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Absolute judging: a utopian delusion
by Sonia Bianchetti
Last week I was invited to attend the Lombardia Trophy, an international
interclub competition organized by the Sesto Ice Skate club in Milan.
It was a very successful event with around two hundred entries from all
over Italy plus Austria, the Czech Republic, Great Britain and Russia. All
categories were represented, from young children 8 or 9 years old to
Novice, Junior and Senior singles and pairs.
I was especially interested in the lower categories since I had not seen
them for quite a long time. I usually enjoy watching kids and youngsters
skating. I love to see how seriously they interpret their role on the ice.
I love to share their emotions when they leave the ice and fall into the
arms of their coach either with a big smile or some tears in their eyes.
Skating is a wonderful sport not only as a competitive sport at the
highest levels but also from the point of view of education. It covers the
whole spectrum: complete muscle control, self-awareness, empathy for the
self and others, grace, strength and determination. Children learn to win
and lose, they learn to face ups and downs, and this is a great lesson for
Young children are the future of our sport and they should be raised
thoughtfully, as gardeners tend beautiful flowers. They should be
encouraged to continue to skate until they enjoy it, until they enjoy
competition regardless of their talent or their chances of becoming
While watching the skating and the marking at the Lombardia Trophy,
though, I could not refrain from making some considerations on the
inadequacy of the present rules especially for lower-level events, both
for the skaters and the judges.
I was really suffering seeing most of these youngsters falling down in the
absurd attempt to execute difficult double jumps and double-double jump
combinations far beyond their capabilities, or executing complicated spins
with no speed but a lot of travelling.
Not to speak of the quality of skating! With very few exceptions, the
quality really suffered because basic skating, gliding on the ice, was
simply neglected. The skaters just cannot skate. And this is
due to the fact that the national and international regulations impose
too many difficult jumps and jump combinations, overly difficult and
complicated spins, in both short and free programs. And this is
wrong. The main purpose of these events should be to create a solid
technical basis that will allow the young skaters to evolve and slowly
reach higher levels. Exactly as it happens in primary and secondary
school, where the children, before being asked to write a poem, are
taught to write and read, to learn grammar and syntax. Without these
bases, nobody can expect any of these children, as gifted as they may
be, to one day write The Divine Comedy. The same applies to
It would seem logical that the skaters be taught first to execute in the
best possible way all the basic elements: solo jumps with a proper takeoff
and good landing on long backward edges, and upright, sit and camel spins,
without changing foot or positions, or grabbing the free leg after half a
turn in a painful attempt to get some more points. This would push quality
over poorly executed features.
With the present system, though, the skaters executing tiny jumps,
followed by minuscule toe-loops that look more like spins than jumps, or
doing slow, travelling spins unattractively, win the event. But what is
their future? Without solid technical bases, they will never improve. How
can anyone expect skaters to execute a good double or triple Axel, if they
never learnt to take off from a clean long forward edge in a waltz jump?
Why not forget the levels and the features at Novice, Juvenile or lower
level events, nationally and internationally, and reward the skaters who
glide on the ice instead of skating like chickens, who use their arms in a
moderate and graceful way instead of throwing them up and down as if
Is it in the interest of the sport to require Novice skaters to execute in
the Short Program: one jump combination consisting of two double jumps or
one double and one triple, a very complicated spin combination with one
change of foot and at least one change of position with a minimum of five
revolutions on each foot, and two step sequences with the spiral sequence
to be according to the remarks in the ISU Technical Rules for Single and
Pair Skating 2006, the same as for the World Championships?
The same remarks apply to free skating, where the ladies are required to
execute six jumps and the men seven jumps, with up to three jump
combinations or sequences with a jump combination up to three jumps (ISU
Communication 1397 Guidelines for Novice Competitions, July 12, 2006).
Shouldn't the ISU perhaps reconsider the content of Novice short and free
programs and send out a new Communication with less difficult elements?
Besides, considering that the IJS imposes a certain number of jumps, spins
and step sequences and not simply the duration of the programs as it was
with the old 6.0 system, it would seem logical that the national
federations adopt the same kind of rules even for skaters below the
Junior level so that when they happen to compete internationally they are
obliged to modify their programs to comply with the rules imposed by the
organizers or the ISU, as is the case at present.
