Pairs result was just 'BCS on Ice'

Updated: February 13, 2006, 8:15 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

TORINO, Italy -- Excuse me, but I thought they fixed the scoring system in figure skating.

If you'll remember, it was the scandal at the pairs final in Salt Lake four years ago that forced figure skating to finally overhaul its judging system. Out with the old, capricious and politically manipulated system, and in with the precise, objective Calculus of the new system. Instead of starting at 6.0 and losing points, skaters now start at 0.0 and gain points.

Zhang Dan
AP Photo/Kevork DjansezianChina's Zhang Dan fell in a split while attempting an unprecedented throw quad Salchow.

So what happened at Monday night's pairs final when we got to see the new system in an Olympic final for the first time? We get "The BCS on Ice.''

Skating the final routine of the night, China's Zhang Dan and Zhang Hao attempted the unprecedented quadruple Salchow throw. Hao tossed Dan in the air and she spun impressively as choreographed. It was a hell of a throw, one Ichiro would have been proud of. That is, until Dan landed.

Dan's legs went out from under her like Bambi on the pond, she smacked her left knee hard on the ice and she slammed into the wall. She tried to continue skating, but the pain was too much and she had to stop. She and Hao skated slowly off the ice, where Dan was examined quickly. Given the green light to resume, they returned to the ice, picked up where they left off and skated the rest of the routine without mishap to thunderous applause from a sympathetic audience.

"When the music started, we didn't know where we were in our routine," Hao said. "We looked to our coach and he gave us a signal so we knew when to go. We didn't repeat any moves we had done. And gradually after restarting, it became more and more clear what to do."

Well, good show for them. Inspiring stuff. The Olympic spirit and all that.

The problem is that when the scores were announced, it turned out Zhang and Zhang still won the silver medal despite their train wreck. Yes. Zhang crashed so spectacularly that you would think Todd Bertuzzi was involved and yet she still took home a medal.

That's not even the worst part, though. No, the worst part is this is EXACTLY HOW THE SYSTEM IS SUPPOSED TO WORK! That's right. There was no conspiracy, no French judge to blame. This is how the people in charge drew it up.

For one thing, skaters can resume their routines in the case of an accident or wardrobe malfunction. It's a bit like letting Tim Wakefield have that pitch to Aaron Boone back, but that was the rule under the old system, too (Tonya Harding infamously received a do-over in Lillehammer when her skate laces broke in the 1994 Olympics). Skating is forgiving that way.

The new scoring system, however, rewards skaters for trying a move. Because the Chinese nearly completed the quad throw, they received credit for a triple throw.

This, of course, is ridiculous. It's like giving Barry Bonds a triple for a long fly ball that curves foul at the last second.

Michelle Kwan withdrew too early. She should have stayed and done her long program one jump at a time. She might have won a gold medal, although it would have taken her two hours to complete her free skate.

Obviously, the new system still needs tweaking. Nearly completing an element is not good enough. If everyone has enough time to go to the bathroom and stand in line for a Coke while you are forced to stop and resume your program, there should be a significant penalty. Stretchers and defibrillators should not be required elements.

And while they're at it, they should start identifying the judges and their nationalities again.

One of the best parts of figure skating used to be imaging the juicy conspiracies whenever your country got screwed by the judges. It was one of the last preserves of Cold War intrigue. That international element is still there, I suppose, but now it's hidden under so many layers of onion skin that you can never follow the thread back to its origin. It's like trying to figure out who the real villain is in a LeCarre spy novel.

Oh, and one more thing. They need to penalize skaters for bad costumes. It's not the flowing blouses and crushed velvet suits that bother me, it's the nagging suspicion that most of the East European male skaters wear the exact same clothes to the discotheque.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com