Nathan Chen jumps at nationals during his short program
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New math: Figure skating’s latest recalculations change skaters’ formula for success

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In the ever-changing calculus of figure skating’s mathlympics, the latest recalculations change some of Nathan Chen’s formula for success.

His two highest-valued jumps, the quadruple Lutz and quad flip, no longer add up to much – or as much – of an advantage.

When Chen hit his first quad Lutz in 2016, the element had a base value of 13.6 points, the highest score for a jump anyone has landed in competition. At that time, a quad Lutz was worth 1.3 points more than a quad flip and 1.6 more than a quad loop.

By last season, when Chen won his second straight world title with brilliant quad Lutzes in the short program and free skate, the jump’s value had been reduced to 11.5, compared to 11.0 for the flip and 10.5 for the loop.

Next season, according to the scale-of-value list the International Skating Union published last week, the Lutz, flip and loop all will have a base value of 11.0. And the Lutz now will be worth just 1.5 more than the mundane quad toe loop after having been worth 3.3 more back in 2016.

In practical terms, what does it mean that the three toughest quads – but especially the Lutz and flip – have lost value over the past several seasons?

If the current values had applied last season, with everything else equal, Alena Kostornaia (no quads) would have won the Russian Championship instead of Anna Shcherbakova (two outstanding quad Lutzes in the free skate).

Going forward, it means both the growing battalion of Russian women doing the toughest quads and also Chen, who routinely lands quad Lutz and quad flip, will have lost some of their edge in scoring potential. Plus, a lower base value also means fewer points to be multiplied in the grade of execution factoring.

“These changes being ‘new’ to 2020-21 have to be interpreted as a reaction to the Russian ladies’ dominance and that of Nathan Chen, too,” said Tom Zakrajsek, a top U.S. coach, in an email.

Chen said this week by telephone that he finds the new values fair but wishes there would be a bonus for skaters like him, Yuzuru Hanyu and Shoma Uno of Japan, Vincent Zhou of the U.S., Daniel Grassl of Italy and Alexander Samarin of Russia if they land more than one of the three hardest quads in a program.

According to skatingscores.com, Chen and Grassl are the only ones who have landed all three at least once in their career. Among men in major international competitions beginning in 2010-11, including Junior Grand Prix and Challenger Series events, 13 different skaters have landed a clean quad Lutz, six a clean quad flip, five a clean quad loop. By comparison, 93 have landed a clean quad toe loop and 42 a clean quad Salchow.

“It makes sense they are similarly valued, but there should be some extra incentive to do all the three hardest ones because it is difficult for some skaters to do some,” Chen said. “The loop is a very difficult jump for me; for others, it is quite easy.

“There are pros and cons to these changes for each athlete. I have a Lutz, and because they are reducing its value, that does negatively impact me. At the same time, I can work to get my loop consistent (he has tried just one, in 2017) and to improve the grade of execution on my jumps.”

Including the U.S. Championships, Chen has done 34 quad Lutz jumps in competition, 16 combination. Twenty-four of the 34 were judged clean, and all but two receive full base value credit.

Which quad is hardest of the “big three?”

And of the two pick jumps, the Lutz and flip, which have different takeoff edges, is one harder?

“For me, the Lutz is the most difficult jump technically, the loop the most difficult physically,” said Russian coach Oleg Vasiliev, the 1984 Olympic pairs champion, in an email.

“The difficulty of (quad flip vs. quad Lutz) depends mainly on the body of the skater,” Fabio Bianchetti of Italy, chairman of the ISU singles and pairs technical committee, said via email. “Quad loop, if you see the statistics, is probably the most difficult quad, but this also depends mainly on the body of the skater, so we decided to give all three of those quad jumps the same value.”

Chen’s coach, Rafael Arutunian, agrees with both his star skater and Bianchetti.

“I think the decision to give these elements the same base value is correct, because it equalizes the chances of different athletes,” Arutunian said. “But there should be special benefits for those athletes who do (more than one) correctly. That is what is really difficult.”

Two-time Olympic champion Hanyu, for instance, is a master of the loop, with 13 clean results in 21 attempts and full base value on another four. He has done just three Lutzes (two clean) but no flips.

Zakrajsek sees the evening of the base values for quad Lutz, flip and loop as a way to level the playing field.

“The (three jumps) having the same value will not only reduce the base value for the multiple quad jumpers like Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou but also sends a message to young skaters that if they can learn one of the ‘big three,’ they can have a competitive technical score and a podium future in our sport,” Zakrajsek wrote.

