luni, martie 18, 2013

What about the audience, Mr. Cinquanta?

Picture this: skaters performing their programs – beautiful, intricate programs – in an empty arena. No one’s cheering, no one’s clapping. No one’s there. Seems like an impossible scenario? Trust me, it isn’t. The public doesn’t understand the scoring system; and, sooner or later, full of questions and frustrations, might leave the ice rinks for good. As many examples have shown, the scores seems to be going in a different direction than the choice of the audience – and this could very well be the end of figure skating as we know it. Simply put, the audience doesn’t connect anymore with the ubiquitous line: „Ladies and gentlemen, these are your medalists”. Frankly, in many cases, they’re not. The scoring system is faulty – and something needs to be done in order to address that.

by Florentina Ţone, journalist and blogger

Where we stand now: along with hockey competition and opening/closing ceremonies, figure skating events are the most expensive when it comes to the Olympics. Tickets cost an arm and a leg – somewhere between 495 and 627 euro for men’s free program next year in Sochi (depends on who’s selling: Sochi Organizing Committee or a specific Authorized Ticket Reseller). But, really, will the public continue to spend huge amounts of money on the tickets, getting in return bitter and incomprehensible scoring experiences? The lesson to learn is that: ladies and gentlemen, figure skating officials, don’t take the audience for granted; you might be wrong.

The scores don’t seem to represent what we’ve just seen on the ice
Let’s begin with a sure thing: with the new scoring system (adopted by ISU in 2004, in response to the 2002 Olympic Winter Games figure skating scandal, involving the pairs’ event), figure skating became a very complicated sport. Even long-time watchers are having difficulties in understanding the scores received by a specific skater. In theory, the algorithm is known: we have the technical marks, on one hand, and the program components, on the other hand. Each technical element receives a number of points; and the components are, also, divided in categories: skating skills, transitions, performance/execution, choreography, interpretation. We know the rules; but when it comes to summing them up, the scores don’t seem to represent what we’ve just seen on the ice. In many cases, there’s a huge gap between the judges and the public when comes to the final result. And when this happens, there are many surprised and inquiring faces in the arena; and it might also be a lot of hissing. Is this the right direction in figure skating?

Patrick Chan at the Worlds 2012: a controversial win
Case study: World Figure Skating Championships in Nice, last year. In the men’s event, the audience felt that the Japanese skater Daisuke Takahashi was the winner of the evening. In the free skate, Mr. Takahashi pulled out a fantastic program, both technically and artistically; a program beautifully choreographed by Pasquale Camerlengo on „Blues for Klook”, suiting Daisuke like a glove. It poured with flowers on the Japanese; the audience was happy and enthusiastic, and so was Mr. Takahashi. 

Then the Canadian Patrick Chan took the ice – Mr. Chan, considered (for some years now) the wonder-boy of figure skating, given the rich content of his programs and his team’s ability to build for him programs which take 100% advantage of the new judging system. But, surprisingly, Mr. Chan was less convincing; he pulled out a very difficult program, but seemed to be in a rush, managing to fall in the middle of his exercise, while attempting a double Axel. At the end, he didn’t seem to be the winner. The audience – an international audience, to be clear – saw Patrick Chan as a silver candidate. But, given his scores, Mr. Chan was given the gold. And the arena started to hiss; and people continued to do that even during the medals’ ceremony, when the judges’ representative came to congratulate the medalists. Chan stated later he hadn’t heard the hissing, he hadn’t felt the disappointment of the public.

It is as if figure skating became a closed affair, between the skaters and the judges
Just a few days ago, in London (Canada), Patrick won his third World title after another not-so-convincing performance. Favorite of the home crowd, Patrick only needed to do his exercise in order to win the event; he was first and far ahead the other skaters after the short program. Instead, the Canadian fell on his Triple Axel and Triple Lutz, had a hand down on his Triple Salchow in combination and doubled another Lutz. „I was tired”, said Patrick to his coach, while waiting for the scores. And when these came – and Mr. Chan took the lead over the Spanish Javier Fernandez – it was another victory of the scoring system over the figure skating’ admirers and long-time watchers. 

As one of my friends has put it (a huge figure skating fan), it is as if this particular judging system is anti-audience. It really doesn’t reflect people’s taste and choices. So, here’s the question: when did the public lose his powers when it came to figure skating? After all, those marks given for presentation – in the old 6.0 system – seemed to have very well reflected the general impression of the watchers. The answer can’t be but this one: the gap between judges and the public started (and continued to grow) with this new ISU judging system.
Introduced in order to eliminate the potential subjectivity of the judges – they have been, during the years, under intense scrutiny, accused in some cases of making deals, in order to favor one or the other – this new scoring system managed to make the audience completely disappear. It is as if figure skating became a closed affair, between the skaters and the judges; nothing less, nothing more. Now it’s not about the final impression of the program, about the best performance of the night in terms of jumps, art, emotion; it’s about adding 3.21 points from there, another 5.59 from there, 4.73 from there, 7.38 from there... Minus 2 points – and here’s your champion, ladies and gentlemen. Is this the right thing to do? We got rid of the old system – because, they say, it was subjective and vulnerable to abuse – and we have a new one, devoid of emotion; devoid of the audience’ voice.
And here’s another annoying detail. Whenever someone asks: “What is it about those scores? I don’t get them”, there’s always an answer like: “You should study the scoring system before asking your question; you clearly don’t understand it (it – the system)”. This is obviously true: bud when did a sport become mathematics? What about the joy of watching figure skating and sharing the emotion? Where did all these things go?

