Role of the Spotter in the Proposed
ISU Judging System


The proposed ISU judging system adds a new official to the judging of competitions, know as the "spotter".  The spotter is similar to the replay technician who currently cues up the video clips for the replay system currently used.   The job of the replay technician is solely to capture on digital video the individual elements.  Judges can call up these video clips for review at the end of a performance if they feel the need.  The role of the spotter is similar to this, but far more important in determining the results of a competition.

The group in the ISU developing the proposed system has decided the judges are too stupid to identify the elements on their own and will give that job to the spotters.  Three spotters will be on duty during an event.  The spotters will be working off trick lists provided by the skaters and by viewing practice sessions prior to the performance.  The spotters will also, in effect, be judging part of the competition.  The referee will have the authority to overrule the decisions of the spotters.

For jumps, the spotters identify the type of jump and number of rotations, and whether the jump is cheated or not.  The base value of each jump is built into the scoring program.  The spotters, and judges, have no discretion in deciding the base point values.  At this point, it appears that the misidentification of one jump could help or hinder a skater by about one place in the standings, and in a close competition perhaps by as many as three.  In the current system, if one judge misidentifies a jump the chance of it affecting the placements is negligible.  A majority of the panel would have to misidentify the jump before placements might be affected.  In the proposed system a misidentified jump is guaranteed to skew the placements.  The proposed system is much more sensitive to misidentification errors than the current system.

Misidentification errors now become a major concern, though one that potentially can be discovered and corrected for on appeal since the identification of the jumps involves no subjectivity.  The jump is what it is.  The spotters, however, now also have a subjective role in judging the jumps.  If a jump is cheated the spotters can designate that the jumps be rated as one of of one less rotation.   The assumption, I guess, is that if the skater almost land a triple they can land a double and they should get credit for landing a double.  With this point of view, however, the spotter is just making stuff up.  The skater didn't attempt a double and didn't land a double.  There is no proof the skater can land a double and no information to know how well they would have landed a double if they attempted it.   How is the judge supposed to assess the quality of that unseen double?  The skaters will earn points based on the imagination of the spotters.  For jumps then, the spotters are now not only judges, they are judges with a crystal ball to help them assign points.  Under the current rules, a cheated jump does not count and in any new system should be marked Failed and not receive any points.

The following I think is a good analogy to what the ISU is proposing.   In a pole vault event one vaulter succeeds at 19 ft 6 in.  Another just barely brushes the bar and it falls at 19 ft 11 in.  The second vaulter is awarded a vault of 19 ft 10 in and wins.  Clearly, such an approach would be considered nonsense in track and field.  It should be considered nonsense in skating.

For spins and footwork the situation is just as bad, and maybe worse.  In the proposed system, spins and footwork sequences will each be ranked in three levels of difficulty.  It will be the job of the spotters to not only identify the elements, but also to specify the difficulty level of these elements by viewing the practices.  This adds a subjective aspect to the spotters job for these elements also.  The spotters will not only identify the spins and footwork elements, they will also decide how difficult they are and thus how many points they are worth.  For the jumps, the spotters are not being asked to decide how difficult each jump is, but rather what each jump is. That is not the case for spins and footwork.

In the singles events there are four spins and two footwork sequences for a total of 6 elements to be judged by the spotters.  In pairs there may be up to three spins and two footwork sequences, or up to five elements to be judged by the spotters.  Thus, the spotters are judging a significant fraction of each program (about a third); and not only are they judging, they are pre-judging the competition since their decision will be based on what they determine in the practices, or by reputation from previous events.  As a further complication, if a skater changes any of their spin or footwork elements in competition compared to what was done in practice, the base value pre-judged by the spotters will no longer be correct.  There is enough latitude in the point model of the proposed system, to allow the spotters to rig any medal result they want among the top skaters by manipulating the base values of the spin and footwork elements, and by how they evaluate cheated jumps.  

The ISU is treating this new official rather cavalierly, claiming that any skater or coach (but not a judge it seems) can do this job.  No standards have been set to select the spotters, and apparently the spotters will not fall under the as yet to be created accountability system the judges will supposedly fall under.

Given the point values the ISU is planning to assign to the spin and footwork elements, the spotters will control enough points to move a skater many places in the standings.  By judiciously assigning the base marks to these elements the spotters can put a skater into a hole they can't skate out of, or favor a skater beyond the ability of their competition to overcome, all before anyone has even performed in the event.   It is manifestly unfair, I believe, to have a group of officials pre-judging a competition in this way.

In the proposed system, the referee will have the authority to overrule the spotters, and change the element identifications.   Just as the spotters can rig the medal results if they want, so could one sole individual, the referee.  Some ISU referees are know for their integrity and sense of fair play, Ron Pfenning and Sally Stapleford to name two.  Others, however, are know for their imperious attitudes and penchant to influence the opinions of the judges and the outcome of events.  To give such individuals the opportunity to play with the results is an atrocious idea.

In addition, the referees have many other responsibilities which distract them from identifying the elements and interfere with their ability to serve as the final ruling authority on the element identifications.  For this role they would have to go to replay, but the judges need to know in real-time the identification of the elements if their quality assessments are to make any sense.  They can't be waiting for a big committee meeting to tell them what they should be judging.

The spotters are not needed in the proposed system, anyway, beyond the role of the current replay technicians.  All the spotters are needed for is to capture the video clips and cue the judges for the start and end of an element.  Identifying the elements (including spin and footwork difficulty), assessing the elements, and determining deductions should remain solely the role of the judges, and should only take place during the actual competition, not in practice sessions or through reputation from previous events.  After all,why have two types of judges and three additional officials that serve no purpose beyond what the current judges are already supposed to be trained to do?  If the answer is that the current judges are not well enough trained in this respect, the simplest solution is to better train the judges.  In addition, if there is any uncertainty about the identification of an element, basing the identification on nine inputs will always be more accurate than basing it on three.

Adding spotters creates unnecessary complexity and adds more vulnerability to the system to misdeeds, and not less.  With the spotters one will now have to be on guard for misdeeds by the judges, misdeeds by the spotters, and misdeeds by the referee - all of whom would be in a position to manipulate the results.  And while I don't think there are many dishonest officials in the ISU, there are enough that the sysem must be structured to handle the worst case and not just assume the best.

If the ISU goes forward with the unnecessary and dangerous creation of the spotter official, then it needs to take more care in creating that position.   Specifically it is suggested:

  1. The spotters should not be just any skater or coach, who potentially may have a conflict of interest.

  2.   The spotters should initially be drawn from the judges.  A training and certification program must be created for the spotters and a structure of appointments created for them.

  3. Spotters must compete the training and certification program before any system using them is put into use.

  4. The spotters must be subject to the same set of accountability rules and ethics rules that need to be created for the judges.

  5. The decisions of the referee overruling the spotters also must be subject to the same accountability rules and ethics rules as the judges and the spotters.

  6. Skaters should have the right to examine and challenge the decisions of the spotters, and if an identification error is discovered results recalculated to produce a new official order of finish.

Even with these safeguards, the spotter approach has more risk to it than benefit.  A better approach is to have replay technicians identify the start and end of the elements, and let the judges do what they are supposed to be trained to do, identify the elements and assess their quality and, when necessary, difficulty.

The concept of the spotter as currently envisioned by the ISU is yet another reason to reject the proposed system and not to trust the results it creates.

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Copyright 2003 by George S. Rossano