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A Good Idea
by Sonia Bianchetti
November 2011

In a very good interview published in the Italian figure skating magazine Doppio Axel at the beginning of November, Stephane Lambiel expresses his opinion on the International Judging System (IJS), giving an interesting suggestion on how, perhaps, it could be improved.

According to Stéphane, figure skating has lost its appeal because the present rules penalize those skaters who, although having a strong personality, do not have the difficult jumps, to the advantage of skaters without charisma but with jumps, which, as it is well known, are used to get points. Stéphane wishes that things may change in the future because the public wants to see something magic, and we need this in our sport.

Stéphane is not the only great champion who has expressed doubt in the IJS.

Among the great athletes who have publicly expressed generally negative impressions of the new system and who no longer recognise figure skating in what they see now on the ice, I can name a few: Dick Button, Janet Lynn, Toller Cranston, Katarina Witt, Debi Thomas, Tim Wood, Alexander Zhulin, Robin Cousins, Brian Boitano, Elvis Stojko, Johnny Weir, and Sasha Cohen.

Stéphane expects that things might be improved, for instance, by differentiating the rules for the short program from those for the free program, giving in the first instance more importance to the technical elements with respect to the interpretation of the music, while in the free program more freedom should be left to the skaters by deleting the accursed features.

As a matter of fact, today there is no difference between the two programs. There exist two compulsory programs, one shorter and one longer. Of free skating, only the name is left.

Six years have gone by since the new system was adopted and it still is a work in progress. A work in progress constantly towards the worst. One look at the present situation of figure skating is enough to be concerned for the future of the sport. Art does not exist any longer. And, as I have said many times, without the art, the public and the TV audience are also gone. Without art, figure skating dies.

The idea of quantifying the technical parts of the programs, which initially presented some positive aspects, has now reached a level of total absurdity, no longer acceptable. Many are of the opinion that a total revision of the system is necessary. The positive and the negative aspects should be identified and a solution proposed that can satisfy both the needs of the sport and those of the fans. Obviously, such a deep change can only occur after the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi. But, considering that it is a long and complicated process, which cannot take place overnight, as, unfortunately, occurred with the IJS, it would be advisable for the ISU to start to discuss the matter beginning now.

However, changes that are more simple but definitely beneficial could be made immediately.

For instance, Lambiel's idea to eliminate the levels, leaving to the skaters the freedom to execute the various spins and step sequences according to their capabilities, their fantasy, their creativity, does not imply a total revision of the system. All it requires is to change a few definitions and update the computer. In other words, it would be enough to assign to all the spins, for instance, a base value, exactly as is done with the jumps.

The technical qualities of a spin have always been, and should continue to be, the correct basic position, the number of revolutions above the minimum required, the speed and the centring of the spin. Unfortunately, today, to get high levels, the skaters are obliged to execute spins with a ridiculous number of positions and number of turns in each position, changes of edges that make the spins too long and demanding, and horrible contortions suitable for acrobats of the Cirque du Soleil. These spins are all too often esthetically questionable and look absolutely the same.

The idea of abolishing the use of the features in spins and assigning only values for each basic spin (upright, sit, camel), is not new, though. It was already considered and studied by a group of top world coaches of all over the world with the essential contribution of George Rossano, who is a mathematician as well as a figure skating expert. A proposal was submitted to the ISU Figure Skating Technical Committee in August 2009 but was not accepted. However, in my opinion, the idea has merit and could represent a great step forward.

To abolish the use of features in spins and step sequences, and assign only basic values for each element, would have the following positive effects:

  1. stimulate the creativity of the skaters;
  2. place emphasis on the basic qualities of the elements (speed, balance, beauty of positions, etc.) instead of simply achieving levels of difficulty at the expense of quality of the elements;
  3. reduce the risks of personal interpretation by the various Technical Panels in establishing the level of the elements;
  4. last but not least, enable each skater to execute the elements he can do at his best that are better suited to his/her bodys structure, thus improving the general quality of the entire event as well as reducing the risks of injuries.

The basic values agreed to by the group of coaches to the various spins were the following:

  1. Spins with no change of foot and no change of basic position.

    Element Base Value
    Upright spin 1.5
    Cross foot spin, free foot crossed in front 2.5
    Cross foot spin, free foot crossed behind 3.2
    Layback or sideways leaning spin 3.2
    Biellmann spin 4.0
    Sit spin 3.0
    Camel spin 3.5

    Any edge permitted. Variations of positions of the head, arms and free leg, as well as fluctuations of speed are permitted.

  2. Spins with flying entry and with no change of foot and no change of basic position.

    Element Base Value
    Flying sit spin 5.0
    Flying sit spin changing the foot of landing 5.5
    Flying camel spin 4.5

  3. Spins with change of foot without change of position.

    Element Base Value
    Upright spin 2.8
    Layback spin 3.8
    Sit spin 4.0
    Camel spin 4.5

    The spin must consist of only one change of foot, which may be executed either in the form of a step over or a jump. Variations of the positions of the head, arm or leg, as well as fluctuations of speed, are permitted.

  4. Spin combination with no change of foot and two changes of position.

    Base Value 4.5

    The spin combination must include at least two basic positions or their variations. A minimum of two revolutions in each position is required. Variations of the positions of the head, arm or leg, as well as fluctuations of speed, are permitted.

  5. Spin combination with change of foot and three changes of position.

    Base Value 5.5

    The spin combination must consist of one change of foot and must include all three basic positions or their variations. The change of foot and change of position may be made either at the same time or separately. The change of foot may be executed in the form of a step over or a jump. A minimum of two revolutions in each position is required. Variations of the positions of the head, arm or leg, as well as fluctuations of speed, are permitted.

  6. For items c) through e) add 0.5 to the Base Value if the spin is begun with a flying entry.

  7. Change of edge during the spin.

    Add 0.5 points to the Base Value of any spin performed with a change of edge. Only one spin with a change of edge is permitted in a program. It will be the duty and 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 greatest speed, the best extension of the free leg in camel spins, the best centering without extravagant positions to disguise weakness.

In other words, the idea is to apply to spins the same principle applied to jumps. Based on the regulations, for instance, a double Axel has a base value of 3.3. Obviously, not all double Axels are the same. A double Axel can be high, long, entered at great speed and landed on a wonderful backwards outside edge; or it can be small, short, cramped and twisted. The basic value, however, based on these questionable rules, is always the same 3.3. It is up to the judges to evaluate the quality of the jump executed by assigning their GoE marks from -3 to 0 to +3. If the spread of the GoE from -3 to +3 is not considered enough, it could be increased to better reflect the real difference in quality.

The same principle should apply to the step sequences. 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, spread eagles, etc. I want the skaters to do their footwork or spirals 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 is mandated now by the IJS. 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 incorporated throughout the program and not jammed into one section only.

A dream? Perhaps. It costs nothing to dream.