Figure skating from the judges’ perspective

judges-gettyimages-468722049-1024_384180 asked judges and people in-the-know in the figure skating world to explain what to look for, how judges respond to scandal, and the strangest violation they’ve ever seen. These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Tanith White is the 2006 Olympic silver medalist in ice dance with her partner Ben Agosto. She also placed fourth with Agosto at the 2010 Vancouver Games. White is now a figure skating analyst with NBC, and is covering her third Olympics in PyeongChang.

Ryan Bradley is the 2011 U.S. national champion. He is now a coach and a figure skating analyst with NBC Sports.  

Ted Barton started as a figure skater in his youth and competed at the world championships, eventually coaching 12 Canadian national team members. In the ’90s, he helped create and train judges on the television replay system to review skating elements. Then, Barton got in on the ground floor of developing the International Judging System for the International Skating Union (ISU) back in 2002. He is a commentator for the ISU on the Junior Grand Prix series, and is Skate Canada British Columbia/ Yukon’s executive director, managing 20,000 skaters across 120 clubs.

Does a reputation or characterization follow a skater?

Ted Barton: It used to be, completely. Absolutely used to be. But that went out the window, and I think a lot of people criticized that, saying, “Hey, we don’t get the 10-time world champions anymore.” Because it used to be that it was Michelle Kwan, I’m not saying anything bad about Michelle. She was a phenomenal skater, world champion, fierce skater, etc., etc. You wouldn’t get the repeats. Given a real close call, they might go with a champion in the past. That doesn’t happen anymore because it’s in the control of the athletes. If you’ve lost, you’ll find the points that you lost. You’ll see where you lost that points because they have to come out clearly on your report card.

Ryan Bradley: One big thing about the under rotations is reputation. If a skater gets unders frequently, then the next competition, even if it looks perfect, the specialist will just instinctively take another look. If you looked at every single jump from every single skater, you’d be staggered with the number of unders that would show up on the protocol if they did slow motion on every landing. If your reputation gets you on the screen, the screen never helps.

Tanith White: For me, if there’s a jumper that I know who gets unders a lot, and they’ve changed their entire jump set up from what they usually do, I’ll give them a second consideration. If someone’s been going into their flip the same way, and they’re always under on their flip, and then they change their entrance, maybe it’s better. Sometimes when they change their entrance I reconsider. In the same way, in an ice dance program, if you change the layout, I might give it a second look and say, ‘okay, well let me look at this a different way.’

Do judges tire of the same transitions, same entries? Does it sometimes feels like nothing is new or fresh?

Ted Barton: I would ask the same thing about music or art. There are still incredible aspects of creativity, whether it’s by music, or by body movement, or by skating, or by ballet. But there’s a reduced number of innovations. Because the body has pretty much done everything. Maybe in a different pattern, maybe to a different piece of music, maybe with a different emotion.

What’s your opinion on the addition of vocals/lyrics in skating?

Ted Barton: It’s massive. It’s huge. Even with a bad skater, you could have a good song. You know? You’re watching a bad skater, ‘God, that was a bad skater, but I enjoyed that music!’ Or you have a good skater with a bad song. Or you have a song that has an emotional story to it, but the skater’s unable to connect that story because they’re just going up and down the ice pounding out their jumps, so they’re not even connected to the words. Or you get a skater that’s incredibly – [Yevgenia] Medvedeva’s good at this – incredibly strong on the music and does the technical elements. They’ve moved the human judge emotionally and they’ve forced that person to input based on the rules of the sport, the data that goes accordingly to the athleticism. But they’ve also touched them emotionally. That’s an incredible thing.

There’s no other sport – maybe gymnastics to some degree… Football players don’t have to run down the field looking good. They don’t have to smile. They’re not doing music. They’re not turning steps. Just get to the frickin’ end zone! But here, our athletes have to do things between the difficult elements. And it has to be to music. And it has to be connected with a character. And it has to, and it has to, and the list goes on. That’s what makes the sport so difficult. But for a viewer, it just looks nice, so it doesn’t look difficult.

When it first came out, I was an advocate for that, totally. Because I know for the sport to progress from an entertainment perspective, it needed to add a new dimension. I’m not saying the skaters do it well yet. We’re getting some good [skaters] now, but it was terrible in the beginning. Put a song on and figure that they’re connected to it? Not even. Now they’re starting to understand. They’re listening more. What is the meaning of this song? So I have to make sure that in my own movement, in my own emotion – not just the jumps and spins – that the meaning and the emotion of the song comes through my movement. That’s starting to happen, which makes the performances absolutely spectacular. It doesn’t happen with everybody, that’s for sure; but the ones it does, whoa, that’s pretty amazing.

