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In figure skating, a radical proposal to reshape the sport

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In an attempt to rebalance the athletic and artistic sides of figure skating, the sport’s technical committee for singles and pairs is submitting a proposal with sweeping changes for consideration by the International Skating Union at its biennial congress this June in Thailand.

The proposal comes at a moment when the jump revolutions in men’s and women’s singles skating have created a huge competitive imbalance in favor of skaters doing the most difficult jumps – quadruples for men, quads and triple Axels for women.

The proposal will not be made public until April, when the 2020 congress agenda is published. But Fabio Bianchetti of Italy, chair of the ISU singles and pairs technical committee, confirmed its essence and intent to NBCSports.com in emails.

This is the framework of the proposal, which will apply to singles and pairs, even though the imbalance in pairs is not as pronounced:

  • The technical and “artistic” (program component) marks, which now carry equal weight in the total score for both the short program and free skate, would be recalibrated.

In the short program, to be called a technical program, the technical element score would count 60 percent of the total, the program component scores, 40 percent.  In the free skate, it would be the reverse, with 60 percent for PCS.

  • Both programs would last three minutes, 30 seconds. Currently, the singles and pairs short program is 2 minutes, 40 seconds and the free skates four minutes, plus or minus 10 seconds for both. That would make the short program some 30 percent longer and the free skate 12.5 percent shorter.
  • The scores would, as now, be simply added together to get the final result.

But they would no longer include the big difference in available technical points between the short program, in which there now are seven elements, and the free, which has 12. A short program generally accounts for between 25 percent to 35 percent of a top singles skated’s score today.

If approved, which another top skating official thought was a “long shot,” the changes would take effect in the 2022-23 season.

The technical committee has, for now, shelved the idea of splitting events into two competitions, technical and free, with separate medals for each instead of an overall medal.

“In the future,” Bianchetti wrote, “we might propose to split the event into two totally separate events with two different medals but for the time being we want just to make a clear difference between the two programs.

“What is new are the different requirements, the different weight of the technical and components marks inside each section and the same weight of the two programs in the final results.”

Bianchetti declined to provide details of the proposal, such as which elements and how many elements would be included in each program or whether they would be scored the same way they are now. He noted the details of the proposal could be altered from their current incarnations before being published.

The fundamental idea behind it, he said, “is to push skaters to look for quality and not only for difficulty with much more time than today for transitions and choreographic moments.”

Even without knowing details, it is clear that achieving such an aim would almost certainly require some new restrictions on both the number of jumps allowed and also on the number of the high-scoring quadruple jumps allowed, especially since lengthening the short program obviously leaves time for more jumps than the current four. A free skate with fewer jumps would accentuate the higher percentage value of PCS.

The new format would be as fundamental a change to the sport’s status quo as the International Judging System was when implemented 16 years ago. The IJS was designed to make results less predictable than they had been in the old 6.0 system and, with seemingly a zillion numbers now in play for each score, make it harder to consummate back-room deals to influence results.

In a September 2017 interview with me, Bianchetti already had talked of a long-term plan to make “a radical change for the future development of the sport, hoping to bring back the popularity that figure skating used to have in the past.”

The first part of that plan, implemented in the 2018-19 season, included lowering the base values of quadruple jumps and, for pairs, quadruple throws.

Yet its intended effect on the sport’s balance has been minimized by the organic developments of the past two seasons, especially in women’s singles, where one young Russian after another has begun doing quadruple jumps or triple Axels in the free skate.

Those jumps are worth so much that it has become impossible for women without them to compete for medals at major events. And it would be even harder if women could do quads in the short program, which is why the technical committee has not made a proposal to allow that – even though one could come from a national federation.

It also has made it very difficult for consummate artists like Jason Brown, who never has landed a quad, to make global podiums in men’s events. Many of the sport’s longtime fans say they have lost interest in what they see as a jumping contest.

At this season’s Grand Prix Final and European Championships, three Russian first-year seniors, one 16 years old (Alena Kostornaia) and the others 15 (Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova), not only swept the women’s podium but did it in a rout.

At the Grand Prix Final, the difference between the third and fourth place women was 16.71 points; at the European Championships, it was 32.46 points.

