Skating's new points system isn't ideal, but it's better
Posted: Friday January 13, 2006 3:02PM; Updated: Friday January 13, 2006 3:02PM
Scott Smith was the only male skater to attempt a quadruple salchow on Thursday, which, suprisingly, is worth only 9.5 points.
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
ST. LOUIS -- Let's call it a work in progress. Figure skating's new Code of Points system, making its U.S. Nationals debut here this week, has solved some of the sport's problems. But in unexpected ways, it has also created new ones.
First, the good news: Spins, footwork and spirals -- once little more than the transitional frosting between the big, showy triple and quadruple jumps -- are once more at center stage in figure skating, often the difference between a winning program and a losing one. Gone are the days when a Timothy Goebel (who finished fifth in Thursday's short program) could ride a couple of quad jumps and seven triples to a national title.
Now it's all about transitional movements, changing of edges, changes of position, interesting entries into the jumps, and speed and flow over the ice. The sport can no longer be accused of resembling figure jumping. The Code of Points system has, in some ways, returned figure skating to its roots.
How has the International Skating Union done it? By assigning degrees of difficulty to various step and spiral sequences and to spins. The more complicated the spiral or the spin -- a change of foot, edge, body position, speed, backward entrance, flying entrance, the free foot held over the head, etc. -- the more points the element can be scored.
The technical specialist standing behind the judging panel will call out anything from level one to level four (four being the most difficult) after an element is completed, and the judges' marks are adjusted accordingly. If a skater wants to reach the podium, he'd better not waste time with level-one spins. Crank that free leg up with your hands to form a "Y"-spin, otherwise known as the "crotch-shot special," as unattractive a pose as you'll ever see. Grab your skate blade to turn that camel spin into a spine-bending donut. Be the Bielmann.
"You have to be a contortionist to spin today," observed 1984 gold medalist Scott Hamilton while watching the men's competition Thursday afternoon.
What's wrong with that? Well, by assigning greater values to certain moves, those moves are endlessly repeated as skaters look to maximize their scores. Eventually the programs pretty much all start to look alike. Creativity and real originality disappear. Subtlety, simplicity, clean lines? Gone. The first few times you see a Bielmann, in which the free skate is pulled back over the head during a spin, it's amazing. How do they do that?
The next few times it begins to lose its luster, like a magic trick too closely observed. By the 20th Bielmann, it's just weird. Can't they think of anything else to do with that leg? The eye longs for a simple layback, with the toe perfectly pointed and held, as Janet Lynn used to do. Or a program ending, crowd-pleasing scratch spin, a la Todd Eldredge, when the entire body becomes a blur. So why don't we see these types of spins anymore? Without the bells and whistles, they are level-one spins, no matter how gloriously they're performed. Not enough points.
Other simple, traditional figure-skating moves that are seldom seen in the new Code of Points system? The spread eagle, the Russian split and the falling leaf -- none of which are difficult, but all are universal in their appeal. The ISU, which created the new system, has to figure out a way to reward these types of simple, timeless moves so that skating doesn't devolve into a freak show of yoga practitioners on ice.
There are other problems, too. It's one thing not to overemphasize jumping, but it's another not to reward innovation and risk. Last year at U.S. nationals, Kimmie Meissner became the first American woman since Tonya Harding to land a triple axel in competition. But that was before the Code of Points system, in which a failed jump adds nothing to your total score, no matter how difficult the jump is, and a fall leads to a mandatory one point deduction.
A triple axel under the Code of Points system has a base value of just 7.5 points, little more than a triple lutz-double toe combination (7.3 points), which nearly every senior woman can perform. Faced with such a meager reward for trying such a risky jump, Meissner ditched the triple axel.
It's the same with quadruple-revolution jumps for the men. Almost every senior man can land a triple lutz-triple toe-loop combination, which has a base value of 10.0 points. The quad salchow, by contrast, which only a couple of American men can do, is worth only 9.5 points. Only one man even attempted a quad salchow in Thursday night's short program, Scott Smith, who finished eighth.
"The quad is being reviewed," says Charlie Cyr, an ISU championship judge who has been spreading the gospel of the new scoring system in the U.S. "It may not be being given enough points."
So it's back to the drawing board for the ISU and its Byzantine Code of Points system. Is it perfect? No way. Is it improvable? Absolutely. Is it better than the beloved old 6.0 system?
On the basis of what we've seen so far, we think yes.