SOCHI, Russia - Olympic figure skaters make their sport look effortless.
The grace they exude when gliding, jumping and spinning could fool some viewers into thinking it's easy. Some might assume the same is true when it comes to judging. But those tasked with determining scores have a complicated responsibility that might not be clear to the casual viewer.
“It's very confusing to the public, to the fan base of skating,” said Bob Mock, master figure skating coach and vice president of Ice and Blades of Western Pennsylvania.
The International Judging System was implemented in 2004 after accusations that French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne cheated during the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. At the time, judges looked for mistakes and deducted points accordingly.
Conversely, the current system is based on accumulation of points. A five-member technical team assigns a difficulty level and corresponding score to each move.
A panel of nine judges then evaluates the skating skill, interpretation of music, timing, choreography, transitions and overall execution, and awards a component score.
The technical element score and component score are added together to create a segment score. The short program segment plus the long program segment equals the final score.
“The new judging system is so technical,” said Elena Valova, world and Olympic pairs skating champion from Russia who coaches at Robert Morris University Island Sports Center. Valova and partner Oleg Vasiliev took gold at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo.
“It's difficult for the audience to see mistakes,” Valova said.
Obvious things such as falling out of a jump or failing to complete the required rotations in a spin can hurt a score.
Flips, somersault jumps and laying or kneeling on the ice for too long are not permitted. Mock said it's also important to watch the footwork between big moves, which shows precision and dexterity. Skaters also have to use the entire ice during their performance.
Beth Sutton, skating director at Island Sports Center, said coaches watch figure skating differently than the casual viewer.
“It's all about the subtle things, even down to the costumes,” she said.
“This is one sport that does a great job of making it look effortless. But to people who say that, I say, ‘Go run and jump up and down for four and a half minutes and do it while looking glamorous and beautiful.' ”
The trickiest moves for men are quads and jump combinations. For ladies, it's the triple axel. When it comes to spins, more points are awarded for features, such as sitting and positioning of the free leg and arms.
In pairs, it's all about the twizzle, a multirotational one-foot turn. Clasping their hands behind their backs increases the difficulty level.
Mock calls this year's Olympics “really interesting,” and is excited to watch the “red-hot” U.S. ice dance team of Meryl Davis and Charlie White.
“They are very well matched and extremely strong,” he said. The “more artistic” Canadian team of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir also has his attention.
For the ladies, he's excited to see Yuna Kim from South Korea — “When she's on, she's incredible” — as well as Japanese figure skater Mao Asada, Carolina Kostner of Italy and the U.S. team of Ashley Wagner, Gracie Gold and Polina Edmunds.
Wagner caused a stir when she qualified for the team despite executing a problematic performance at the U.S. championships. Judges opted to consider her entire body of work rather than one poor showing and advanced her over Mirai Nagasu.
Valova said while she feels bad for Nagasu, she understands the rational of putting Wagner on the team.
“The decision about the Olympic team is not based on the results of Nationals but over the whole season,” she said.
On the men's side, Mock is watching Canada's Patrick Chan, Kazakhstan's Denis Ten, Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu and Daisuke Takahashi and the U.S.'s Jeremy Abbott and Jason Brown. For pairs, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov of Russia are the frontrunners, along with Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy.
Valova said she “can't wait to see what happens” at this year's event. While she knows all about the pressure that comes with performing, watching doesn't have to be that stressful.
“Just enjoy,” she said.
What to expect
• The ladies and men's short programs can last 2 minutes, 50 seconds and should include a maximum of eight jumps, three spins, one step sequence and one choreographic sequence.
• The ladies long program/free skate must last 4 minutes, plus or minus 10 seconds, and involve a maximum of seven jumps, three spins, one step sequence and one choreographic sequence.
• The men's long program/free skate can last 4 minutes, 30 seconds plus or minus 10 seconds and include a maximum of eight jump elements, three spins and two step sequences.
(Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)