A Glimpse of Hope?

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.

Single and pair skating

Technical score

  1. Free programs are much too demanding. Multiple rotation jumps, be they double, triple or quadruple, should be limited to one of each variety. Only two jumps can be repeated in a combination or jump sequence. Jump combinations with more than two jumps should be discouraged: any additional jump will be ignored. Furthermore, in junior short programs no triple axel should be allowed in men and no triple/triple combination in ladies.
  2. Revise the scale value of the jumps and eliminate downgrading of jumps if they are not fully rotated. It makes no sense that a triple or quadruple jump "under rotated" is worth less than the same jump fully rotated but marred by a fall. The skaters are penalized twice and certainly this does not encourage any risk and will stop the development unless some credit is given. The downgrading of the jumps should be deleted and poor quality should be marked accordingly by the judges with a negative GoE. The point values for the GoE should be changed so that any element so poorly executed as to deserve a GoE of -3 should not get more than 25% of the base value, regardless of its difficulty.
  3. Spins. To get high "levels" the skaters are obliged to execute spins with a ridiculous number of positions and number of turns in each position, with horrible contortions and changes of edge, which make the spins too long and demanding, besides looking absolutely the same. It is proposed to abolish the use of the "features" in spins and assign only values for each basic spin (upright, sit, camel ). Three spins must be executed. One must be a spin combination. It will be the responsibility of the judges to establish with their GoE marks the extra value added by the skaters through their ability and creativity, and reward new and original positions, the highest number of revolutions above the minimum required, changes of foot and/or positions, the highest speed, the best extension in camel spins, the best centering without extravagant positions to disguise weakness.
  4. Steps and step sequences. In my opinion here there should be a totally different approach. As in the past, footwork, as well as step sequences and spiral sequences, should be the means to interpret and express the music. They should not be rated by the Technical Panel, but rather be evaluated by the judges as part of the Program Components. I would like to have combined step/spiral sequences where each skater is free to do a circular, straight line or serpentine sequence with varied skills of his own choice, with different and original positions, Ina Bauers, spread eagles etc. I want the skaters to do their footwork or a spiral throughout the program because the music calls for it, without any "imposed" number or kind of turns or number of seconds in each position. It is inconceivable that a piece of footwork has to contain all the turns possible (brackets, threes, counters, rockers, mohawks, choctaws, etc. ) as it is imposed now by the code of points. I do not want to see any more skaters resembling flailing windmills in a tornado, struggling from one end of the arena to the other just to get more points. These skills should be throughout the program and not jammed into one section only.


  1. Abolish secret judging: secret judging has proven to be, perhaps, the greatest disappointment in the history of the ISU. It is perceived by the public, and many in the skating family, as the way to hide intrigues and deals among the judges and is detrimental to the credibility of the sport. It is unfair to the skaters and the honest judges as well. And what about ethics? "Transparency" is considered fundamental to the ethical functioning of any institution. All decisions must be open and subject to public scrutiny. The anonymity of the new judging system is an evident violation of this principle.
  2. Abolish the random draw of the judges. The random draw is another flaw of the system, especially when it does not guarantee a fairer result but it is only used to make secret judging even more secret. Studies have proved that there is a wide spread of marks and consequent placements among the judges, even among the top five competitors. Depending on what judges have been selected, the result could vary from first to fifth very easily. For instance, it's quite likely that in close competitions there may be two or more different potential winners depending on which judges are dropped at random.  Is it right that the winner should be determined by a coin toss? That is not sport, it's gambling and is most unfair to the skaters. It reduces the whole results system to farce. The only way to compensate for that is by using the marks of all the judges on the panels, deleting the highest and the lowest. This is even more important now that the ISU has decided to cut the number of judges from 12 to 9 for ISU Championships and the Grand Prix Finals.
  3. Abolish the "corridor" in evaluating the judges’ performance. The practice of penalizing a judge whose marks diverge too widely from those of other judges is just outrageous! There is a well documented tendency for people to try to bring their views, opinions, decisions in line with what they feel is expected of them. Not only does the ISU not minimize the tendency to self-censorship, they actually maximize it through the practice of penalizing judges for failing to go along with the crowd. This practice is widely recognized by professional ethicists as one of the main sources of unethical behavior.
  4. Technical Score: The values of the Grade of Execution points should be re-defined. Even when 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. A cheated triple or quadruple jump now may get more points than a well executed triple or double, which is unfair and wrong. For example: 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, however, -3 takes away only 33% of the base points and +3 adds only 33% of the base points. The GoE should be specifically calculated as a percentage of the base value of the elements.
  5. 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.

  6. Program Components: Reduce the number of the Program Components to two, with the marks ranging from 0 to 6. The marking of the Program Components has been most disappointing despite significant efforts to train the judges. As it is described in the rules, the marking of the Program Components 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 even among the top five competitors in the World, not to speak of junior or novice competitions! Too often the marks do not reflect at all the performance on the ice. Pre-judging and the reputation of the skater often prevail.

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.

Absolute and relative judging

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:

  1. the total points earned by the skater in each part ( individual elements, technical aspects and artistic aspects).
  2. for the two Program Components only , the marks awarded by each judge in the panel.

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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