Re: Yuzuru’s Gold – Paradigm Shift or the End of an Era?

So as you may know, I wrote a post with something of a recap of the men’s event along with a lot of commentary about the Chan vs. Hanyu race for gold and how the International Judging System (IJS) came into play. Other than the limits of the PCS and whatnot, I think the IJS may also have something to do with what come commentators think is a shift in the world of figure skating.

plushy and yuzu

With Yuzuru’s historic victory as not only the first Japanese but Asian man to win figure skating gold, some articles (here and here) have noted that Yuzuru’s win represent a paradigm shift from East Asian countries learning from the traditional (and Western) figure skating powers of Russia, Canada and the U.S. to the other way around. In one of the articles, Udo Doensdorf, a German sports director, talks about money and how Japanese skaters are well-supported financially, given the interest in the sport in the country. While this is true, I think that we also need to consider is a small coincidence in timing with the one event that changed figure skating forever. That one event, of course, is the 2002 Salt Lake City figure skating scandal. (For a summary of what happened, refer to my Skating 101 post here.)

For Japan (or even other East Asian countries), figure skating medalists at Worlds or the Olympics like Chen Lu and Midori Ito were rare but their very existence and their achievements point to some degree of interest in figure skating back when the Canada, Russia and the U.S. were still dominating the sport. However, around the 2000s, we start seeing quite a few East Asian skaters on the podium with Japan taking medals in singles skating and China for pairs, followed by the one-woman South Korean dynasty that is Yuna Kim. I don’t know the precise details of the history of figure skating in each country but we do know this:

  • Bin Yao, pairs coach extraordinaire, skated in the 1980s and was one of the first pairs teams in China. Despite his own personal failures as a competitive figure skater, he began to develop an excellent pairs training program which budded near the turn of the millennium and really bloomed in Vancouver of 2010.
  • As for Japan, this country is usually touted as a success story and proof of modernization theory – in other words, Japan developed a capitalist economy, modernized and westernized a lot earlier than its other East Asian neighbours, which may explain why Emi Watanabi and Minoru Sano won medals in the ladies and men’s events at the World Championships as early as the 1970s. Japan had a medal drought until the 1980s/90s with Midori Ito and Yuka Sato but then Japanese skaters really took off near the 2000s.
  • Yuna Kim is a bit of an outlier in this argument seeing that she basically started the interest in figure skating in her country single-handedly in the 2000s.

In any case, what we see with China and Japan are two nations who had some interest in figure skating relatively late in the game compared to the Big Three (U.S., Russia and Canada). Interest in figure skating began to gain some momentum in the late 80s/90s and then took off in the 2000s. This could be an indication that the development of figure skating training programs in these countries began in 80s/90s and began to really make a name of itself near the turn of the millennium. While this may seem like a fun fact, it also means that these countries had less experience at the elite level under the 6.0 judging system.

For China and Japan, this late-comer status may have given them a small advantage which they have capitalized on in the past two and present Olympic cycle, which is that they probably had less attachment to the 6.0 judging system which allowed them to adapt to the IJS much faster than the Big Three. As a result, we have coaches from Japan and China train young skaters in a way that would help them succeed under the new system, resulting in a generation that are slightly better prepared for the idiosyncrasies and challenges of skating under the IJS. If you look at the success stories coming from Asia, many of them are teenagers or in their early 20s, meaning that they most likely entered their junior competitive career skating – where things start getting a little serious – solely under the IJS. Many of these skaters moved to North America or Europe to train eventually but their careers began in their home country.

For the Big Three, the transition may not have been as smooth as we see older skaters trying to adapt to this new system. For a while, it seems as if their transition was successful. The young teenagers still had to wait a little bit to dethrone the big names but by the beginning of the Olympic cycle going into Vancouver in 2006, we start seeing these teenagers come into the scene with their youth and their experience under the IJS and taking the skating world by storm.

With 2014 comes the 10 year anniversary of the implementation of the IJS in international figure skating. When this Olympic cycle ends, we will likely see the complete end of an era with the last of the 6.0 skaters retiring. Skaters like Brian Joubert and Evgeni Plushenko are probably the last of the 6.0 skaters in the field and by the next Olympic cycle, we will likely see only youngin’s who have grown up with the new judging system. That is not to say that 6.0 skaters weren’t successful in the new system but with their age and an older skating style (heavy focus on jumps, less transitions and sometimes very personality-based), 6.0 skaters either had to adapt quickly or lose relevance and momentum in their career.

