It’s no surprise that figure skating is one of the most popular events during the Winter Olympics. It’s a beautiful sport to watch, full of exciting moments and incredible choreography. But once the actual figure skating is done, figuring out how to win figure skating can be a little confusing. The system used for judging is complicated, to say the least, and can leave viewers feeling totally out of the loop.
The International Judging System (IJS) is the basis for scoring and every year, it creates confusion and questions from viewers — even those on the inside can be left tilting their heads. Fortunately, we can cut back on the confusion by figuring figure skating out before watching the event (which, by the way, starts on February 8th).
Let’s begin with the rules for the 2018 Games. The ladies, mens, and pairs short programs are a maximum of two minutes, 50 seconds. Ladies free skate is between 3:50 and 4:10, while pairs and mens are between 4:20 and 4:40. The ice dance short dance is between 2:40 and 3 minutes, and specific music must be used. This year, it’s music with a Rhumba rhythm or Latin American dance rhythm. This is the first year that ladies, mens, and pairs are allowed to use music with lyrics (ice dance already does).
And now for scoring.
The short explanation is this: The IJS system is points-based, and skaters receive two sets of marks for each program.
One is the technical element score (TES), which is based on the difficulty and execution of the technical elements of their performance, like jumps and spins. The other is the program component score (PCS), which is based on the artistry and presentation. At the end, the TES and PCS are combined to give a total score.
Sounds simple enough, but it’s the details that get confusing. The TES is determined by two different sets of people for each program. One is the three-person technical panel, the other a nine-person judging panel.
The three-person technical panel looks at each element of a performance and verifies if jumps are fully rotated or if they landed short. When it comes to the elements of a performance, like spinning or footwork, fancier and more complicated moves earn more points. For the elements, they are judged from a one to a four, where four is the highest.
The nine-person judging panel looks at how well each element was performed (footwork, flow, etc.), rather than the element itself. They then assign a grade of execution (GOE) between -3 and +3. At the end, the highest and lowest scores get dropped, while the remaining seven scores are averaged. And it gets more complicated. NBC Olympics says,
Once those scores are in, the judging panel adds the base values with GOEs to get the technical element score. Whew.
Then you have to move onto the PCS, which is based on the judges’ thoughts of the overall performance, not individual elements. There are five program components that get marked on a scale from 0.25 to 10 (1=very poor, 5=average, 10=outstanding). These components are skating skills, transitions, performance, composition, and interpretation). The scores are then averaged to form the score out of 10 for each component. That total is multiplied by a factor that varies. The factored results are then rounded to two decimal places and added, and that gives the PCS.
At the end, the PCS and TES are added together, which gives the final score: the Total Segment Score (TSS). The final score is the TSS minus any deductions, which include things like going over the time limit, costume violations, or falls.
The problem with this scoring method is that it judges based on technicalities that viewers typically don’t understand. As Mental Floss points out, one example is when Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu won the gold medal in the 2014 Sochi Olympics despite falling twice. Hanyu won because his performance used enough high-scoring moves that he nailed — so even though he messed up in some areas, he scored so big in others that those mistakes did not matter.
If your head is spinning, don’t worry: you’re not alone. And actually, this all might make more sense when you’re actually seeing it done on TV. (Let’s hope it does.)