Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Unclear skating rules lead to less artistry

I don't usually post whole articles but this is a good one on the Lysacek/Weir Nationals controversy.

Rule change is very clear on how to calculate the scores for elements executed but not clear at all on the calculations for program components.

By Philip Hersh, Special to The LA Times

February 3, 2008

My e-mails tell me that more than a few readers are skeptical of skating officials' explanations in a story about the men's result at the U.S. Championships published Saturday on

Yet those who insist that imprecise language in the rules cannot be the problem, as the skating officials claimed, must be reading a different version of U.S. Figure Skating rule 3435 than the one in the USFS 2007-08 rulebook.

That rule is very clear on how to calculate the scores for elements executed but not clear at all on the calculations for program components, which is at the root of the controversy surrounding whether Evan Lysacek or Johnny Weir should be the winner of the men's competition.

(Lysacek and Weir tied in total score at 244.77 points, with Lysacek winning because he had a higher score in the long program. That score would have been .01 lower -- making Weir the winner -- if the math was done in the way some people think rule 3435 makes clear).

Some e-mailers think the math was purposely done in violation of the rules because the USFS preferred Lysacek as champion.

That would assume that, on the spur of the moment, officials could know the effect of changing the math formula used on the approximately 6 billion numbers that must be considered in the calculation of the scores.

Not only that, but I have received a document used in the International Skating Union accountants school that supports the officials' claim that the correct formula was applied at nationals.

The document shows accountants how to calculate manually the results of a program, giving a hypothetical example of a junior women's free skate.

In that example, this is how the component scores were calculated:

High and low scores were dropped. The rest of the scores were added, then divided by the number of judges. That number was rounded off at that point to two decimal places (in the example given, a 5.6666666 became 5.67, a 5.33333333 became 5.33).

The rounded-off, averaged numbers, or trimmed means, were added. That total then was multiplied by the factor involved.

In the case of Lysacek and Weir, those who think the rule was misinterpreted say the factor should have been applied before the scores were divided by the number of judges, and the number rounded off at that point.

(For the record, that method produces changes in four of Weir's component scores, two that were .01 higher and two that were .01 lower, but does not affect the total. It produces changes in three of Lysacek's scores, two .01 lower and one .01 higher, which is a net loss of .01.)

Sorry to all of you who think I am swallowing an official explanation of a cover-up (one, as I indicated earlier, would have required, even with computers, a group of figure filberts who have been solving Fermat's Theorem in their spare time).

This is my bottom line:

Even if the wrong formula was applied -- and I have yet to see anyone parse Rule 3435 to make it clear that happened -- the only thing that would keep me investigating is proof the formula was not applied the same way to every skater.

Those of you spending all this time and energy on the issue are missing the real problem with the New Judging System: It has led to a free skate (also called the long program, for any non-skating fan who has read this far) with no freedom and stripped the sport of its artistic essence.

No skater now will ever do fancy-free footwork sequences like those of Alexei Yagudin and Philippe Candoloro, footwork that brought crowds to their feet, because the system rewards changing foot positions so frequently the athlete cannot get up a head of steam.

Few skaters do eye-catching moves like Russian split jumps or graceful moves like the Ina Bauer or spread eagle because they take time and earn no points. Most skaters simply race between point-producing elements (even Weir, more of an artist than almost anyone else in the sport these days, had little chance to create any flow while he crammed jumps into the first half of his free skate at nationals).

No one in singles and pairs can game the system enough to do long programs that will be enthralling to watch again and again -- like Kurt Browning's "Bogart'' or Michelle Kwan's "Salome'' or Sale-Pelletier's "Tristan'' or John Curry's interpretation of the score from the ballet, "Don Quixote,'' in which Curry really was a ballet dancer on the ice. The new system has made music almost irrelevant; despite the best efforts of talented choreographers, most skaters would simply do the same elements in the same order, no matter what music were playing.

The physical demands to do all the stuff in the new system are such they reward lithe, small women (girls?) like Mirai Nagasu, Rachael Flatt and Caroline Zhang, who finished 1-2-4 at nationals but are all below the age cutoff for senior worlds. That the age limit exists is not the issue; the issue is the pounding on young bodies under the new system's requirements, as juniors or seniors, so many of these talented skaters might fall apart physically soon after they are eligible for the Olympics and senior worlds.

I like the new system for accentuating the idea that figure skating is a sport. I hate it for accentuating that so much it has all but excluded artistry, except for those skaters who think arm waving counts as artistry.

I am sure nearly all of you who are up in arms upon the Weir-Lysacek calculations would agree with me on this:

Figure skating sadly has become a mind-numbing mathematical exercise, where artistry is only paint by numbers.


Anonymous said...

when I first saw Evan's new program last season, I told my skater friend that it looks like the same program he did last year except with different music. No variety what so ever.

As for the .01 thing, the discussion should really be over. The whole point is that the judges should have marked Evan's GOE correctly for all of his jumps. If those were marked correctly, he would have gotten a lot less points than what he had gotten and the outcome of the skate would have been correct.

The judges had sent a very bad signal to casual figure skating watchers on TV. People must be thinking so Weir skated a lot better (not perfect but better) than Evan, but Evan won anyway? What is this? Olympic scandal all over again? I'm not watching this next year.

Aaron said...

I was there in person and I still can't get my head around it. I think I'll leave this one to the pundits, but for the record I also feel Johnny had a slightly better skate.