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Figure skating scoring system set up to reward difficulty

Adam Rippon’s near-perfect skate helped the US win the bronze medal in the team event. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)
Adam Rippon’s near-perfect skate helped the US win the bronze medal in the team event. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)ROBERTO SCHMIDT

How can a skater who falls beat a skater who performs nearly perfectly?

This was the question on Olympic viewers’ minds Sunday night while watching the figure skating team event. American Adam Rippon’s near-perfect skate earned fewer points than Mikhail Kolyada, an Olympic Athlete from Russia, who had a fall and doubled an intended quad.

Figure skating’s international judging system is structured to reward moves based on their difficulty. In some cases, it is worth more points to fall on a difficult jump than to land an easier one.

Kolyada’s quadruple lutz (four rotations) has a base value of 13.60 points. It’s also the most difficult jump any men’s skater will attempt at these Olympics, which is why it has high point potential. From that 13.60 base value, Kolyada can gain additional points by completing it well, or lose points for a fall or shaky landing. That’s known as grade of execution (GOE) in the skating world.

ISU figure skating official Wendy Enzmann explains the finer points of judging a figure skating competition. (Video by Scott LaPierre)
ISU figure skating official Wendy Enzmann explains the finer points of judging a figure skating competition. (Video by Scott LaPierre)

How does GOE work?


The GOE ranges from plus-3 to minus-3, but it isn’t as simple as adding or subtracting 3 points from the base value. Each of the nine judges gives a GOE, the high and low scores are dropped to prevent bias, and then the average of the remaining scores determines one GOE mark for the element.

So, falls aren’t failures?

Even though Kolyada’s fall looked like a big mistake, it was a failure that still earned him 9.83 points.

This applies any time a skater falls — they earn points for the attempt — but a fall on a jump with a huge base value such as a quadruple lutz still puts plenty of points on the board.

In comparison, Rippon’s triple lutz has a base value of 6 points — 7.6 fewer than the quad. Falling on a triple lutz could result in a third of the points that Kolyada earned on a fall on a quad lutz.


In Rippon’s case during the team event, he didn’t complete the full three rotations of the jump, finishing the last part on the ice. This resulted in an underrotation downgrade, which lowers the base value even further, to 4.62 points. That, combined with some negative GOEs, dropped his point total for that jump to 4.02 points. Kolyada had a 5-plus-point advantage on Rippon, even with the fall.

Seven more base points for one more rotation in the air seems like a large spread. Is that fair?

The International Skating Union has plans to implement changes to the scoring system next season that will bring down the value of quadruple jumps, because of concern for injury and a widening gap between the technical and artistic sides of the sport. The proposed changes have gotten mixed reviews among those in the skating community, who still want to see skaters rewarded for the risk and skill it takes to perform difficult quadruple jumps.

How is the artistic side of skating judged?

The judges grade five categories on a scale from 1-10, with 10 being a perfect score:

1. Skating skills (edges, speed, power, etc.)

2. Transitions (connecting moves between the required elements in a program)

3. Performance

4. Composition (how the program is arranged)

5. Interpretation (conveying the story and mood of the music)

These are called the program component scores, or PCS. The highest possible point total for PCS is 50 points — much lower than the technical scores skaters rack up. Because of this disparity, the PCS total is multiplied by a factor that gives it equal weight with the technical score.


Could Rippon have beaten Kolyada, even with an easier technical program?

It’s possible, if Rippon’s PCS had been enough to make up the 2.15-point difference in their technical marks. He earned 86.78 points, which was slightly more than Kolyada’s 86.22, but not enough to beat him.

The argument could be made that Rippon deserved even higher PCS marks than Kolyada, whose mistakes impacted the delivery and interpretation of his medley of Elvis Presley songs. NBC commentator Johnny Weir disagreed with the judges’ program component scores when it came to Kolyada and Rippon’s performances, and said Rippon should have come out ahead on the artistic side.

But once the marks are in, they can’t be changed, and Rippon finished third behind Kolyada. It was enough to help Team USA secure the bronze medal for the team event.

Where can I learn more about figure skating scoring and jump base values?

US Figure Skating put together a guide to the scoring system.

Maura Sullivan Hill is a freelance writer, as well as a figure skating coach.