So perhaps we will see the Big Three look towards Japan for best practices in figure skating but this might just be part of an overall process of getting over the growing pains of getting rid of the influence of a skating style from a bygone era to adopting a new one. Although Canada is a bit of an exception to the decline of the big three under the IJS, we are starting to see skaters from these countries flourish again but with younger skaters who have never been touched by the 6.0 judging system.

Do you think that Yuzuru’s win marks a shift in the way countries are improving their figure skating programs or are we just seeing the vestiges of the 6.0 system finally cast off? Tell me your thoughts in the comments!

~The Rinkside Cafe

Skating 101: Code of Points Basics

Hello everyone! I hope you enjoyed my first Skating 101 post on the history behind the Code of Points (CoP) judging system. Here is my second post on the CoP. I hope it’s informative!

The Code of Points judging system is the current judging system that has been in use since 2004. After the 2002 Salt Lake City scandal, the International Skating Union decided to create a new judging system that was more objective and could take better into account the difficulty of the elements in a skater’s program. I won’t go too deeply into decoding the nitty gritty of the CoP but hopefully, I’ll give you enough information to better understand the scores that skaters get in Sochi.

For teaching purposes, let’s use this performance and program by Mao Asada as a teaching example:

Let’s start with the fact that skaters are scored in two categories under the new system: Technical Elements Score (TES) and their Program Components Score (PCS).

1. Technical Elements Score (TES)

This season, you may have noticed a little box with numbers at the top left of your screen at skating competitions.

TES box

The box shows the technical elements score of the leader and what the current skater has accumulated so far. So what exactly goes into the TES?

Well, skaters are first given a base mark for the elements from the technical specialist and a grade of execution mark (GOE) ranging from -3 to +3 from the judges.The highest and lowest GOE is dropped and averaged and then added to the score. Using Mao’s program as an example, at 1:29, Mao does her triple axel (3A). From then on, the technical panel has to look at whether or not Mao has done the jump correctly with the right edges and with enough rotations.

For this particular performance, the technical panel seems to have changed their minds after she skated her program (not uncommon, if they decide to review the elements again) since the numbers I have don’t match the ones on the screen. The final judgment on Mao’s 3A was that it was underrotated, giving her a base mark of 6.00. The judging panel gives her mostly 0s and -1s for her GOE which averaged out to -0.43. At that point in the competition, Mao has then acquired 5.57 points (6.00 + -0.43).

For other elements such as spins and step sequences, the technical panel judges the difficulty of these elements by assigning it a level from 1 to 4. The definition of these levels are written by the ISU in the technical guidelines which can be found here. Each level has a base value and the judges also assign a GOE to these elements.

2. Program Components Score (PCS)

Skating is a subjective sport. Even though we want to watch skaters push their body to the limits (and trust me, they do), we also want them to tug at our heartstrings and make it difficult look effortless and beautiful. The PCS is where the judges factor in this particular aspect of the sport. The PCS is broken down into 5 categories: Skating Skills, Transitions/Linking Footwork, Performance and Execution, Composition and Choreography and Interpretation and Timing. Each judge gives a skater a score from 1 to 10 is 0.25 increments. Again, the definition of the 1 to 10 range is given in the guidelines though ultimately, the score is very subjective. The scores of each category is averaged, weighted and added together to get the PCS.

3. Are there other factors to consider in the score?

Good you asked! At every competition there is a referee who is in charge of inputting specific deductions such as time violations, costume failure and interruptions to the program. If any of these violations are invoked, it’ll be marked as a deduction from the final score. (The technical panel also has the power to input deductions for falls, extra elements, illegal elements or overly long lifts.)

Now you have a basic understanding of the CoP. Here are a few other tidbits that could be useful.

Where can I find all the information on the skaters’ scores?

For each event sanctioned by the ISU, there will be an event page that can be found on the ISU website. (For non-ISU events, like National Championships, look for the info on the website of the specific figure skating federation hosting the event.) Each competition segment will have a Starting Order/Detailed Classification page that looks like this:

GPF 2013 ladies details sheet

When that segment of the competition is over, the ISU will also release the skating protocols within half an hour on pdf as well, which is where I got my information on Mao’s 3A for this competition. The protocol lists all the skaters in the order of their rank after that segment of the competition. Here’s a screenshot of Mao’s detailed score to give a sense of what kind of information is there:

GPF 2013 ladies detailed score sheet

As you can see, each element in the program is listed, along with the level (if applicable). For a list of abbreviations, here’s a link. With the levels and the GOE, you can get a sense of how well the skater has done at a competition. So here, I see that Mao has executed 2 triple jumps and a triple loop-double loop and has mostly level 4s for her elements. Along with a positive GOE, I can see that Mao has had a pretty good skate.