That gap may shrink over time as young skaters from other nations learn to master quads and triple Axels at the same age as the Russians, who have leapt ahead.

At present, though, women in their late teens and early 20s have fallen a generation behind. That includes skaters as talented as reigning Olympic champion Alina Zagitova of Russia, who, at 17, has taken a competitive break from a sport in which she lacked the jumps to be competitive with her younger compatriots.

And many within the sport fear for the long-term health of girls pushing themselves to learn quads while their growth plates have not fully fused. That has led to discussions of raising the age minimum for senior competition from its current 15.

A proposal to raise the age did not get enough support to even be debated at the last biennial ISU Congress. Since then, many leading Russian coaches have called for such a change.

Yet the Russia Figure Skating Federation may resist any attempts to endanger its new hegemony in women’s skating. It can likely call on enough allies to defeat proposals like the ones the technical committee has made.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: Figure skaters plan 40-year anniversary celebrations in Lake Placid

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Takeaways from the abbreviated 2019-20 season in ski and snowboard sports

Chris Corning
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Most ski sports don’t hold world championships in even-numbered years, but the coronavirus pandemic brought World Cup campaigns to an early conclusion two years ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

With the seasons over, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team is collecting goggles to provide to health-care workers.

Here’s what we learned in various sports:

ALPINE: Mikaela Shiffrin has company 

The U.S. ski star was on pace to win her fourth straight World Cup season trophy before her father’s sudden passing in early February. She planned to return in March with an outside chance at keeping her title, but the remaining races of the season were canceled. Italy’s Federica Brignone took the trophy, with Shiffrin second.

While Shiffrin held a substantial lead in the World Cup before her hiatus, she wasn’t as unbeatable as she was in the 2018-19 season, when she won a staggering 17 times. That’s an impossible bar to clear, but Shiffrin’s rivals made up enough ground to make future World Cup season titles and the career win record seem less certain than they seemed a year ago.

In Shiffrin’s final slalom race, a discipline in which she has rarely lost in recent years, she placed third behind Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova and Sweden’s Anna Swenn Larsson. Ten days before that, she was second to Vlhova, whose progress impressed Shiffrin. That marked that first time since 2014 that she lost two straight slaloms in the same season. (She was second in the 2016-17 season finale and second again in the 2017-18 season opener, then won 12 of the next 13 slaloms.)

Shiffrin’s ability to get on the podium in any race, no matter the discipline, will make her the World Cup favorite for years to come. But the big prize won’t be as easy as she has made it seem in recent years, and at 66 career victories, she’ll need time to catch Lindsey Vonn‘s women’s record of 82 wins and Ingemar Stenmark‘s overall record of 86.

CROSS-COUNTRY: Diggins, Bjornsen stay in world’s elite 

Jessie Diggins will forever be remembered for winning the 2018 Olympic team sprint with Kikkan Randall as NBC’s Chad Salmela screamed “HERE COMES DIGGINS,” but she also has a strong World Cup resume that she continues to build.

Diggins finished sixth in the season standings for the second straight year, a drop from her second-place finish in 2018 but still comfortably in the top 10. She was joined there by Sadie Maubet Bjornsen, who eighth-place season put her in the top 10 for the second time.

Bjornsen led the three-stage season opener in Ruka, Finland, after taking third in the sprint and finished fourth overall, one place ahead of Diggins, who took third in the pursuit. Diggins added four more podium finishes before the end of the season.

NORDIC COMBINED: Norway takes control 

Jarl Magnus Riiber won his second straight World Cup title at age 22, with fellow Norwegian Joergen Graabak taking a career-high second. Two more Norwegians were in the top six Jens Luraas Oftebro (fourth) and Espen Bjoernstad (sixth). 

In women’s Nordic combined, which is on track to become an Olympic event, U.S. athlete Tara Geraghty-Moats was a close second to Russia’s Stefaniya Nadymova.

READ: Geraghty-Moats has eyes on 2026

SKI JUMPING: U.S. women shut out 

A decade after leading the charge to get women’s ski jumping in the Olympics and eight years after teenager Sarah Hendrickson won the World Cup, the U.S. women went a whole season without an athlete picking up World Cup points. Hendrickson postponed her retirement but competed only on the Continental Cup this season.