Almost every year since the introduction of the International Judging System in the 2003-04 season, the ISU’s technical committees for singles, pairs and ice dance have tweaked the values assigned to figure skating elements and the way they are evaluated.

Some tweaks have had a yo-yo effect: increasing the value of the most difficult jumps to encourage trying them, then decreasing the value of the same jumps (or limiting them) in an attempt to, in simplest terms, give artists more of a chance against envelope-pushing athletes.

Many of the changes have made an already complicated scoring and judging system incomprehensible to casual fans and produced decisions that are very difficult for even the most educated observers to explain.

“What bothers me about the amount of precision they are trying to get out of the system, even if in an ideal world it is the right thing to do, is there is a lot less precision than we think there is,” said skating analyst Jackie Wong of rockerskating.com.

Wong, who understands the sport’s judging intricacies as well as anyone in the world, is most concerned about the ISU’s attempts to determine exactly degrees of rotation, given the minimal evidence available (one camera angle) and the difficulty of pinpointing the precise point of takeoffs and landings, especially with the limited time allocated for technical panel reviews

“Without special instruments, finding a clear difference will be impossible,” Vasiliev said. “In my opinion, the technical committee is going in the wrong direction… and we are losing our fans, more and more.”

For next season, the ISU’s technical committee for singles and pairs has added another level of complexity to a rotation evaluation that already included “downgraded” (half a revolution short, indicated by “<<” on results sheets) and “under rotated” (between one-quarter and one-half revolution short, indicated by “<”). Both those errors affect the base value of a jump by a defined amount.

Now the technical panel is being asked to indicate jumps that are exactly one-quarter rotation short. Such jumps, to be designated “q,” on results sheets, will get full base value but bring a subjective deduction by the judging panel for grade of execution.

And the ISU is cracking down on “cheated” jumps. Some are jumps where there is “excessive rotation on the ice” before takeoff. Others, referred to as “toe Axels,” occur when the backward takeoff for a jump that uses the toe pick has a half-rotation on the ice and begins like the forward takeoff for an Axel.

The rotation decisions mean that more than ever, a call made by the technical panel can have a huge impact on the result.

“Based on the view we have had, I feel very confident about the calls we have made,” said technical specialist David Santee, who finished fourth in men’s singles at the 1980 Olympics and sixth in 1976. “If the call was close, I gave the benefit of the doubt to the skater.”

The ISU’s Bianchetti said that adding the “q” designation would make the technical panel’s work easier by not forcing it to choose between calling a jump either under rotated or fully rotated when a jump is one-quarter rotation short. Calling these “borderline cases” under rotated, he noted, would bring deductions in both base value and grade of execution that could amount to five points on high-value jumps – and the three-person technical panel often is split on which call to make.

“Adding to the job of the technical panel with only one camera angle creates not only a burden on them but… gives even more power to the technical panel to determine the results of the competition,” Zakrajsek said.

Santee’s concern about the new designation is based on how few chances he and other technical panel members may have to get used to it in lower-level, “pre-season” events because many such events already have been cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s going to be a challenge getting kinks worked out before the (2021-22) Olympic season,” Santee said, noting the uncertainty over the fate of all this season’s events.

Bianchetti felt that even if more events were cancelled this season, there would be enough time for technical panels to practice with the changes before the Olympic season.

“I like that they have added the ‘q’ and the ‘toe axel’ and that they are going to account for them in GOE,” Chen said. “There will be some questionable calls over the next couple seasons because of camera angles and the speed things happen.

“We have to figure out how to make it truly fair and for everyone to get the marks they deserve.”

Bianchetti agreed that IJS is not easy to explain “to ordinary people and by TV commentators, but I don’t see any difference (in that) from the past season with the changes introduced now.”

Arutunian figured that in the end, it is up to each skater to leave no doubt about his or her superiority.

“Our sport has always been subjective, regardless of the accepted system of judging,” Arutunian said, “I don’t believe in complete objectivity in cases where people, with or without the assistance of machines, are making the decisions. A figure skater must be a head taller than the rest and just deal with it.”

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

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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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Weightlifting investigation finds doping cover-ups

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DÜSSELDORF, Germany (AP) — An investigation into the International Weightlifting Federation has found doping cover-ups and millions of dollars in missing money, lead investigator Richard McLaren said Thursday.

