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HELENE ELLIOTT

Figure skating scoring leaves some cold

There are no more 6.0s and few even know what a good score is, but it's not all negative, right?

March 22, 2009|HELENE ELLIOTT

To save figure skating after the 2002 Salt Lake City judging scandal rocked the sport, the International Skating Union, in essence, killed it.

The familiar 6.0 standard of excellence? Gone. Identifying the judges by country, which fostered public accountability? Gone.

In their place: a broader points-based system that relies on technical specialists to identify and assess the difficulty of elements, judges to rate the execution of those elements, and computers to randomly count scores of nine of 12 judges whose affiliations aren't announced.

If Kim Yu-Na gets 72.24 points for her short program at this week's World Figure Skating Championships as she did at the recent Four Continents event, would fans know to cheer rather than jeer?

That would match the best score ever, but usually when scores are announced there's an instant of puzzled silence.

Too many calculations and not enough soul.

"The numbers appearing on the scoreboard mean nothing at all," said Sonia Bianchetti Garbato, a former ISU official, "being the sum of mysterious numbers awarded by anonymous judges -- the best way to discourage even the most avid fans."

Some parts of the system, however, are welcome improvements.

* Skaters are ranked for what they do, not in relation to the performances of those who preceded them.

* Judges no longer hold back high marks for skaters who perform well early in a group.

* Video replay is available to review whether a skater took off from the correct edge on a jump or made the correct number of rotations. Although this can lead to delays, it rewards proper technique.

* Best of all, perhaps, is that the system allows dramatic comebacks, once very rare.

"We are very, very satisfied because in the past for a skater ranked after the short program No. 4, it was practically impossible to win the competition, statistically," said Ottavio Cinquanta, president of the International Skating Union and the system's chief architect.

"Today, you can be ranked No. 7 and you can also start the first among the 24 and you can win. In the past, if you were the first one it was very difficult to have the highest number of points because the judges were waiting for the other skaters."

But in trying to quantify every axel and salchow and twizzle, the system has crushed the sport's heart.

Programs look alike because coaches and choreographers incorporate the same high-value elements into routines. A spiral might be awkward or ugly, but if it's worth a lot of points, every skater will do it.

Every competition has routines packed with tricks, yet Cinquanta disputed the notion that athleticism outweighs artistry. "I would believe that we have covered both interests," he said.

He's clearly in the minority.

"I'm watching it and I'm not being touched by a lot of it," said Tai Babilonia, who won the 1979 world pairs title with Randy Gardner and mentors U.S. champions Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker. "I'm not blaming skaters at all. The skaters are doing what they're told to be doing. It just doesn't look like they're having a fun time out there. It looks like mathematical skating. It doesn't look like figure skating to me. It really makes me sad."

Bianchetti Garbato, a vocal opponent of the new system, is more appalled than saddened.

"The sport has turned into a combination of acrobatic movements more suitable to a circus than a skating arena," she said. "We are no longer seeing the skaters' passion, the skaters' joy during their performances. We are only seeing skaters suffering and struggling to get to the end of overly demanding programs."

Some people involved in the sport are reluctant to be critical for fear of reprisal. Some see positive points.

Gardner, formerly a technical specialist and now a choreographer, praised the system as "definitely fair, because it's pretty black-and-white." But he acknowledged it's difficult to express a skater's personality because of the drive to pile up points.

"You literally have a list of required elements they have to do in both the short and long program and the different features, which have a numeric value, so you've got to check those off the list first," he said. "And then you look and say, what's left? And you've kind of run out of time. So I don't know how to fix it. Something extemporaneous would be nice."

But that wouldn't get any points.

Tanith Belbin, a five-time U.S. ice dance champion and Turin Olympic silver medalist with partner Ben Agosto, says she likes having standards for rating lifts instead of leaving it to judges' personal preferences. She's not sold on the rest of it.

"When you're putting together a program you can't just think about it in terms of the performance because it's all coming down to mathematics and technical scores," she said. "That is not the essence of ice dancing. The essence of ice dancing is creativity."

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