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The Globe and Mail

Figure skating judging system still has flaws

The figure-skating judging scandal that rocked the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics gave birth to a complex scoring system that is sometimes as controversial as the one it replaced.

The old 6.0 system (with 6.0 signifying perfection), was meant to compare one skater to the other with criteria no more defined than technical merit or artistic impression.

The current system (called "code of points" or "international judging system") does the opposite. No comparisons. Judges are to strictly mark what they see in front of them, giving points for each element, whether it be a jump, spin or footwork sequence. The marks can vary according to the degree of difficulty of the move, or to how well the skaters execute the move.

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The system is complex, with every move, every element, every aspect of artistry or presentation defined. The presentation mark has five elements to it and judges mark each aspect on a scale of one to 10.

The advantages of the system? Skaters benefit from getting instant feedback on their efforts. They know what to work on for next time.

The system also appears to have improved the ice dancing event, an ethereal discipline that attracted the most nefarious deal making in the past.

Has it actually stopped the deal making? The complexity of the current system was meant to make it more difficult to rig marks. But one of its weaknesses of the code of points is the anonymity in which judges now work. They are no longer accountable publicly, as they were in Salt Lake City.

International Skating Union officials say anonymity is necessary to prevent federations from pressuring their own judges, a factor in the 2002 Winter Games incident. The move has largely silenced scandals, but not the chattering about various questionable results.

Critics say while it used to take a majority of judges to fix a panel under the old system, it now takes only a couple. And presentation marks don't always reflect what happens on the ice, leading critics to say judges simply use them to place skaters where they want to, like in the old system. In some instances, judges are afraid to score outside of a defined corridor of acceptable marks. In the old system, judges could convince referees that sometimes their low or high mark was the correct one.

Others say the rules have stifled creativity, although ice dancers such as Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada have disproved that theory.

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Still, stars of the past such as Katarina Witt, Janet Lynn, and Stéphane Lambiel, known for their artistry, complain the system compels skaters to focus on pretzel-like positions to gain points rather than using movement to express music. They say skaters are now looking much the same – how many doughnut spins and pancake spins can you stand? – and audiences and television audiences are falling.

"The system is a lot of hot air," former American champion Johnny Weir was reported as saying at the recent United States nationals. Weir finished sixth at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics despite what he calls the moment of his life in the free skate and doesn't understand why.

"They try to make it as complicated as possible so you can't see what goes on behind closed doors," Weir said. "The system is just smoke and mirrors."

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