Skating 101: History of the Code of Points Judging System

As promised, I’m doing a series on the basics of being a smart figure skating viewer after a friend told me she didn’t quite understand some of the terms I used in the blog. Anecdotally, there seems to be some readers who are tuning in because of the Sochi 2014 Olympics and I’m writing these posts partly to allow viewers of the Sochi Olympics to be a little more informed about the sport and partly because this will be a learning experience for me. In any case, I decided to start with something of a dull but very important topic in order to understand figure skating today: the Code of Points or International Judging System that is used in figure skating today. After writing this, I decided to divide this subject into two posts for easy reading.

bs sp 2002 gold

Let’s start this with an anecdote from me and a major event in figure skating history shall we?

The 6.0 judging system confused me when I got back to figure skating. Back when I was a kid, the 6.0 system was easier to swallow: skaters were rated out of 6 for two things: technical elements and presentation (also referred to as “artistry” by commentators). Back then, I didn’t care too much about the deductions or whatnot, as long as there was some sort of score and ranking. When I grew up and came back to being a figure skating fan, the commentary from the 6.0 era confused the heck out of me. So… judges had to be conservative for some skaters because more skilled skaters were skating after him/her? There was a 0.1 deduction for a fall and a 0.1 deduction for a hand down even though one is more jarring and breaks the flow of the program more than the other? Somehow none of the scores out of 6 really mattered, but the rankings did because the scores don’t necessarily reflect how the skater should be ranked? What!?!?!?

The current CoP system gets a lot of flack for having so much math involved but I honestly cannot understand the logic behind the 6.0 system other than viewers can easily understand the scores. 6.0 was considered to be the paragon of perfection back in the day and viewers would hold their breath in anticipation, hoping that their favourites would receive that elusive score. It was thrilling, I admit but there were a few deeper issues within that judging system:

1. There was no systematic way to determine objectively the difficulty of a program and reward skaters who skated more difficult programs well.

2. 0.1 deductions were used for a variety of mistakes such as a step-out, a hand down or a fall. However, these basic 0.1 deductions did not take into account that mistakes were not created equal and some of them were more indicative of a lack of technique or concentration than others.

3. Despite being divided into 2 different components: technical elements and presentation, the scores did not tell the skater exactly what was wrong with their program or performance. For example, a skater could have gotten a score of 5.5 because he or she made a few mistakes at a particular performance or it may have been the combination of a weak program with a few mistakes. Either way, the skater doesn’t really know what they should improve on.

4. There was a sense of having to “wait one’s turn” – scores were given with more subjective bias as judges had to take into account who was skating after a certain competitor. Consequently, a young up-and-coming skater could get more conservative scores even after a good performance just because some highly-ranked veterans were skating after him/her.

Yes, there were all these flaws but the 6.0 system was used… until this happened.

In the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, two teams were head to head in the race for gold: Elena Berezhnaya & Anton Sikharulidze of Russia and Jamie Sale & David Pelletier of Canada. The latter were trailing behind B&S after the short program and both teams skated the long programs you see above.

Sikharulidze made the very obvious mistake of stepping out of a double axel while Sale & Pelletier seemed to have skated a flawless performance. American news commentators were already declaring a Canadian victory but the judges’ verdict came in: the Russians had won. Later on, upon investigation, it was alleged that the French judge was pressured by her skating federation to score the Russians well in pairs and in exchange the Russians would help bolster the scores of a French ice dance team. However, as this came to light, the French judge issued a signed statement that she did not participate in such a deal and that she thought that the Russians deserved to win.

As for me, I hold the unpopular opinion as a Canadian that the Russians deserved to win and here is the major reason why: despite Anton’s step-out, which is a minor mistake in terms of jumping mistakes, Berezhnaya & Sikharulidze skated a more difficult program. Here are a few things you can look for as you watch it:

1. B&S used difficult entries and elements into their skating. Examples: At 2:31, you see them enter into what is called spirals which then transitions smoothly into a death spiral and the exit out of a lift at 4:14.

2. There were a lot more transitions like spread eagles, spirals and intricate choreography used between big elements like jumps or lifts.

3. Two foot skating (mostly backwards) was reserved to build up speed in preparation for elements. It was not a major part of the choreography. (This is important as a contrast point to S&P’s program as you will see below.)

4. The program did not include major pauses, especially in the middle.

In contrast, here are some things that made Sale & Pelletier’s program a lot less difficult than the Russian’s:

1. There was A LOT of (mostly forward) two-foot skating. A large part of the program involved P&S skating halfway around the rink, often forward and on two legs (which is the easiest thing to do). This takes away from the difficulty of their program.

2. Compared to the Russians, this program had less intricacies like difficult exits or in general, transitions between or into elements – something that goes back to the whole overuse of forward two-foot skating. At 0:19, S&P exit from their side-by-side jumps, skates forward on two feet for twelve seconds (save for that small part where Jamie does a little bit of a spiral before doing forward-two foot skating again) and then enter into a lift. Compare that with B&S’ first lift at 3:27: coming out of a step sequence, they do three backwards crossovers, go into a spiral position and enter into the lift.

3. There were two long pauses in the middle of the program. Sometimes pauses are part of the choreography but they’re also a chance to take a small break midway through the program.

There may have been one advantage that S&P’s program might have had over B&S: a program that was easier to relate to. B&S used the music of Thais’ Meditation; we weren’t quite sure of the story but it was a skillfully executed piece of art. In contrast, S&P’s “Love Story” program had a romantic storyline, complete with snowball fights and crescendos that tug at the heartstrings. It didn’t hurt that the story is basically the predecessor of Nicolas Sparks’ “A Walk To Remember” either.

Nonetheless, this entire scandal broke out and a second set of gold medals were awarded. At this point, we could talk about cheating judges and whatnot but the judges were just a surface issue compared to the systemic problem of the way skaters were judged. To make my point, here were the scores for each of the skaters:

2002 olympic pairs scores

It’s clear that for the technical merit mark, S&P got higher scores but in general, we can see that the scores out of 6 mattered very little and were not an objective and systematic way to evaluate skaters. If two skaters got 5.7 for technical merit, it does not necessarily mean that they skated just as well as each other technically. Many of the flaws of the 6.0 judging system came out of the woodwork in the 2002 scandal and in 2004, the Code of Points (CoP) judging system was instated as a result.

The new system isn’t perfect either but I think it’s a more objective alternative to the 6.0 system. I’ll go into some of the basics of the CoP in my next post which will be coming out soon.

Which judging system do you prefer and why? Let me know in the comments!

~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