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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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Salwa Eid Naser, world 400m champion, provisionally banned

Salwa Eid Naser
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Salwa Eid Naser, the world 400m champion of Bahrain, was provisionally suspended for missing three drug tests in a 12-month span.

“I’ve never been a cheat. I will never be,” Naser, 22, said in an Instagram live video. “I only missed three drug tests, which is normal. It happens. It can happen to anybody. I don’t want people to get confused in all this because I would never cheat.”

Naser said “the missed tests” came before last autumn’s world championships, where she ran the third-fastest time in history (48.14 seconds) and the fastest in 34 years.

“This year I have not been drug tested,” she said. “We are still talking about the ones of last season before the world championships.”

The Athletics Integrity Unit, which handles doping cases for track and field, did not announce whether Naser’s gold medal could be stripped.

“Hopefully, it’ll get resolved because I don’t really like the image, but it has happened,” she said. “It’s going to be fine. It’s very hard to have this little stain on my name.”

Naser, the 2017 World silver medalist, upset Olympic champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas for the world title in Doha on Oct. 3.

The only women who have run faster than Naser, who was born Ebelechukwu Agbapuonwu in Nigeria to a Nigerian mother who sprinted and a Bahraini father, were dubious — East German Marita Koch (47.60) and Czechoslovakia’s Jarmila Kratochvilova (47.99).

“I would never take performance-enhancing drugs,” Naser said. “I believe in talent, and I know I have the talent.”

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When Laurie Hernandez winked at the Olympics

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Blink, and you may have missed one of the social-media-sensation moments of the Rio Olympics.

Laurie Hernandez, then 16, was the youngest woman on the U.S. Olympic team across all sports. She was about to start arguably the most important floor exercise routine of her life.

So, she winked.

“The amazing thing about the Olympics is that you feel so many different emotions in the span of a few days, and they are all intense,” she wrote in her 2017 book, “I Got This,” a nod to what she told herself before her balance beam routine earlier that night. “So it was nice to have at least one totally playful moment.”

The U.S., on its fourth and final rotation, already had the team gold all but locked up. Knowing she was nervous, Hernandez’s teammates confirmed to her that they were a few points ahead.

Then Hernandez heard the beep, and it was time to go. She was in the view of an out-of-bounds judge at the Rio Olympic Arena.

“Well, I looked straight at her and suddenly felt this surge of confidence to wink,” she wrote. “Later, a woman came up to me while I was watching Simone [Biles] and Aly [Raisman] compete in their all-around finals and she said, ‘Wow, I just want you to know that when you winked at the judge, it really worked.’ I didn’t know how to respond, so I just said, ‘Thank you. That’s very nice of you to say.’ That’s when she told me she was the out-of-bounds judge! All I could say was ‘Oh my goodness.'”

Hernandez, a New Jersey native, finished the Olympics with a team gold and balance beam silver.

She took more than two years off before making a comeback in earnest last year, announcing she planned to return to competition this spring under new coaches in California. Now that’s on hold given the coronavirus pandemic, which pushed the Tokyo Olympics to 2021.

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