No sport does scandal quite like figure skating.
At the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, a judging scandal rocked the pairs competition. The immediate result: two gold medal winners — the wronged Canadians and the Russian duo that originally claimed victory. The long-term legacy: a revamped scoring system that replaced the old 6.0 scale with a complicated code of points for each element.
The International Skating Union, the sport’s world governing body, wanted a less corruptible, more objective judging system. That translated into a new, more formulaic system built upon base values, grades of execution, levels of difficulty, and trimmed means.
To the untrained eye, figure skating scoresheets can look like a jumble of numbers, letters, and symbols. So Wendy Enzmann, an ISU official from Stow, recently offered a primer on the system and insight into a judge’s perspective. The competitive-skater-turned-kindergarten-teacher-turned-official brings nearly 30 years experience to her rinkside responsibilities.
Enzmann is qualified to judge at the Olympics and World Championships. But during this week’s Figure Skating World Championships at TD Garden, she will serve as a US team leader, assisting skaters with a variety of needs and acting as a liaison between them and event officials. After all, she understands the pressure that both skaters and officials can feel at Worlds.
“As an official, we’re always trying to mark fairly and correctly because we know how hard the athletes work,” said Enzmann, who travels to competitions around the world and logs roughly 150,000 frequent flier miles each year. “We know how much it means for them to be marked fairly and correctly.
“Besides, we are also evaluated as judges by the ISU. They look at everything that we’re judging. They make sure that we’re following the rules and the criteria.”
Figure skating marks fall into two main categories — the technical score and the program components score. The technical score awards or deducts points for jumps, spins, and step sequences. The components score covers the more artistic aspects of the routine, including the transitions between elements, the way skaters emotionally translate the music, and the choreography.
The combination of the technical and program components score is the total score.
Simple, right? Not exactly. Dive deeper into how judges calculate the technical score and program components score, and numbers flood the system.
Let’s start with how judges determine technical scores. Each jump has a base value that corresponds to the degree of difficulty. For singles and pairs skaters, a double salchow has a base value of 1.3, while a quad salchow has a base value of 10.5. You get the idea. The highest base value for any element is the 15.0 awarded the quad axel.
Non-jump elements such as spins, step sequences, and lifts have four levels that translate into different base values. Again, the base value reflects the degree of difficulty. The edges used and number of rotations determine the difficulty and, as a result, the level and the base value. During each competition, a technical panel determines the correct level for each element and electronically transmits that information to the judges.
As soon as judges know the base value, they give each element a grade of execution that ranges from -3 to +3 based on specific criteria. The GOE is either added or subtracted from the base value, and that produces each element score. All element scores are added together, including any bonus for jumps performed during the second half of a program, and become the total technical score.
Enzmann noted that a skater could have a beautiful triple lutz worthy of a +2, then fall and have the jump end up a -1. On other elements such as spins, minor errors — poor body position, insufficient or slow revolutions — can add up and result in a -2 or -3 GOE.
“We always try to look for positives first,” said Enzmann. “But we have to evaluate the quality of what we see. We’ll put down the positives and the negatives.
“It’s all about what the skaters can execute and do well, and that’s how they’re marked.”
With the program components score, skaters are graded on a scale from 0 to 10 for the five components deemed to represent overall presentation: skating skills, choreography, performance (how skaters connect to the music and choreography), personal interpretation of the music, and movement (think footwork and how skaters enter and exit jumps, spins and other elements).
For Enzmann, the program components are harder to judge than the technical aspects “because even though we have criteria, it’s more open-ended.
“But to sit down and do the GOEs for the technical elements and give them a mark is cut and dry. They either did it or they didn’t do it. The question is: Did they do it well?”
Another tough part of judging high-profile international competitions is putting aside each skater’s reputation and track record. While Enzmann might know the potential of a particular skater, she that can’t factor into her assessment.
Additionally, judges cannot allow what they see from a particular competitor during the short program, good or bad, influence their assessment of the same competitor’s free skate.
“You can only judge the performance for that day at that moment,” said Enzmann. “As judges, we have to train ourselves to be able to focus solely on that performance and dismiss everything else about that skater.”
And that includes each skater’s music choice.
“Just because I don’t like the music doesn’t mean I can’t give it good marks,” said Enzmann. “It’s the skaters’ choice. And if they choose to do something creative and original and interesting with it, then I need to give that good marks.
“If they pick music I absolutely love and it’s very passionate for me, but they do nothing with it, then I need to make sure I’m not rewarding it because I like the music.
“It’s really important for the athlete to pick music that they can relate to and then can relate to the audience and the officials.”
Enzmann emphasized that judges need to put aside music choice, costumes, and any other potential outside influences and “be able to say, ‘This mark was awarded because they hit all of these criteria.’”
For judges such as Enzmann, the biggest reward is being viewed as by-the-book and unbiased.