The system creates the impression that certain skaters are unbeatable
And here’s another problem of this judging system: it creates statues, deities, aliens. It creates the impression that certain skaters, certain couples are unbeatable. Over the season, their scores get higher and higher, becoming Himalaya’s of the figure skating. This is, of course, the case of the same Patrick Chan. But this also applies to the American ice-dance couple Meryl Davis and Charlie White: the gap between them and the Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir seemed impossible to close during this entire season, in spite of the Canadians’ efforts. Take, for example, the ice dance final at the Worlds in London: the audience – a Canadian audience this time – felt that Virtue and Moir did everything in order to keep their World title; according to the scores, they didn’t.
On the other hand, according to the same system, both couples – the Americans and the Canadians – seem to be at a distance of ages from the other competitors. In the eyes of the audience and former skaters, the French Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat had a wonderful free program last season, on an Egyptian theme. But, in spite of their strong skate over the season, they remained well behind the couples from Canada and USA. As they remained behind the other Canadians, Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, considered by some to have presented in Nice, last year, the highlight of the free dance’ event – an emotional program on „Je suis malade”.

This Deities-Rule applies also to the Russian Tatiana Volosozhar&Maxim Trankov, skating in the pairs’ event. Second in the World Championships last year, Tatiana and Maxim became better and better this season; and, during the Grand-Prix events, the distance between them and the others, when it came to scores, was tremendous. And the scores were huge in spite of the errors which have really torn their programs apart: at the Grand-Prix Final in Sochi, Maxim fell while preparing to throw Tatiana in the air, for their triple Salchow, and she almost fell too – they needed 17 seconds to get back in the program, as Jackie Wong (Figure Skating Examiner) pointed out. That long and ugly break affected their performance – but you wouldn’t see that in their scores: they’ve won the final over their teammates Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov.

Why should we watch figure skating if (the impression is) the dices are already thrown?
If you ask me, this is bad for the audience. But it’s definitely bad for the skaters; especially for the younger ones. Here’s an example from the Worlds in London (Canada): after an amazing performance coming from Denis Ten, in the men’s final, the boy from Kazakhstan burst with enthusiasm in front of his coach Frank Carroll, when seeing the scores: „Wow! I almost beat Patrick!” If you ask me, he should have been happy for (almost) taking the gold, not for (almost) beating the Canadian... But Patrick, as previously stated, is regarded as a God in figure skating, given the scores he receives. And every other skater wants to defeat Patrick, makes a purpose out of defeating Patrick.  (The Spanish Javier Fernandez managed to claim the gold at Skate Canada, defeating Patrick Chan, mostly because his coach had him jump three quadruples in his free program – a strategy to win over Chan). You may say competition is good, that competition brings the best in a skater, but this is not OK; this is not at all OK. With this kind of attitude as regards him, all that Patrick has to do at the Olympics next year is to show up. The gold will come easily. He could fall twice and still win. But what does this mean for the state of mind of everyone else involved in figure skating? For everyone else watching figure skating? Why should we watch it – or, even better, why should we attend the Olympics, at the expense of our pockets – if the dices are already thrown?

I miss simplicity in figure skating
When I was a child, scoring figure skating was easy. I had a parallel system, invented by me and used in order to get feedback from everyone in the family who was watching the programs. I had a point (●) for „bad” or „so, so”, a circle for „good” (o) and a circle crossed by a line for „very good” (ø). After a skater had finished his/her performance, I would ask mom and dad to state their vote; I was doing the same. My figure skating’ notebooks – and a have a lot of them; I’ve been watching figure skating since I was 7 – are full of these graphic signs. In most of the times, we would pick the right guy/girl/couple. In other words, there was a correspondence between our scores and the official ones. These were simple, good times. Could we, please, get back to that? I miss simplicity in figure skating. 

Note from the author: I've been writing about figure skating for years now (in Romanian); but I've recently decided to switch to English, in order to make my figure skating stories/comments accessible. I've noticed that my blog gets visitors from USA, Canada, Japan, Croatia, Belgium, Germany, Russia, Italy, Spain... and since Romanian language is not that very well known, I've decided to make that change. Figure-skating stories will be written in English; and, at a certain point in the future, there will be a specialized website to host them. Until then, we'll meet here. Thank you for visiting/reading/writing comments/enjoying the pictures I take... (I apologise for the potential mistakes when writing in English - which is not, of course, my native language; I'll try to avoid them).

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