Olympic figure skating used to be relatively easy to watch — at least when it came to understanding the scores. Figure skaters were judged on a 1 to 10 scale, with 10 representing perfection. Their score was determined by averaging the judges’ marks for their technical prowess and their presentation. Technically, every skater started at 10.0 and judges deducted for mistakes and other errors in execution from there.
The problem, as the Great Olympic Figure Skating Judging Scandal of 2002 revealed, was that this measure was subject to, well, a lot of subjectivity. (In the pairs event at the Salt Lake City Games, judges were exchanging votes and manipulating scores to rig the results.)
As a result, some changes were made in 2006 to how Olympic figure skating is scored, and those rules are in place for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. Here’s what to watch for when tuning in to this year’s figure skating events, including how figure skates will be scored.
What are the 2018 figure skating events?
The first skating competition is the team event, in which 10 countries compete in ladies, men, pairs and ice dance. Canada and Russia are likely to battle for gold, and the U.S. has a chance to make the podium as well. Next are the pairs; the German team of Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Masso, Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China, and Megan Duhamell and Eric Radford of Canada, all world medalists, will be skating for medals.
Then the men take the ice, where American Nathan Chen is likely to face off against Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, the reigning Olympic champion, for the title. In ice dance, another rivalry between France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron and Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir will make the competition interesting; the U.S. also has three teams, Madison Chock and Evan Bates, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, and Maia and Alex Shibutani, who could earn a medal. Finally it’s the women’s turn; training teammates from Russia Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova will skate for gold, but don’t count out the U.S.’s Bradie Tennell, who has had a charmed season and could also earn a medal.
How does figure skating scoring work?
The International Skating Union instituted a new set of judging rules in 2006, based on a Code of Points. Under this system, every element a figure skater completes — a jump, or a spin or footwork — is assigned a point value, or base value. That’s the number you will often see in the small box on the upper left of your TV screen. The leader’s technical score will be on top (L) while the current (C) skater’s score will appear underneath.
Every skater starts out with a different number of points depending on what they have decided to include in the routine. Skaters with more technical abilities have a slight edge under this system, since they can start out ahead of their competitors and stay at the top of the leaderboard, as long as they are able to execute everything they had planned.
To make things complicated, the nine judges in figure skating can add or subtract up to three points from this base value, depending on how well a skater performed it. (This is what NBC skating commentators Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir mean when they talk about Grade of Execution, or GOE scores.) If the jump is under rotated, for example (meaning the skater doesn’t complete the full number of revolutions in the air, but finishes the last quarter or half on the ice), it could lose points. So a triple axel worth 8.5 if performed correctly could drop down to 8.0 or less if it’s not. The highest and lowest GOEs from the nine judges are dropped and the remainder are averaged and added to the base value.
There is also a Program Components score, which includes how well a skater executed all the skills, their musicality, how well put together the program was, and other less objective measures. The presentation score is judged on a scale of 1 to 10, and the scores from the nine judges are averaged.
A skater’s overall score is the combination of the technical elements and the weighted average of the program components scores.
Every time a figure skater falls, he or she loses one point.
These rules apply for all four of the disciplines — ladies, men, pairs and ice dance.
How does team figure skating scoring work?
Beginning in 2014, a new Olympic figure skating event was introduced — the team event. Ten countries are invited to participate, and can enter skaters for each of the four disciplines. Just as with the individual events, each discipline — such as pairs — has a short and long program, and after the short program, countries can choose to change up to two skaters. Countries receive points depending on where their skaters finish from first to 10th place, with first place earning 10 points, and 10th place earning one point. The countries with the five highest scores move on to compete in the long program for each discipline, and the top three finishers make the podium.
It’s not a perfect system — in any judged sport, there will always be disagreement, dissension and discord, but it’s a better way to measure how one skater’s skills stack up against another’s.
What other figure skating terms are there?
If you want to sound smart about figure skating, throw in words like axel, salchow and and lutz (and see our video about how to tell them apart). You’ll thank us.