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Absolute judging: a utopian delusion
by Sonia Bianchetti
September 2010

Last week I was invited to attend the Lombardia Trophy, an international interclub competition organized by the Sesto Ice Skate club in Milan.

It was a very successful event with around two hundred entries from all over Italy plus Austria, the Czech Republic, Great Britain and Russia. All categories were represented, from young children 8 or 9 years old to Novice, Junior and Senior singles and pairs.

I was especially interested in the lower categories since I had not seen them for quite a long time. I usually enjoy watching kids and youngsters skating. I love to see how seriously they interpret their role on the ice. I love to share their emotions when they leave the ice and fall into the arms of their coach either with a big smile or some tears in their eyes.

Skating is a wonderful sport not only as a competitive sport at the highest levels but also from the point of view of education. It covers the whole spectrum: complete muscle control, self-awareness, empathy for the self and others, grace, strength and determination. Children learn to win and lose, they learn to face ups and downs, and this is a great lesson for their lives.

Young children are the future of our sport and they should be raised thoughtfully, as gardeners tend beautiful flowers. They should be encouraged to continue to skate until they enjoy it, until they enjoy competition regardless of their talent or their chances of becoming champions.

While watching the skating and the marking at the Lombardia Trophy, though, I could not refrain from making some considerations on the inadequacy of the present rules especially for lower-level events, both for the skaters and the judges.

I was really suffering seeing most of these youngsters falling down in the absurd attempt to execute difficult double jumps and double-double jump combinations far beyond their capabilities, or executing complicated spins with no speed but a lot of travelling.

Not to speak of the quality of skating! With very few exceptions, the quality really suffered because basic skating, gliding on the ice, was simply neglected. The skaters just cannot skate. And this is due to the fact that the national and international regulations impose too many difficult jumps and jump combinations, overly difficult and complicated spins, in both short and free programs. And this is wrong. The main purpose of these events should be to create a solid technical basis that will allow the young skaters to evolve and slowly reach higher levels. Exactly as it happens in primary and secondary school, where the children, before being asked to write a poem, are taught to write and read, to learn grammar and syntax. Without these bases, nobody can expect any of these children, as gifted as they may be, to one day write The Divine Comedy. The same applies to our sport.

It would seem logical that the skaters be taught first to execute in the best possible way all the basic elements: solo jumps with a proper takeoff and good landing on long backward edges, and upright, sit and camel spins, without changing foot or positions, or grabbing the free leg after half a turn in a painful attempt to get some more points. This would push quality over poorly executed features.

With the present system, though, the skaters executing tiny jumps, followed by minuscule toe-loops that look more like spins than jumps, or doing slow, travelling spins unattractively, win the event. But what is their future? Without solid technical bases, they will never improve. How can anyone expect skaters to execute a good double or triple Axel, if they never learnt to take off from a clean long forward edge in a waltz jump?

Why not forget the levels and the features at Novice, Juvenile or lower level events, nationally and internationally, and reward the skaters who glide on the ice instead of skating like chickens, who use their arms in a moderate and graceful way instead of throwing them up and down as if catching mosquitoes?

Is it in the interest of the sport to require Novice skaters to execute in the Short Program: one jump combination consisting of two double jumps or one double and one triple, a very complicated spin combination with one change of foot and at least one change of position with a minimum of five revolutions on each foot, and two step sequences with the spiral sequence to be according to the remarks in the ISU Technical Rules for Single and Pair Skating 2006, the same as for the World Championships?

The same remarks apply to free skating, where the ladies are required to execute six jumps and the men seven jumps, with up to three jump combinations or sequences with a jump combination up to three jumps (ISU Communication 1397 Guidelines for Novice Competitions, July 12, 2006).

Shouldn't the ISU perhaps reconsider the content of Novice short and free programs and send out a new Communication with less difficult elements?

Besides, considering that the IJS imposes a certain number of jumps, spins and step sequences and not simply the duration of the programs as it was with the old 6.0 system, it would seem logical that the national federations adopt the same kind of rules even for skaters below the Junior level so that when they happen to compete internationally they are not obliged to modify their programs to comply with the rules imposed by the organizers or the ISU, as is the case at present.

