by Sonia Bianchetti Garbato
Five years have gone by since the code of points system, the so called International Judging System (IJS), has been adopted and it is still a work in progress. A work in progress constantly to the worse. A simple view of the skating situation today should alarm anyone about the sport. Gone is the art, gone are the skaters, vanished is the audience.
Without art, skating dies.
The new system, which was introduced to eliminate the cheating and secret deals among the judges after the Salt Lake City scandal, turned out to be so modern that the results are now obscure and incomprehensible to the audience in the arena and in TV and often not at all related to the skating. And, with secret judging, nobody is responsible!
Besides, during these years the quality of skating has been constantly declining. Flawless or even relatively clean programs are impossible nowadays. The sport has turned into a combination of acrobatic movements more suitable to a circus than a skating arena. The idea of quantifying technical parts of the performance, which had some merit at the beginning, has now reached the peak of absurdity.
The poor skaters are just rushing from one place to another trying to squeeze into their programs as much as possible to score points while repeating the same few contortions required by the new judging system, with their main objective being to stay upright. No time to prepare for the jumps, no time even to breathe. All this is physically too demanding. The human body can only endure so much.
The number of falls has increased exponentially, as well as the number of severe injuries that all too often require important orthopedic surgery usually reserved for persons over 60.
Why all this? According to the coaches, the reason lies in the fact that the requirements imposed by the rules in free programs to get high marks are much too demanding. Too many jump combinations, overly long spins and overly complicated step sequences.
The bottom line was attained at the European Championships, held last week in Helsinki. There was no variety in spins, the step sequences were painfully slow and the technical standard as well as the quality of the skating, especially in single events, was the lowest I can remember.
Many feel that a comprehensive review is needed, identifying the good and the bad, and coming up with a complete solution that reworks the whole system. It is in fact totally useless to adopt minor little changes here and there. The bit by bit approach does not work, because all the parts of IJS are interrelated.
Of course this can only be done after the Olympics, but, since it is a long and complicated process that cannot be done overnight, it is advisable that the new project start to be discussed right now.
However, no change or amelioration to the present deplorable state of figure skating can happen unless certain changes are adopted at the top decision level. It is therefore essential that a review committee be appointed by the ISU as soon as possible. And here lies the problem.
Some ISU top leaders, apparently, are afraid that this would be perceived as weakness. In my opinion, it would rather show intelligence! Luckily it really seems that some high ISU officeholders have now realized that there are problems and are determined to do something.
Every company, some time after instituting a new policy, does an internal audit or review and nothing is wrong with that. A glimpse of hope?
In my opinion this review board should consist of experts from outside the ISU, independent, and not tied to the politics of the ISU and the committees. One of the main reasons why it has been so hard to make IJS work is something called "group think." Group think occurs when a project is run by a small group of people who think exactly the same. In that situation it is difficult to identify the problems, and find new solutions. It is hard to "think outside the box" if everyone thinks exactly the same, and the group is dominated by a strong personality.
The board, whose main task should be to determine the sources of the problems and recommend solutions, should be chaired by the ISU Vice President for figure skating, and should avail itself of a wide range of input from skaters to coaches, choreographers, and officials. A new path has to be traced open to the many voices crying for change. The views of the fans also need to be taken into account.
Most importantly, such a board requires a mathematician/statistician with knowledge of skating. Someone who thinks as a "system engineer" who understands how all the parts of a complex system interact, and makes sure the parts all work together without unintended consequences.
From the many contacts I have had this season with coaches, judges, officials, former great champions and the many fans who regularly write to me, there seems to be a general consensus that a substantial review of the IJS could solve some of the problems; many, however, are of the opinion that the only solution to bring back the beauty and the popularity of the sport is to go back to the old 6.0 system. Perhaps a satisfactory solution could be represented by a kind of compromise between the two systems.
Here are some ideas of mine.
Further, in my opinion, the spread of the Grade of Execution marks is too narrow. It must be increased to better reflect the difference in the quality of the elements. With the present system difficulty is rewarded more than quality, which is one of the reasons of the decline in figure skating. My suggestion would be to increase the GoE range from the present -3 /+3 up to -5 /+ 5 . As a consequence, of course, the balance between the Technical Score and the Program Components score must be reviewed.
In my opinion the number of the Program Components in singles and pairs should be reduced to two with the marks ranging from 0 to 6. One should cover the technical aspects of the program (outside the individual elements): skating skills, transitions, footwork, linking movements and step and spiral sequences. The second one should cover the artistic aspects: performance, execution, choreography and interpretation and expression of the music. The Program Components will represent 50% of the total score with the one on artistic having more weight in the scoring.
This would definitely be an improvement for the judges and the competitors, besides making the marking more comprehensible to the public and the TV audience as well.
Another point that in my opinion should be re-considered is the way of judging.
At the heart of the new judging system there was a fundamental change in the method of evaluating skating performances. The former ordinal method of scoring was based on the recognition that humans can make relative judgments with greater precision than absolute judgments.
Under the 6.0 system the judges evaluated the performances of the skaters by comparing one with another, using so-called "relative marking." This performance is better; the mark must go up. It is worse; it must go down. The only way to be consistent through the whole event is to be thinking all the time whether the marks given now make sense compared to the marks given before - and that is a comparison.
Under the IJS the judges are now asked to evaluate performances on an absolute point scale without comparison to any other performance. While this may be conceivable when evaluating individual elements of a program, for the Program Components it is not. These are entirely different ways of thinking.
On what basis can Choreography, Composition, Interpretation of the music be considered worth 7 rather than 7.5? Where is the definition of a perfect "Performance/Execution" worth 10? In which way can "beauty" be defined as perfect? The judges have very little specific guidance for what marks to give, and if they are forbidden from comparing the marks they gave at the beginning of an event or to a previous skater, how possibly can they assess a correct mark? And on what basis can a certain mark be considered right or wrong?
Only by comparing the various programs one with the other, can a judge decide which one deserves more. So "absolute" judging makes no sense, especially in program components.
It is another flaw of the system.
The purpose of a figure skating competition is to determine which skater gave the best performance on a given day.
A great deal of research has been conducted into the marking skills of human beings in general. Absolute marking, in general - but even more so in a sport like figure skating - is considered inappropriate. It is practically impossible to quantify objectively the quality of any element of a skater’s performance. Marking by comparison tends to be more stable. We should take advantage of that.
The purpose of this "review" package is to make the programs less demanding for the skaters, thus reducing the risk of severe and permanent injuries, although preserving and improving the definition of the levels of difficulty of the individual elements, and to make the judging fairer and more comprehensible to the public and the TV audience.
One of the reasons why figure skating has lost its appeal, and the TV audience, is that the IJS has produced a judging system totally incomprehensible, that prevents any involvement of the public. With the old 6.0 system, the audience at home could assign a mark, could criticize and challenge the judges. Now the numbers appearing on the score board mean nothing at all, being the sum of mysterious numbers awarded by anonymous judges. The best way to discourage even the most avid fans.
By reducing the number of program components to two, with one covering all the technical aspects of the program (except jumps and spins) - skating skills, transitions, footwork, linking movements and step and spiral sequences - and the second one covering the artistic aspects - performance, execution, choreography, interpretation and expression of the music - judged on a relative scale, not only do we simplify the judges’ job and make the judging fairer, but we also allow the public in the arena and at home to be able to understand the results and interact with the judges, as they used to do until 2004.
To favor this, the score board in the arena should show:
With the marks ranging from 0 to 6 ,the beloved and much missed 6.0 mark can hopefully be seen again and drive the crowd wild! A dream?
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