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A love letter to figure skating

author: jaecy bells | graphics editor

Better than Blades of Glory/Ronja Soponen via Flickr

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The Winter Olympics have begun again, this time in Pyeongchang, South Korea. To those that know me personally, a humble graphics editor, they know that I’m not a fan of sports in any way. The only event I’ll watch at the Winter Olympics is figure skating. Part power, part dance, and part speed, figure skaters are incredible in that they are not only athletes, they are performers. Like any Olympic sport, the skaters train hard. They’re on the ice for five hours a day, one-on-one with their coaches. Most skaters also take ballet classes for flexibility, and weight training for strength.

Unlike most other Olympic sports, the scoring in figure skating is up to the judge’s interpretations. The reason that I learned to figure skate (badly) as a kid was because of my mother, a former competitive skater, who lived and breathed figure skating most of her life.

We watched the national championships and the Winter Olympics whenever they were on, and Mom would provide commentary that was usually more detailed than the people broadcasting it. I didn’t know enough about it to catch all of the shaky landings or wobbling footwork, but she always did.

We talked about Gabrielle Daleman’s free-skate performance, and my mother remarked on the skater’s athleticism and her resulting scores. Figure skating, I learned, has gone through a lot of changes in the past couple of decades. There’s been a huge revolution in the marking system, and it’s almost entirely changed from what it used to be. With any performance, the scoring is going to be somewhat dependent on the judge watching – it’s not like a race where it matters who crosses the finish line first. In some ways, it’s like the difference between grading a math test and an essay – a math problem can be 100 per cent correct, while an essay always has some wiggle room and is up for interpretation.

The judging system used to be much more biased. Politics was a huge part of figure skating – they haven’t vanished entirely, but they’re not as much of a problem. A skater competing in the ‘80s, for example, could struggle to place first because the judges thought she had the wrong body type and wouldn’t be able to be a professional, no matter how she skated. They might refuse to give a skater first place, because he hadn’t placed first all season, so it wouldn’t make sense to do so now. In short, the judging had less to do with your skating performance that day on the ice, it was all caught up in their opinion of you as a skater overall.

Today, they’ve reworked the scoring system so the skaters are awarded X amount of points for certain skills. A triple toe executed correctly will get you a certain number of points, while a two-footed landing will get you certain marks off (like your driving test!). The system has tried to set it up so the skaters can be judged more accurately, and the overall score weighs less on the personal opinion of the judge, and more on the technical skills. Obviously, with any judged competition, there is some leeway, but it’s a huge improvement.

The system will never be perfect, but the focus on technical skills and performance execution gives all skaters a better chance. Gabrielle Daleman’s raw energy and athletic performance may not have gone over well with the old scoring system and biased judges, but luckily, the skating world has progressed from the tiny traditional box that figure skating used to be judged in.

About Jaecy Bells

Jaecy Bells is a designer, musician, and pun enabler. You can usually find her skulking around with a camera, trying to become a rock star, or passing judgments on the usage of fonts.

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