Another problem with scoring different technical requirements for Novice events is that the Program Component factors have to be balanced with the technical requirements. If the technical requirements are significantly different from one Novice competition to the next, then not only do the skaters have to change their choreography, but the scoring has to use different PC factors, which causes a lot of problems and discrepancies.

And now some thoughts on judging. I really felt very sympathetic with the panels of judges and the technical panels. How can they possibly judge, on an absolute scale, five program components in events at this level?

Absolute marking, in general—but even more so in a sport like figure skating—is considered inappropriate. It is practically impossible to quantify objectively the quality of any element of a skater's performance. This is even more true and evident in competitions for Novice or lower categories.

Under the 6.0 system, the judges evaluated the performances of the skaters by comparing one with another, using the so-called "relative marking". This skater is better; the marks must go up. This is worse; they must go down. The only way to be consistent through the whole event is to be thinking through the whole event whether the marks given now make sense compared to the marks given before—and that is a comparison.

The judges are now asked to evaluate performances on an absolute point scale without comparison to any other performance, in the same way you time a runner or measure a high jump. They are required to totally ignore and forget the marks awarded to a previous competitor and to judge in the moment. If a person is asked to judge in the moment, and no guidance is included to insure consistency of judgment, obviously the judging will suffer.

The former ordinal method of scoring was based on the recognition that humans can make relative judgements with greater precision than absolute judgements. It is questionable if this point base approach to scoring can ever work reliably!

As a result, the skaters are, in effect, competing against themselves or their "personal best" rather than against the other skaters in a given competition, but it is the latter that creates drama for the spectators. Take away that element with purportedly absolute judging and you take away much of the drama of the competition.

And the "personal best" is a real farce in a sport as subjective as figure skating, in which no two people will ever agree about anything absolutely.

Nevertheless, according to the ISU rules, even at the Novice level, the judges must evaluate in each performance five Program Components, and for each of them they must consider five to nine criteria.

Considering that at the World Championships it is practically impossible to assign a correct mark to each of the five program components, how can anyone with his feet on the earth expect the judges to evaluate these elements in programs where they actually do not even exist?

It is difficult enough at the Junior level, but in Novice or lower categories, isn't it absurd, to say the least, to look for "intricate footwork" in Transitions/Linking Footwork? Or in Performance/Execution for the involvement of the skater emotionally and intellectually as they translate the intent of the music and choreography with "variety and contrast" or "projection"? And what can I even say about the "Purpose, the Utilization of personal and public space", or "Phrasing and form" in Choreography/Composition? Or, to reach the height of absurdity, the "use of finesse to reflect the nuances of the music" in Interpretation of the Music? Is this a joke? What kind of credibility can judging have these days?

This concept of absolute judging assumes not only that the scores given by any judge in the world are perfectly consistent mathematically to those given by another, but also that judges have no prejudice or favouritism, no artistic preferences. In other words, absolute judging takes for granted that judges are not human beings.

Well, it is enough to take a look at Program Components marks awarded to the skaters in different events to establish beyond any reasonable doubt that absolute judging exists only in utopia!

At the 2010 European Championships, in the Ladies' event, except for the very top competitors who were awarded marks around 7.50, the marks of the skaters among the best ten ranged between 6.0 and 7.0.

At the first Junior Grand Prix held in Courchevel at the end of August, the PC marks in the Ladies event were around 6.0. Is this conceivable on an absolute scale? It is as if these numbers have meaning out of the context of the competition where they were awarded. If correctly judged, how could the skaters in a Novice event receive from 3.0 to 3.50?

Since the marks for the components range from 0 to 10, should the judges truly award their marks on an absolute scale, all these kids should only get big zeroes! The message perceived by the skaters and their parents would be: forget figure skating!

Luckily, the judges are humans, not machines. So some judges use a midpoint and range approach for giving PC marks, instead of a true absolute assessment. They have more good sense than the ISU; they use their brain and their heart. But this makes the judging system look foolish. If you asked ten judges what decision process they use to mark any PC, you would get ten different answers!

Shouldn't the ISU take into consideration all these problems and reduce, at least for Novice, the number of Program Components to a maximum of two, one for skating skills and the second for choreography and interpretation of the music, giving specific guidance to the judges for what range of marks to give and what criteria to look for in different skills?

Just a few thoughts.

Comments from coaches and judges will be more than welcome.