be spelled out in gruesome detail so the skaters know what they have to do to earn points, but the choice of what is valued, and what is not, does not depend on the existence or mathematics of IJS.  The ISU, and skating federations worldwide have been fiddling with these rules and concepts for years, and will no doubt continue to do so until the end of time.  Unfortunately, as the ISU currently fiddles with these rules, Rome burns.

Copyright 2006 by George S. Rossano

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