Another problem with scoring different technical requirements for Novice
events is that the Program Component factors have to be balanced with the
technical requirements. If the technical requirements are significantly
different from one Novice competition to the next, then not only do the
skaters have to change their choreography, but the scoring has to use
different PC factors, which causes a lot of problems and discrepancies.
And now some thoughts on judging. I really felt very sympathetic with the
panels of judges and the technical panels. How can they possibly judge, on
an absolute scale, five program components in events at this level?
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.
This is even more true and evident in competitions for Novice or lower
Under the 6.0 system, the judges evaluated the performances of the skaters
by comparing one with another, using the so-called "relative marking".
skater is better; the marks must go up. This is worse; they must go down.
The only way to be consistent through the whole event is to be thinking
through the whole event whether the marks given now make sense compared to
the marks given before—and that is a comparison.
The judges are now asked to evaluate performances on an absolute point
scale without comparison to any other performance, in the same way you
time a runner or measure a high jump. They are required to totally ignore
and forget the marks awarded to a previous competitor and to judge in the
moment. If a person is asked to judge in the moment, and no guidance is
included to insure consistency of judgment, obviously the judging will
The former ordinal method of scoring was based on the recognition that
humans can make relative judgements with greater precision than absolute
judgements. It is questionable if this point base approach to scoring can
ever work reliably!
As a result, the skaters are, in effect, competing against themselves or
their "personal best" rather than against the other skaters in a given
competition, but it is the latter that creates drama for the spectators.
Take away that element with purportedly absolute judging and you take away
much of the drama of the competition.
And the "personal best" is a real farce in a sport as subjective as figure
skating, in which no two people will ever agree about anything absolutely.
Nevertheless, according to the ISU rules, even at the Novice level, the
judges must evaluate in each performance five Program Components, and for
each of them they must consider five to nine criteria.
Considering that at the World Championships it is practically impossible
to assign a correct mark to each of the five program components, how can
anyone with his feet on the earth expect the judges to evaluate these
elements in programs where they actually do not even exist?
It is difficult enough at the Junior level, but in Novice or lower
categories, isn't it absurd, to say the least, to look for "intricate
footwork" in Transitions/Linking Footwork? Or in Performance/Execution for
the involvement of the skater emotionally and intellectually as they
translate the intent of the music and choreography with "variety and
contrast" or "projection"? And what can I even say about the "Purpose, the
Utilization of personal and public space", or "Phrasing and form" in
Choreography/Composition? Or, to reach the height of absurdity, the "use
finesse to reflect the nuances of the music" in Interpretation of the
Music? Is this a joke? What kind of credibility can judging have these
This concept of absolute judging assumes not only that the scores given by
any judge in the world are perfectly consistent mathematically to those
given by another, but also that judges have no prejudice or favouritism,
no artistic preferences. In other words, absolute judging takes for
granted that judges are not human beings.
Well, it is enough to take a look at Program Components marks awarded to
the skaters in different events to establish beyond any reasonable doubt
that absolute judging exists only in utopia!
At the 2010 European Championships, in the Ladies' event, except for the
very top competitors who were awarded marks around 7.50, the marks of the
skaters among the best ten ranged between 6.0 and 7.0.
At the first Junior Grand Prix held in Courchevel at the end of August,
the PC marks in the Ladies event were around 6.0. Is this conceivable on
an absolute scale? It is as if these numbers have meaning out of the
context of the competition where they were awarded. If correctly judged,
how could the skaters in a Novice event receive from 3.0 to 3.50?
Since the marks for the components range from 0 to 10, should the judges
truly award their marks on an absolute scale, all these kids should only
get big zeroes! The message perceived by the skaters and their parents
would be: forget figure skating!
Luckily, the judges are humans, not machines. So some judges use a
midpoint and range approach for giving PC marks, instead of a true
absolute assessment. They have more good sense than the ISU; they use
their brain and their heart. But this makes the judging system look
foolish. If you asked ten judges what decision process they use to mark
any PC, you would get ten different answers!
Shouldn't the ISU take into consideration all these problems and reduce,
least for Novice, the number of Program Components to a maximum of two,
one for skating skills and the second for choreography and interpretation
of the music, giving specific guidance to the judges for what range of
marks to give and what criteria to look for in different skills?
Just a few thoughts.
Comments from coaches and judges will be more than welcome.