New scoring system gets mixed reviews
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Confused by figure skating's scoring system? You're not alone. Frank Carroll has been in the sport for more than a half century, coaching everyone from Michelle Kwan to Evan Lysacek, and he doesn't completely understand it, either.
"This is terrible to say, but when the scores come up for a short program, I don't even know what a great score is," Carroll says. "I'm squinting like this, and the marks come up and Evan will say, 'My God, that's great!' And I'll think, Is it?"
When a member of a sport's Hall of Fame is perplexed by the scoring system, you have a serious problem.
This is the second Olympics with the new scoring system, which was put into place after the outrageous 2002 Salt Lake City score-trading scandal that involved a French judge, the Russian mafia, an outraged Canada and, eventually, so much attention that pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier wound up on the cover of Time magazine.
Ahhh, those were the days.
"It was an attempt to stop cheating," Carroll says. "It was a mandate from the International Olympic Committee to [International Skating Union president] Ottavio Cinquanta to change it, or figure skating wasn't going to be in the Olympics anymore. That's the feedback we got. But they spent millions and millions of dollars on it, and I can't say that I like where it's going."
Who could? The scoring system was supposed to save the sport but is instead ruining it. The system is more than twice as complicated as the Bowl Championship Series rankings in football and not even half as satisfying. It confuses fans, frustrates skaters and dulls routines.
"For the fans, it's very confusing," Johnny Weir says. "There are the die-hard fans who watch every competition and know the ins and outs better than the skaters do. The average person just clicking the TV doesn't know what 146.92 points mean. And to be honest, I don't always know, either."
One of the most compelling aspects of figure skating comes after the performance, when the skaters sit with their coaches in the kiss-and-cry zone waiting for the scores to flash up, then break down sobbing with either tears of joy or defeat. In the old days, fans likewise reacted with pleasure or anger. ("I knew the Russian judge would screw him!") Now they're just perplexed.
Say what you will about the old system, but when a skater received a 6.0, you knew it was a great routine.
"Before, everyone had the anticipation of seeing that 6.0. Now it's just a bunch of numbers," two-time Canadian silver medalist Elvis Stojko says. "It's hurt the audience. They don't go, 'Oooh ohhh, 150, that's a good number!'"
Worse, to build up points, so many tiny, barely detectable moves are required that routines have lost their individuality, creativity and entertainment.
"This judging system has taken away a lot of individuality that was so present in figure skating for so many years," Weir says. "I even notice it in myself when I see video of my past performances compared to recent routines. I'm very much a robot. I go out there and do the elements I'm supposed to and do the steps I'm supposed to do and change my edges that I'm supposed to do. There's no freedom.
"The individuality has been lost for figure skating. Very few people can make it work. It's turned everyone into robots doing the same jumps and the same spins."
I know what you're saying: Well, that's just Johnny being Johnny. But Stojko was an "athletic" skater compared with Weir's "artistic" style, yet he has the same complaint.
"Before, you could really put the personality into your routine," Stojko says. "Now, so much of your time is spent getting up the points that it ties the hands of the skaters. There are too many requirements.
"Back in the day, you could skate down the ice with a lot of speed, a lot of power and still do the steps. Now you have so many compulsories. They have to do the same footwork; you have to do so many spins that everyone is doing the same thing. I can see 15 to 20 skaters do the exact same spins. Yeah, sure, some do it better than others, but afterward I need to go take a nap."
Granted, the system has some supporters. Lysacek calls it "the greatest thing that could have happened to the sport."
"We have a breed of athletes who are so much stronger," he says. "I can speak for myself. And look at the people I trained with, that group of skaters now are stronger than they've ever been. And I don't think we would have pushed ourselves to the point where we are artistically and technically."
And even staunch critics agree that the system is fairer to skaters. "You get credit for what you do well," Weir acknowledges. "It gives skaters from some countries that are not as strong politically an opportunity to do well. They don't get lowballed."
That's all good. But why must it also come with a system that is so perplexing, even Scott Hamilton was confused by the scoring at the U.S. nationals? Or so complicated that coaches such as Carroll constantly ask one another about the rules?
"We have callers who go to classes, and when we have a question we go to them and say, 'What is your interpretation?'" Carroll says. "And they'll say 'It's this.' And then you go to the other caller and ask, 'Is that right?' And they'll say, 'No.' So you get callers that make decisions that disagree with each other."
It shouldn't be that way. The system must allow enough individuality that the routines are creative and memorable, not dull and repetitive. It needs accountability so that everyone knows which judges are responsible for which scores. It needs an ultimate score that, like the old 6.0, immediately excites even the most casual fan -- the ones most necessary to rebuild the sport's popularity. As U.S. Olympic alternate Ryan Bradley says, fans need to know what a monumental score is the same way they knew what Kobe Bryant's 81 points meant.
And most of all, the system needs to be comprehensible. After all, football's rulebook may be thick, but Bill Belichick is never confused why an 18-yard field goal counts for as many points as a 54-yard field goal into the wind.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.