The judges are still human. There’s an area of flexibility, if you will, for the judges’ score in the program components. It’s supposed to be, that’s fine, to a certain degree. If you are hitting all the aspects of program components and you’ve touched the heart and mind of that judge – which is what you’re supposed to do in this sport – then it’s perhaps going to affect their scores.

Tanith White: People choose to skate to music with lyrics and then take the extra step to really conscientiously interpret that piece of music and even in some cases the lyrics, if they’re well known. If it’s a love song, you can’t avoid the fact that you need to have a more romantic expression. If it’s playful and funny, you should acknowledge that. I think what really trips people up is they think, ‘here’s a great song. I’m gonna skate to that, and hope the song carries you.’ That’s when it falls flat. You gotta buy into it and really go for it. I do think that the lyrics are a wonderful addition because it provides an opportunity for those few who can capitalize on that flexibility in terms of their artistic expression. I mean, it works when it’s done well.

Of course, I feel like this is probably more exclusive to ice dance, where these details are so harped on. We love falling into this little pocket of, ‘where are the Olympic Games? Where are the world championships? Are they in France? Do I wanna skate to La Vie en Rose maybe?’ Because with the audience behind you, it creates this aura around your performance.

As a skater, it is so startling when you have a [culturally successful] program like that and then you go to Russia. It’s crickets! Like “Cotton Eye Joe” was mine, and you know, you take it to Sweden. Like, ‘well, it’s not exactly an international classic, is it?’ There’s a reason why the war horses are still used in terms of music.

How do you feel about the judging system that’s in place now?

Ted Barton: [When developing the system,] I had believed so passionately in what we were doing, and no one was gonna tell me this wasn’t the right thing. But what happened was, given the time, the [International Olympic Committee] was really saying, “If you don’t change this, you guys are really in trouble here.” We had time to do this. When we talked about what we were doing, why we were doing it, and the benefits to the skater, it was better for the sport, even though there may be confusion in the beginning, it was the right thing to do.

Is there a way to improve the judging system? What do you think of the new scoring/ judging proposals?

Ted Barton: There are some proposed changes that some people are mad about, or uncertain about, or don’t believe that they know what they’re doing – the normal reactions. What I’m saying is, give people a chance. There isn’t anyone in the ISU that wants to screw up the sport. There isn’t anybody trying to sabotage the sport. There’s just people that are trying to take the system that was created over 15 years ago, and refine it based on what the athletes have done to it. The athletes have pushed the sport because the rules allowed it now. They pushed the sport to a level that no one thought it could get at. Now, they may have to fine-tune the sport to meet the capabilities of the athletes, I don’t know. My personal message to anybody is, we had a catastrophic situation in 2002, we resolved it through much frustration and anger and emotion by people. But I don’t think there’s anyone that would say that it’s hurt the development of skating. It’s helped the development of skating. Could say it hurt television numbers – that’s a different issue. It didn’t hurt the sport. It helped the sport. It didn’t hurt the athletes. It gave them more control. It was not less honest; it was more honest. Not saying perfectly, but it was more honest. No one could argue those facts. So that’s good. To now allow the organization and trust that they’re gonna try – they may not get it right – but they’re gonna try to make it better. I don’t know that that’s a wrong thing to do.

Are judges instructed on how to react in a scandal?

Ted Barton: In the beginning there was somewhat of a protocol, because everyone was a little shaky on [how] the system [would] work. I would say, recommendations that everybody just do their job and just let things be handled by the people. Nobody’s telling them what to [do]. They’re not to go on social media and discuss the event, obviously. They wouldn’t do that. They need to go do their jobs, and that’s it.

What’s the strangest violation you’ve ever seen a deduction for?

Ted Barton: I’ve never seen a deduction outside the rules. When it comes to a costume deduction, that’s a good example: too much nudity. That’s a bit of a judgement call. You’ve got people, some lady who’s got a turtleneck and never shown her ankles for God’s sakes, somebody comes out there with a pretty revealing dress, [who] might say, for me, that’s too much. The other one’s going, eh, that’s pretty cool. There’s judgement in there. I wouldn’t say I’ve seen anything strange. Some people are more strict than others in that application of the rule.

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