As for Mao, she and her coaches can benefit from reading this sheet. In my last post, I mentioned how in the 6.0 judging system, skaters could get a specific score like 5.6 for completely different reasons? And worse, they don’t know exactly for what reasons? In this new judging system, Mao can now see that she needs to work on her triple axel (3A) to make sure it’s fully rotated next time. Her combination spin with change of foot (CCoSp) was marked as level 3 and therefore, she has to look back at the footage and see what she can do to receive a level 4. Mao could also think about seeing her choreographer to change elements to bolster her transitions/linking footwork PCS. In other words, one of the benefits of the new judging system is that skaters can now find out exactly which part of their program they need to improve on.

Some other advantages to the CoP:

1. Skaters are better credited for the content of their programs.

2. The need to “wait one’s turn” is lessened to not completely gone. New skaters are more able to make their mark and rank highly under the new system if they can skate well and garner high TES. This season, we’ve seen Julia Lipnitskaia take out former World Champion, Carolina Kostner, and win gold at a Grand Prix event solely based on TES. In the 6.0 system, a lesser known skater can skate well but the judges can more easily put veterans on the podium since the score does not necessarily tell you the ordinal or ranking a skater was given.

3. The system encourages skaters to push themselves and the sport to its limits. A skater can always try to push ahead of the pack by putting more difficult content in their program, which innovates the sport. At the last Olympics, Mao Asada was the first lady to do 3 triple axels (the maximum you can do in an entire competition for both men and women) in competition. In the ladies’ short program, all ladies were required to do a double axel as well as a triple jump and combination jump. As a result of Mao’s achievement, the Japanese Skating Federation pushed and successfully had the rule changed so that ladies can do either a double or a triple axel in the short program.

4. Although the sport is inherently subjective, the subjectivity is more clearly delineated and limited. Although the technical panel can possibly overlook some details in their calls (which there have been some claims/accusations of), the judges subjectivity is mostly in the GOE and PCS. The subjectivity in the GOE is limited by dropping the highest and lowest scores, meaning that the most common score will likely come through in the averaging of the GOE. As for the PCS, there are guidelines as to what each score out of 10 means and we hope that the judges can follow these guidelines.

A few disadvantages of the new scoring system:

1. There is still a lot of subjectivity involved, especially in the PCS portion of the score which has been used to bolster or lower skaters’ scores and consequently, rankings.

2. There’s a lot of debate about the base values of elements like the quad and the triple axel. There’s a lot of tweaking to be done with the system as it is relatively new.

3. Now that skaters are aiming to gain points, it’s a lot more difficult for coaches and choreographers to create programs that have emotional impact throughout the entire program and don’t look the same or have elements that look terrible but get a lot of points. I think I can point to Nikolai Morozov as an example of a choreographer who’s struggling a bit with this system. Although occasionally (once in a blue moon perhaps), he comes up with a gem.

4. Judges scores are anonymous which makes them less accountable for their scores. This move was supposedly done so that judges would be allowed to give scores freely without the threat of being sanctioned by their skating federation if they didn’t comply with politicking pressures/deals as seen in Salt Lake City. For figure skating fans, we know that politicking will always happen and judges will likely give in to pressure from their skating federations anyways.

5.The media seems to hate this new scoring system for having so much math. Which I think is really silly considering a similar judging system is used in gymnastics and diving. Also, perpetuating math hate and fear is not cool. Math is a language that takes practice and patience. Overall, though I think the fear is that viewers are a little confused as to what the scores mean. I mean, is 72.36 a good score? Well, yes though it’s hard to say because scores can be inflated for skaters at the top tier for a variety of reasons.

The scores at the last Olympics looked a little higher overall in the top echelon of skaters compared to the scores of the other competitions that season. Of course, we could introduce the statistical concept of the z-score but I think the media will have a hissy fit if we do. For me, sometimes, I get a sense of how good the score is by comparing it to the world record score for that segment of the competition. Being close to that score is always a good sign although, there will always be competitions where everyone skates terribly but let’s not hope for that, shall we?

This has been a very long post. If you have any questions about the CoP, please ask them in the comments! I’ll add it to the post and answer everything to the best of my ability!

For the ISU’s official summary of the judging system, check out this link.

~The Rinkside Cafe

Other Skating 101 posts:

History of the 6.0 and Code of Points Judging System

The Basics of the Code of Points Judging System

Olympic Berths and Teams: How We Decided Who and How Many Go to the Olympics

Figure Skating Jumps

Figure Skating Spins

Pairs Skating Elements

Ice Dance