Balancing act: Skating officials moved to find better harmony between artistry and athleticism in the sport

  New rules about second-half jump bonuses means it is unlikely we will ever see again anything like Alina Zagitova's totally backloaded (see the x's) free skate.

New rules about second-half jump bonuses means it is unlikely we will ever see again anything like Alina Zagitova's totally backloaded (see the x's) free skate.

Quadruple jumps were limited, the practice of backloading programs to gain bonus points was severely curtailed, and neither a major conflict-of-interest issue nor raising the minimum age for senior competitions was even approved for discussion.

Those were the major takeaways from the biennial International Skating Union congress last week in Seville, Spain.

But the impact of what did -- and did not -- happen at the 57th ISU Ordinary Congress will likely be far less significant than the ramifications of ISU Communication No. 2168 (pdf), issued 10 days before the congress began.

That communication, which codified what a top figure skating official had called a "radical change" when its eventual contents were revealed in an icenetwork exclusive last September, substantially lowered the base value of quadruple jumps and pairs quad throws. It also decreased the base value of the triple axel by 5.9 percent and slightly lowered the base value of the rest of the triple jumps (except the flip, which stayed the same).

Additionally, the communication codified a Grade of Execution hit of -5 for a jump fall under the new GOE range of -5 to +5 (the change from a range of -3 to +3 had been approved last year), which could discourage risk-taking in jumps -- although, as will be explained later, there's more to it than just a simple five-point deduction.

Now, coaches and skaters are left to deal with the new rules and point values.

"We simply work with the changes handed to us and develop the best athletes we can," said Brian Orser, coach of two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu and, as of next season, two-time world champion Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia and two-time world bronze medalist Boyang Jin of China.

The biggest challenge for many, especially those who have already choreographed next season's programs, seems to be the backloading rule. Almost all the sport's elite skaters, notably Medvedeva, built programs to get a lot of bonus points. Jin has been at the forefront of the quad revolution in men's skating.

"I feel that limiting the quads, lowering the value of quads and triples, and having a -5/+5 will certainly shake things up," said Denise Myers, coach of reigning U.S. champion Bradie Tennell.

ISU officials hope the overall impact will be to swing the balance more to artistry and performance value in a sport where athleticism, largely defined by jumping, became more and more ascendant over the past four seasons.

"Quads are like time in the 100 meters and height in the high jump," said Ted Barton, executive director of Skate Canada in British Columbia and one of the creators of the international judging system (IJS). "They define and push the physical limits of our sport.

"I don't disagree with the desire for more balance, but the athleticism of sport demands we go higher and harder."

***

Let's start with the decisions made at the congress:

1. Allowed repetition of only one type of quad rather than being able to repeat two

Vincent Zhou of the U.S., who finished sixth at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, endorses this change, even though he was among the skaters who repeated two quads at least once last season. Because Zhou can do four different types of quads, he could try six in the free skate at the world championships.

"Before, being able to repeat two quads allowed for six or more, which pretty much completely destroys the program," Zhou said. "That's maybe a little extreme, and maybe 'destroy' wasn't the right word, (but) the new rules are going to put a little more focus on balancing the program, on balancing all aspects of skating, and I think that's good."

Although he has mastered the highest-valued jump anyone has landed, the quad lutz, Zhou said the lutz would not necessarily be the jump he repeats.

"For me, the lutz and salchow take more speed, and the more speed, the longer setup you need, so I feel lutz takes the most out of the integrity of the program," he said.

Tom Zakrajsek, who coaches Zhou in collaboration with Tammy Gambill, likes the repeat rule.

"Not many men or women can learn even one quad," Zakrajsek said. "This allows those skaters who learn one quad to be a bit more competitive with the multiple-quad skaters."

2. Ended the practice of putting all or nearly all jumping passes in the second half of the short program and free skate

The new rules will give bonus credit only to the last jumping pass done in the second half of the short program (which has three total passes) and the last three in the second half of the free skate. (A reduction of 30 seconds in the length of the men's free skate means both men and women will have seven jumping passes beginning next season; the men previously had eight.)

"This has caused problems for many of my elite athletes, who now must modify their programs," said Zakrajsek, who supports the restrictions but was concerned about the timing.

"The general feeling was two (bonus) jumps would be allowed in the short program and four jumps in the free skate. Many of the top choreographers were working under this assumption, too. This creates a burden for the athletes and also the parents, who must pay to travel to get the programs adjusted."

Tennell, for example, did two short program jumping passes and four free skate jumping passes in the bonus period last season.

"I'm in favor of limiting the bonus jumps," Myers said. "I really feel it will bring more creativity to the programs. I also think the programs will be better balanced."

(For a summary of how elite skaters used the bonus last season, see the section at the bottom of this article.)

3. Quashed an urgent proposal made by the Netherlands to raise the senior age minimum from 15 to 17. (Urgent proposals must get a four-fifths majority approval to be brought to the "normal" agenda, which this did not.)

