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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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When Michael Phelps raced Libby Trickett at Duel in the Pool

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At the peak of his career, Michael Phelps was upstaged in a race by a swimmer who went four seconds slower.

Australian Libby Trickett did more than hold her own against Phelps to lead off the opening event of the 2007 Duel in the Pool, a mixed-gender 4x100m freestyle relay.

Trickett, then known as Libby Lenton shortly before she got married, became the first woman to break 53 seconds, while Phelps went 48.72 in a head-to-head at the Sydney 2000 Olympic swimming venue.

“I was trash-talking … asking what he has got and telling him if he is going to bring it tonight. I think deep down he was really scared of me,” Trickett said, joking, according to The Associated Press. “Before the race he said good luck. He is a good competitor to race against, and I will remember that for the rest of my life — that I raced against Michael Phelps.”

Australia went on to win the relay by 2.49 seconds, in large part because Trickett swam .31 faster than the women’s 100m free world record. Normally, relay leadoff swims are eligible to break individual world records.

But FINA later ruled that Trickett’s time was not record eligible because the mixed 4x100m free was not an approved event. (Mixed-gender relays debuted at the world championships in 2015 and will debut at the Olympics in Tokyo next year.)

“I am a little disappointed because I know in my heart what time I swam and that time is faster than the existing world record,” Trickett said in 2007, according to Swimming Australia. “However, having said that, the disappointment can take nothing away from the fact I now know I am capable of swimming under 53 seconds and I will continue to strive to improve every aspect of my swimming.”

Trickett broke the world record officially at the 2008 Australian Olympic Trials, clocking 52.88 to take .42 off German Britta Steffen‘s mark. The world record has since been lowered all the way to 51.71 by Swede Sarah Sjöström at the 2017 World Championships.

Phelps’ time was impressive, his second-fastest 100m free at the point in his career. He raced tired, two days after that year’s world championships finished in Melbourne. Phelps earned seven golds at those worlds, and he has said 2007 was his peak, rather than 2008.

He raced strategically against Trickett, not allowing her to draft off him in the adjacent lane.

“I remember going down the first lap, and she was kind of right at my shins,” Phelps said with a laugh, according to the Los Angeles Times. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is not good.’ I knew she would jump up on the lane line and kind of drag, the smart way to do it. I remember I was going right into the 50 [meter] wall, and I turned and went completely on the other side of the lane.”

Trickett won five golds at the 2007 Worlds and another four medals at the 2008 Olympics, though Steffen edged her for 100m free gold by .04.

MORE: Most decorated U.S. female Olympian on front line of coronavirus fight

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Who is Germany’s greatest Olympian?

Birgit Fischer-Schmidt
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The combined all-time German Olympic medal total (including East Germany and West Germany) trails only the United States and Russia/Unified Team/Soviet Union. Norway owns the most Winter Olympic medals of any single National Olympic Committee, but the Germany/East Germany/West Germany sum is actually greater. A look at five of Germany’s greatest Olympians …

Kathrin Boron
Rowing
Four Olympic Gold Medals

Alternated gold medals between double sculls and quadruple sculls from 1992 through 2004, the last one as a mom, tacking on a bronze in 2008. Boron also earned eight world titles. In 19 total Olympic and world championships starts, she collected 12 golds, five silvers, a bronze and a fourth. An ankle injury kept her out of the 1988 Olympics at age 18, or else she could have been the first woman to take gold at five Olympics.

Birgit Fischer-Schmidt
Canoe-Kayak
Eight Olympic Gold Medals

Considered by some the greatest Olympian in history. Fischer-Schmidt won 12 Olympic medals (in 13 career Olympic events) and 37 world championships medals from 1979-2005, scattered among four retirements, two childbirths and the 1984 East German boycott. Fischer-Schmidt retired after earning her last two world championships bronze medals in 2005 at age 43. Had Fischer-Schmidt extended to one more Olympics in 2008, she could have been on the same team as niece Fanny Fischer, who earned a gold of her own in Beijing.

Georg Hackl
Luge
Three Olympic Gold Medals

The only luger with three individual Olympic titles. Hackl was called the “Flying White Sausage” for his build and Bavarian roots, a nickname he opposed. His speed on the sled was not up for debate. Hackl finished second in singles and fourth in doubles in his Olympic debut in 1988. Then he won singles golds in 1992, 1994 and 1998 before bowing out in 2006. He then became a coach for the German team and its next luge great — 2010 and 2014 Olympic champion Felix Loch.

Claudia Pechstein
Speed Skating
Nine Olympic Medals

The only woman to compete in seven Winter Olympics. Pechstein owns Olympic titles in the 3000m, 5000m and team pursuit, the last medal of any color coming in 2006. At 48, she continues to race on the top international level, placing eighth, ninth and 11th at the world single distances championships in February, 28 years after her Olympic debut in Albertville, France. Pechstein served a two-year doping ban from 2009-11 over irregularities in her biological passport. She denied cheating and fought the ban in court for several years after its conclusion.

Isabell Werth
Equestrian
10 Olympic Medals

The most decorated Olympic equestrian with 10 medals and six golds. Werth, nicknamed the “Dressage Queen,” earned her first medals at the 1992 Barcelona Games and now, at 50, currently holds the Nos. 1 and 2 world rankings with two different horses. In 10 career Olympic events, she has never finished worse than second place. No other female Olympian can make that claim.

MORE: Most decorated U.S. female Olympian on front line of coronavirus fight

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