U.S. women also won two of the first three ski jumping world championships Lindsey Van in 2009 and Hendrickson in 2013.

In men’s jumping, Austria’s Stefan Kraft edged out Germany’s Karl Geiger to reclaim the World Cup title he last held in 2017. Geiger’s previous career best was 10th in 2019. Japan’s Ryoyu Kobayashi, last year’s champion, took third.

FREESTYLE SKIING: Blunck keeps flying

U.S. halfpipe skier Aaron Blunck followed up his second straight world championship in 2019 with his first World Cup season title. Blunck won both events in the U.S. — December’s competition at Copper Mountain and February’s event at Mammoth Mountain. 

Colby Stevenson (slopestyle) and Alexander Hall (big air) were second in their events. Hall won twice, landing a switch left double 1800 to win in the Atlanta Braves’ SunTrust Park. Stevenson also won at the X Games in Aspen.

In women’s competition, 18-year-old Marin Hamill was second in slopestyle, and Jaelin Kauf finished in the top three for the third straight year.

French skier Perrine Laffont had a dominant season in women’s moguls, winning all six regular moguls events and two of four dual moguls, to take her second straight World Cup title.

SNOWBOARDING: Corning wins in Atlanta and in World Cup

Atlanta’s SunTrust Park hosted a World Cup big air competition, with Chris Corning and Japan’s Reira Iwabuchi winning. Corning also won in Cardrona, New Zealand, and took his second big air season title to go along with slopestyle titles in 2016, 2018 and 2019.

Dusty Henricksen was third in World Cup slopestyle on the strength of a win at Mammoth Mountain, followed by fellow U.S. teen Justus Henkes.

U.S. women’s snowboarders Jamie Anderson and Julia Marino won the only World Cup slopestyle events each one entered. Anderson also won the X Games slopestyle.

Olympic and world halfpipe champion Chloe Kim sat out the season after breaking an ankle in March 2019 and enrolling at Princeton.

BIATHLON: Never count out Dunklee 

Susan Dunklee hasn’t had great success on the World Cup circuit since taking a world championship silver medal in 2017, when she finished a career-best 10th in the World Cup, but she once again took world championship silver in the sprint at Antholz.

Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Boe won the men’s World Cup title despite missing two weeks after the birth of his first child, edging Frenchman Martin Fourcade by two points to spoil the seven-time World Cup champion’s final season.

Boe won his second straight World Cup title, as did Italy’s Dorothea Weirer in the women’s competition.

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Simon Ammann ramps up for one more run at Olympic ski jumping

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Simon Ammann, the Swiss ski jumper who gained fame for his resemblance to Harry Potter in 2002 and went to win all four Olympic ski jumps on North American soil this century, has walked back talk of retirement and now says he wants to continue through the 2022 Olympics.

Ammann won the normal hill and large hill in Salt Lake City in 2002. European ski jumpers don’t necessarily get attention from U.S. talk shows, but the 20-year-old Ammann had two things that set him apart. First, his wins were tremendous upsets. Second, he looked like Harry Potter.

He wound up appearing on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” which makes him a wild-card connection in the Kevin Bacon game the peripatetic actor was the other guest on the show that night, and Ammann happily posed with Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick after the show.

Eight years later, Ammann duplicated the feat in Vancouver. This time, he left behind the Harry Potter glasses behind, though he made an enthusiastic walk through the mixed zone wearing comically oversized sunglasses that made him look like the Buggles’ Trevor Horn in the “Video Killed the Radio Star” video, the first music video on MTV.

In 2010, his victories weren’t quite as unexpected. He won the World Cup season title that year, sandwiched between two second-place finishes.

In 2002, on the other hand, he took off from the Olympic hill at Park City having never won a World Cup event. His two wins in the Olympics were his first two in any international competition in the FIS database.

Ammann has also had success in major competition in Asia. He took gold and silver in the 2007 world championships in Sapporo, Japan, the first two of his four career world championship medals. He also won a World Cup event in Sapporo in 2010.

In recent years, though, Ammann hasn’t been competitive on the World Cup circuit. He has been on the podium only once since 2015. Since taking his last major-event medal in 2011, his best result in the world championships was seventh place in 2013.

But he’s already shown he can, like Harry Potter, conjure a surprising performance.

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