4. Rejected an urgent proposal from the ISU Council that would have prohibited national federation presidents (or the top figure skating official of federations that govern both figure skating and other ice sports) from acting as judges, referees and technical officials at major international competitions

The purpose of this proposal was to "avoid conflicts of interest and the appearance of national bias."

"It was a great pity we could not discuss this proposal at the congress," said ISU President Jan Dijkema of the Netherlands. Dijkema, re-elected to a four-year term as president, added it would be made again as a "regular" proposal at the next congress.

***

The new scale of values and the guidelines for interpreting how the wider GOE range should be used, especially regarding falls, are likely to give skaters pause before trying the most difficult jumps, unless they are relatively certain they can land them. The question then is whether that caution will hold back the athletic development of the sport.

"It's definitely a big risk of losing a ton of points," Zhou said. "I feel like it will definitely make people think twice about going for some things."

The base values for three of the five quads (not counting the axel) have been reduced by more than 10 percent (the quad lutz by 14 percent), and the other two by nearly 8 percent.

"I disagree with lowering base values for quads," said coach Alex Ouriashev, who works with Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan. "For me, quads are like the big diamonds in the ring: Nobody looks at metal around them; everyone looks at diamonds."

At the Olympics, Nathan Chen got 72.41 of his 115.11 base value points in the free skate from his six quads -- three of which came in the bonus area, when they were in the fourth, fifth and sixth of his eight jumping passes. (Of the top four overall finishers, only Uno, with 103.14, had a base value of more than 100.) Were Chen to do that again -- with just one repeated quad, a fifth different quad and, although likely impossible, the final three quads in the bonus -- the base value would be at least 10 percent less.

Fabio Bianchetti of Italy, re-elected at the congress as chair of the ISU Single & Pair Skating Technical Committee, has pushed for restoring balance between athleticism and artistry in the sport.

"I'm satisfied with the new scale of values," said Bianchetti, who told icenetwork last fall radical change was needed "to bring back the popularity that figure skating used to have in the past."

Among the ideas to re-balance the sport are the indicated penalties for a fall, which still include a one-point deduction from the overall technical score and could include a hit of just under five points on Grade of Execution for the jump with a fall.

"Some persons, not me, are even thinking that if a jump is affected by a fall, it should get no value," Bianchetti wrote in an email this week. "I believe the way it is done now [will be] fair: rewarding the quality but also considering the risk of doing difficult jumps. ... In the past, just to attempt a quad, even affected by a fall, would get more points than a good triple."

A Japanese figure skating fan on Twitter took a reductio ad absurdum look at the guideline for jump falls that mandates a -5 GOE and determined that a quad salchow with a fall would be worth less (4.85) than a perfectly executed double axel (4.95) with a +5. That doesn't even include the mandatory one-point deduction for the fall.

Alexander Lakernik of Russia, the ISU vice-president for figure skating, explained in an email that the calculation isn't that simple.

Lakernik said that the GOE hit would not be absolute but would come from what the grade would have been for a "very good, fully rotated jump landed on one foot with a curve of exit and only then a fall: We start with a +1/+2 and then go down by 5."

Barton said judges often applied GOE that way in the early years of the IJS but, in recent seasons, have generally given the lowest raw GOE possible (until now, -3) for a fall.

"This has complicated things more," Barton said. "The media will have an even harder time communicating to the audience how things are being scored."

(This article originally appeared on icenetwork.)
 

Screen Shot 2018-06-21 at 9.20.39 AM.png

As a reference, below is a summary of bonus-area jumping passes from some major competitions in the 2017-18 season. Next season, only the final pass (of three) in the short and the final three in the free (of seven) will get the 10 percent bonus. (Note: One men's jumping pass has been eliminated from the free skate next season.)

Men's short program

At the Olympics, Yuzuru Hanyu and Shoma Uno of Japan were the only men in the top 10 of the short to do more than one bonus jumping pass. Among top 10 at the U.S. championships, only Nathan Chen did more than one.

Ladies short program

At the Olympics, three of the top 10 women (Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia, and Kaori Sakamoto of Japan) did all three passes in the bonus, while three of the other seven did two such passes. At the U.S. championships, seven of the top 10 did two bonus period passes. At the Russian championships (without an injured Medvedeva), three of the top 10 did all three passes in the bonus area and the other seven all did two.

Men's free skate

At the Olympics, nine of the top 10 (including the top seven) did five of the eight jumping passes in the bonus area, and the 10th did four. At the U.S. championships, nine of the top 10 did five and the 10th, Timothy Dolensky, did six.

Ladies free skate

At the Olympics, Zagitova did all seven passes in the bonus area, while Medvedeva was among three in the top 10 who did five; the other six skaters did four. At the U.S. championships, the top three and three others did four; three (Karen Chen, Starr Andrews and Courtney Hicks) did five, and the other skater did two. At the Russian championships, three of the top 10 did seven, and five did five; only one did fewer than four.

Embed from Getty Images