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An Unlucky Day
by Sonia Bianchetti
March 5 2005

The 25th of December 2001, in the figure skating calendar, should be referred to as an unlucky day.

It was on that Christmas day that Ottavio Cinquanta, the ISU President and a speed skater, invented the New Judging System. At least according to what he declared during an interview with Gwendal Peizerat in Torino, on the occasion of the 2005 European Figure Skating Championships.

As is well known, the New Judging System was announced during a very crowded press conference in Salt Lake City in 2002, as the solution to all figure skating problems.

However, this is far from being true.

It was a total flop at its first official test at the championships level, on January 25, 2005 at the European Figure Skating Championships in Torino, producing dubious results which cast a shadow on the validity of the system.

A first consideration is that what happened in Salt Lake City had nothing to do with the competence of the judges or the way the judges evaluate a performance or how the results are calculated. The problem was cheating, not the scoring system.

The ISU should have been fighting against corruption among the judges ever since the ice dancing scandal in the 1998 Nagano Olympics. But they have been trying to adopt policies aimed at making judging completely anonymous and the scoring system more and more complicated and expensive, so that almost no one can really understand it, or use it.

Instead, they should have adopted lifetime bans for judges caught trying to fix competition results, strengthened the accountability and the assessment of the judges, and taken over the right to nominate the judges for ISU championships from the Members

Nothing like that, though, was even considered.

Those same judges are still there officiating in competitions and championships as judges, referees, technical controllers. What kind of confidence can we expect from the skaters, the public and the media in the fairness of the results and the credibility of the sport?.

Every single judge could be cheating now and the public will never know it. This is an insult to the skaters, to the public and the media, and it is also unfair to the honourable judges who are lumped together with those who cheat. Making the judging process secret and extremely complex does not help to restore the credibility of the sport; on the contrary!

The New Judging System was ill conceived since the very beginning. It is based on the scidea that judges will mark each aspect of a competitor's program in relation to an absolute scale (rather than comparatively), thus giving the marking system an appearance of being objective.

This is only utopia.

No matter which judging or scoring system is used, the results must reflect the performance of each skater on the ice. Well, the podium of the ladies' event at the European Championships in Torino was wrong. Nothing has actually changed since the old 6.0 system.

Slutskaya, of Russia, was over-marked in free skating and in no way she could possibly have been put in first place; Poykio, of Finland, was robbed of the gold medal, and, even worse, Sebestyen, from Hungary, missed the silver medal because of a mistake of the Technical Specialists. As commentators Katarina Witt and Daniel Weiss said on German television, the result was "scandalous."

The case of Sebestyen is particularly troubling and raises strong doubts about the validity of the New Judging System. In the free skating program her second triple lutz (which was landed on two feet) was rated as a double by the Technical Specialists and was assigned a base value of 2.1 (being this jump in the second half of the program it received a 10% time bonus). After the competition the tape was reviewed many times in Hungary, and it was ascertained that actually the jump was fully rotated in the air, and landed on two feet after three complete revolutions. In this case it should have been assigned as base value 6.6 (6 + 10% = 6.6). The error cost her 4.5 in the base mark (6.6 - 2.1 = 4.5). Without it, she would have won 2nd place overall because of her strong 2nd place in the short program, with a big lead over the rest of the field. And, as the cherry on the cake, no protest is now permitted for any "human error". Only in the case of incorrect mathematical calculation can an appeal be lodged!

Question number one: Does it make sense in figure skating that only one jump may move a skater from 2nd to 4th place overall, free skating and short program combined? Isn't there something extremely dangerous and wrong in the fact that so much power and responsibility is left in the hands of a couple of persons? Such an error, be it in good faith or bad faith, could determine the podium at the next Olympic Games in Torino in 2006. Isn't this something that should make the ISU and the IOC shiver? It is not such a remote possibility that Torino in 2006 may see a scandal similar to the one that occurred last August at the gymnastics events at the Athens Olympics. As a matter of fact, the ISU's New Judging System is merely a twin of the one used for gymnastics: same basic principles, same weaknesses. The amusing thing is that the ISU took over the scoring system of the gymnastics at its Congress in June, and made it compulsory for all major international events starting only a few weeks after the controversy in gymnastics raged over a scoring error at the completion of the men's overall competition, and the international federation decided to hang the judges and change the scoring system! Congratulations, Mr. President!

