Ice Times

Simplify the IJS: Bringing the Audience Back to Skating 

By: Ron Kravette

April 1, 2012

   In The Loop Issue #2 Extended Articles

The senior ice dance team of “Trixie and Hugh” has just come barreling out of the rink corner doing their spot-on impressions of Apolo Ohno and Bonnie Blair – assuming these Olympic champion speed skaters were competing together in a “waltz” position.  Bombing into their diagonal step sequence they relentlessly force themselves onto “clean” edges for their one foot combination of brackets, rockers, counters and ending with the obligatory twizzle.  Their bodies are thrashing from side to side, their legs and feet have not had an extension or toe point in close to a minute now, and their arms, according to the Chairman of the ISU Technical Committee, Alexander Lakernik, are mindlessly “swinging from side to side.” It does not help, as Lakernik says, that they are also “crawling completely out of the music.”  For the audience, this team is little different from any of the others.  All are doing similar variations of the same things, and with the same disregard of any musicality.  All that matters to these skaters is the element; all that matters is the level!  Is there any wonder why skating’s popularity, according to Neilson market research, is in a state of free-fall?
As a car commercial said years ago, “This is not your father’s Buick,” or in this case, “This is not really ice dancing.”  While it is clear that the intention of the International Judging System of element scoring was meant to render judging more objective, and thus quantifiable and honest, it has had unintended results as well.  Competitive skaters, in their understandable quest to achieve higher point values, utilize difficult positions and turns.  That which does not have a point value, what Janet Lynn refers to as “intangible skating skills that cannot be measured: stretched leg, line of body […] long controlled glide that looks like it floats,” has been severely de-valued since these moments use precious seconds better used for point-generating “difficult positions.”  Multiply this scenario by 15 skaters or teams in the event, add in the other skating disciplines and the audience is now asked to endure the same uniform, frenetic style of skating, and the same disregard for musicality throughout the entire competition.  Perhaps the audience decline is an unforeseen result of the success of the IJS itself.
Following the 2002 Olympics judging scandal, the ISU sought to remedy the public perception of institutionalized cheating in figure skating judging.  A new scoring system incorporating two judging panels was introduced.  One panel determined the quality of a performance and the other determined the difficulty or complexity of a program.  The technical panel has clear rules to award points.  It also has, as Lakernik laments, “exceptions, to the exceptions, to the exceptions, detailing that has gone too far.”  It is these exceptions and rules which cause everyone’s programs to look similar and impossible for anyone but astrophysicist viewers to understand the scoring.  To “lift the human spirit” as Janet Lynn calls good skating, is significantly less measureable than stringing together four different types of turns on one foot with one’s hands clasped behind their back and one’s lifted leg at a 90 degree angle to the ice.  Figure skating’s pendulum of change has swung far to the side of elements and endless rules, and away from the simple beauty of melding athleticism with movement and emotion.  Is the disappearing audience only the result of too many rules?  Lakernik thinks not.  Not everyone, he says, is doing their job properly.

“In reality, the technical panel awards the right level because they have clearly defined rules; […] the judges [on the other hand] are still afraid to award the highest GOE, even when it is evident.  […] For now, the judges perform their tasks less effectively than technical panels.”  Lakernik’s argument goes back to the dawn of figure skating judging; within the honor of one’s own convictions, reward what is good and mark low what is not.  When skaters show intangible skating beauty, the judges must reward such, so that coaches will believe that more than just elements and difficult positions will count for points.  
  As a former competitor and current coach, I endorse the aim of improving the objectivity of figure skating judging.  Who could ever say they were against such a goal?  The IJS also provides a practical and very helpful learning-tool “scoring sheet” for skaters and coaches alike.  Therefore, utilize what is universally acknowledged to be the best from both scoring systems, the 6.0 and IJS, and combine them.  Call it IJS: 2.0.  Just eliminating half the number of required step sequences in a program would free up 30 or more seconds for the actual skating skills that Lynn and others regret as missing.  Reduce the number of technical details and exceptions for the benefit of everyone – skaters, coaches and viewers, and train judges to give scores based on the reality of a performance and not the skater’s reputation.  It is unrealistic that all five judging component scores are similar, yet this is often the case.  Much can be done to simplify and improve the IJS.  The viewing audience will return to skating when less complex and more accurate judging enables the performances to become less frantic to skate and more enjoyable to watch.  The entire system need not be thrown out in order to bring back what is being missed. 

What about our previously mentioned dance team?  All disciplines in skating would benefit from greater simplicity in the rules.  The logic of beautiful, smooth skating is universal.  It must, once again, be allowed to count in the overall score.  IJS: 2.0 would be a bridge to return to the best of skating from the past, while keeping the improvements to learning, and more honest judging, from the present.  It is vital for skating’s future that a large viewing audience is once again attracted to the sport.  It would be a win for the entire skating industry.                            

Kravette is a former national dance champion, 1994 Olympic-team alternate, national coach, and a National Technical Specialist in ice dance. He holds an MA from Harvard and teaches History at the college level. Kravette served as an NBC Olympic analyst in 2010, and he is currently writing a nonfiction book about figure skating called, The Red Edge.