With tweaks, proposed figure skating changes make sense

Russia's Evgenia Medvedeva strikes a captivating pose.

Russia's Evgenia Medvedeva strikes a captivating pose.

It used to be that the start of the Grand Prix Series marked the start of a figure skating season.

The first Grand Prix event of this Olympic season still is three weeks away, but so much already has happened, on the ice in Challenger Series events and away from it with discussions of change in format and scoring, that it’s already time to offer some observations on the sport’s present and future.

I will do it in two parts, one today and one tomorrow.

Let’s start with some thoughts on the potential scoring and program changes I revealed in an icenetwork exclusive Sept. 11.  A top International Skating Union official called the changes "radical" and part of an effort to help figure skating regain some of its past popularity after its rapid decline everywhere but Asia, especially Japan, without whose fans the sport would be reeling toward irrelevance.

1.  The fundamental idea of the changes, to rebalance the artistic and athletic sides of the sport, makes sense.  The technical element score has, as my story noted, accounted for an outsized portion of the total score for top skaters at worlds in the past four years.

But the ISU proposal to significantly reduce the value of quadruple jumps (and quad throws in pairs) and of the triple axel runs counter to the logic of how this sport – and any sport – evolves.  Athletes want to push the envelope technically, and they should be encouraged to try.

Severely punishing badly executed jumps is a better idea, and that will be possible with the expanded grades of execution (currently seven, from -3 to +3; next season 11, from -5 to +5).  Then should come eliminating the absurd idea of giving full rotational base value for a jump that ends in a fall.  Such jumps must suffer a consequential base value penalty. 

Add more scoring risk to the reward for attempting big-points jumps, and only skaters who have a relative certainty of landing them would take the risk.  Nothing ruins a program’s artistic cohesion more than a fall.  What does the general public see as the worst error in skating?  A splat.  Two splats, and only traffic accident gawkers keep watching.

As 2016 U.S. champion Adam Rippon said at this week’s U.S. Olympic Committee media summit:

 “In the past, the free skate was always considered to be the program where the artistic score would win, and now even a skater like me, who isn't doing five quads, my technical score is still higher than my program components score.  So I think they're trying to find a balance between the technical push and (wanting) to keep skating a performance sport."

Adam Rippon likes the idea of a wider GOE range.

Adam Rippon likes the idea of a wider GOE range.

2.  Rippon liked the bigger GOE spread because he felt “an element that is a +3, which is regarded as perfect, and an element that gets a +2, sometimes there's a big difference there."

There will only be a difference if judges avail themselves of all the GOEs.  They have been loath to do it with program component scores for fear of having their marks look like outliers, no matter if they believed such marks were accurate.

Component scores, given in five categories, can range from 0.25 to 10 in quarter-point intervals.  At the Nepela Trophy last week, the judges gave the world’s top woman, Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia, PCS scores from 8.5 to 10, with 30 of the 35 scores from 9.0 and 9.75.  Even skaters whose performances were badly flawed, like Danielle Harrison of Great Britain, had PCS scores in a relatively narrow range: 5.0 to 6.75, with 31 of the scores from 5.5 to 6.5.

In 2005, the first year the International Judging System was used at the world championships, I asked then ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta why the judges all were marking so narrowly.  “We have given them a Ferrari, and now they have to learn how to drive it.”  A dozen years later, they still are afraid to get out of second gear.

A judge should be willing to give a skater a 5.25 for transitions and a 9.75 for performance if the performance warrants it.  But that never happens.

Thankfully, at least there seems less reputation judging in awarding GOEs than in giving PCS.   It still is far too easy (and common) to prop up skaters with PCS based on what they have done in the past.

2.  Props to Russian women like reigning world champion Medvedeva and reigning world junior champion Alina Zagitova for taking full advantage of the bonus points available for back loading jumps into the second half of the free skate program.

In the process, though, they have achieved reductio ad absurdum by doing all or all but one of the 11 jumps in the second half.

There is a figure skating rule (612) that talks of a “well-balanced” free skate program.  But it refers only to the maximum numbers of different elements – jumps, spins, steps.

Yet there is clearly nothing balanced about a program in which all of one type of element is in one half of a 4-minute program.  And there is no penalty for such imbalance.

(Ironically, the bonus idea grew out concern about a previous singles skaters’ habit, notable among Russian men, of front loading nearly all the jumps.)

It is likely that limiting the number of jumping passes in the second half to three or four (out of a current seven for women and eight for men) will come up at this summer’s ISU Congress.  Doing so would both reduce the technical point totals and also provide a balance that would allow more artistic unity throughout the program.

Michelle Kwan's trademark spiral.

Michelle Kwan's trademark spiral.

3.  Removing one jumping pass from the men’s free skate, which already has been approved for next season, will obviously reduce the TES total.  But, as coaches Kori Ade and Brian Orser told me, talking 30 seconds from the 4-minute, 30-second men’s free skate (also approved) will cram the remaining elements together even more and further reduce the time for doing movements that enhance the program’s choreography and visual appeal.

Take out the jumping pass but keep the 30 seconds (and increase the women’s free skate to the same length as the men’s.)  Allow the skaters to use the time as they wish, as long as it isn’t just doing crossovers.

Perhaps it could include more footwork or even another spin, with a small bonus for doing them well, or perhaps it would just afford more interpretive and expressive time between the mandated elements.  Maybe a skater will be able to hold a position long enough to make it eye-catching and memorable, as Michelle Kwan’s spiral and Brian Boitano’s rink-crossing spread eagles were.

I love the big jumps in skating.  They provide a needed counterpoint to the ignoramuses who think the sport is nothing but sequins, poofy shirts and histrionics.

The problem is almost no one beyond hard-core skating fans can tell a quad from a triple in real time.  If the sport wants to attract casual fans again, it needs to give skaters breathing room to do programs that can be sensations, either on the web or on social media or in the arena, like Jason Brown’s quad-less free skate at the 2014 U.S. Championships.

If, as Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu did in his 2017 worlds free skate, you can hit four quads flawlessly and still captivate an audience with movement and expression, you will create an impression of breathtaking brilliance.  And having a little more breathing room should make it even more breathtaking.

4.  Why not have separate medals for an athletic program and an artistic one (plus an overall medal), as the ISU is considering, although that probably wouldn’t be implemented until after the 2022 Winter Olympics?  (The present system awards "real" medals only to the overall winner.)

Among the questions about such a proposal would be what the new programs would include and whether a skater could choose to compete in one but not the other, especially at the OIympics, where athlete limits are strict.

Mirai Nagasu, whose senior career spans 75 percent of the 15-season IJS era, put the discussion of all these changes in the simplest and most logical way at the Media Summit.

Said Nagasu:  “You can’t get caught up in being part of the past.”