Question number two: The system prescribes the maximum number of elements, jumps, jump combinations or sequences, lifts and throws (in pairs), and step sequences that a skater can include in his program, and this puts a strict limit on the creativity of the skaters. Is this good in figure skating? And, each element has been assigned a fixed factor of difficulty. Is this predetermined mathematical evaluation of each element good for figure skating, or will it kill the sport?

There are no two elements in figure skating that can be considered exactly the same. Two double or triple jumps, both well executed and landed correctly after the required number of revolutions, can still be very different from one another: one may be high but short and entered with little speed; another one can be low but long and fast; one can be executed with "wrapped" legs or with a poor position in the air; and so on. They are all correctly executed jumps but their quality is totally different, and only by comparing them can one say which was better. The possible combinations of variants are infinite and cannot be foreseen in a computer program, nor can the pluses or the minuses with which the judges are supposed to evaluate the quality of the elements be enough to express the real difference.

Not to speak of the fact that, so far at least, the judges, except in case of a fall or a particularly severe error for which a deduction has to be applied, tend to award to all the elements the same GOE (grade of execution). At the European Championships, from the top skaters to the very last ones in the classification list, both in men and ladies, the GOE for a given element was more or less the same, 0, all the way through. But this did not reflect what was being performed on the ice. Between a triple Axel from Evgeny Plushenko and one from a mediocre skater in the lower part of the classification list, there was an enormous difference in quality, as anybody could see. And how is it possible that there were so few elements deserving pluses in one of the world's top figure skating events? Are the judges really judging? What are they looking for to give a +1 or a + 2?

As to the Program Components, the situation is really dramatic. The ISU has made the judging of the components so complicated and confusing that the judges are unable to use the marks in a proper way. There is no doubt that the "artistic" part of our sport is very important, that the programs must be well choreographed, and the performance, the interpretation and the composition should all be based on the music, but without forgetting that we are talking of a sport and not a music contest.

The definitions set forth in the rules as to what must be considered when marking Performance/Execution, Choreography/Composition and Interpretation of the music are really going overboard. Terms such as "Physical, emotional and intellectual involvement"; "Projection"; "Purpose (idea, concept, vision, mood)"; "Utilization of personal and public space"; "Phrasing and form (movements and parts structured to match the phrasing of the music)"; "Originality of purpose"; and to top it all, "Use of finesse to reflect the nuances of the music", in which "Finesse" is defined as "the skater's refined, artful manipulation of nuances, and the nuances are the personal artistic ways of bringing subtle variations of the intensity, tempo, and dynamics of the music made by the composer and/or musicians" can perhaps belong to a music contest to become a conductor for La Scala, not for a skating competition. To solve the problem, there are talks about having two panels of judges, one for the elements and one for the Program Components, the latter composed of just a few special "experts" who are qualified to judge the presentation. It just gets worse and worse. They create unnecessary problems by bad choices in the structure of the system and then propose solutions that make it more complex with no obvious benefit.

To these remarks, the answer from some ISU officials, or some judges who seem to be willing to ignore plain evidence, is that the system is still at least as good as the 6.0 system, that we are faced with the same problems as before, that there will always be subjective judging in figure skating, that just a bit more education and practice for the judges is needed. But the question is: are we sure that this new system is the answer to figure skating's problems? Has this technological monster provided some improvement in objectivity and fairness, or was it only a waste of money?

The ISU claims that external pressure on officials cannot be excluded and therefore, in an effort to protect the judges, their names will not be linked to the scores and thus they will remain secret. Are we sure that this is the best way to guarantee fairness? Or rather, is secrecy only making things easier and safer for all those who want to cheat?

The blind confidence in the New Judging System seems to be cracking among Members. Chuck Foster himself, the USFSA past president who was a strong supporter of the New Judging System and voted in favour of it at the last Congress, has changed his mind and has become more vocal in criticising it.

Even the ISU seems to be realising that some problems exist, and it is not surprising that the proud boastings of the President that he personally invented the new system over Christmas of 2001 are now being replaced by an attempt to shift the blame for it onto the Members.

Time will tell if this revolution was good, or, as with many historical revolutions over the last century, it will prove to be a disaster.

What is most regrettable is that ISU officials are more interested in safeguarding the personal interests and ambitions of the president rather than those of the sport and the competitors, who are the real victims of this mess.