McLaren said 40 positive doping tests were “hidden” in IWF records and that athletes whose cases were delayed or covered up went on to win medals at the world championships and other events. The cases will be referred to the World Anti-Doping Agency.

“We found systematic governance failures and corruption at the highest level of the IWF,” McLaren said.

The International Olympic Committee said it was studying the report “very carefully,” adding that “the content is deeply concerning.”

McLaren said former IWF president Tamas Ajan was “an autocratic leader” who kept the board in the dark about finances and left officials fearing reprisals if they spoke out. Ajan received cash payments on behalf of the IWF as doping fines from national federations or sponsors, the report said, but what happened to some of the money is unclear.

McLaren said $10.4 million was unaccounted for, based on his team’s analysis of cash going in and out of the IWF over several years. Ajan denies any wrongdoing.

The largest fine recorded in the report was $500,000 paid by Azerbaijan. It’s unclear how that payment was made. On one trip to Thailand for a competition and conference, Ajan collected more than $440,000 across 18 cash payments, according to the report.

“Everyone was kept in financial ignorance through the use of hidden bank accounts (and transfers),” McLaren said. “Some cash was accounted for, some was not.”

McLaren said that the investigation found information which law enforcement “might be interested in,” and that he would cooperate with any later investigations. That was echoed by Ajan’s successor at the IWF.

“The activities that have been revealed and the behavior that has occurred in the years past is absolutely unacceptable and possibly criminal,” IWF interim president Ursula Garza Papandrea said.

She added that the IWF will pass on information to law enforcement if it indicates there were “potential crimes.”

McLaren said Ajan “permitted the (federation) elections to be bought by vote brokers” as he kept the presidency and promoted favored officials. Large cash withdrawals were made ahead of federation congresses, McLaren said, adding that voters were bribed and had to take pictures of their ballots to show to brokers.

The 81-year-old Ajan stepped down in April, ending a 20-year reign as president and a total 44 years in federation posts. A month before that he also gave up his honorary membership of the International Olympic Committee.

In a statement to Hungarian state news agency MTI, Ajan said the IWF’s finances were managed in a “lawful” manner with oversight from the board.

“All my life, I’ve abided by the laws, the written and unwritten rules and customs of the sport,” he said.

Ajan accused McLaren’s team of not giving him enough information to respond to the allegations about his conduct.

Ajan was a full IOC member between 2000 and 2010, voting to select Olympic host cities. A previous complaint about IWF finances in 2010 was closed by the IOC.

McLaren’s investigation was sparked in January when German broadcaster ARD reported financial irregularities at the federation and apparent doping cover-ups.

The focus of the investigation was on the period from 2009 through 2019. McLaren said he heard allegations of misconduct dating back as far as the 1980s, but chose to prioritize more recent matters with stronger evidence.

The World Anti-Doping Agency said it welcomed McLaren’s findings.

“Once WADA has had the opportunity to review that evidence as well as the report in full, the Agency will consider the next appropriate steps to take,” it said in a statement.

Some allegations regarding doping misconduct around the 2019 world championships in Thailand and involving athletes from Moldova were passed to the International Testing Agency, which is still investigating.

McLaren, a Canadian law professor, was WADA’s lead investigator for Russian doping and has judged cases at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Weightlifting’s reputation under Ajan had already been hit by dozens of steroid doping cases revealed in retests of samples from the Olympics since 2008.

Since he left office in April, the IWF has begun moving its headquarters from Ajan’s home country of Hungary to the Swiss city of Lausanne, where the International Olympic Committee is based.

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Gwendolyn Berry gets apology from USOPC CEO after reprimand for podium gesture

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Olympic hammer thrower Gwendolyn Berry said USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland apologized to her Wednesday “for not understanding the severity of the impact her decisions had on me,” after Berry was put on probation last August for one year after raising her fist at the end of the national anthem at the 2019 Pan American Games.

“I am grateful to Gwen for her time and her honesty last night,” Hirshland said in a statement. “I heard her. I apologized for how my decisions made her feel and also did my best to explain why I made them. Gwen has a powerful voice in this national conversation, and I am sure that together we can use the platform of Olympic and Paralympic sport to address and fight against systematic inequality and racism in our country.”

Berry and fencer Race Imboden were sent August letters of reprimand by Hirshland, along with each receiving probation, after each made a podium gesture at Pan Ams in Peru.

This week, Berry tweeted that she wanted a public apology from Hirshland. That tweet came after Hirshland sent a letter to U.S. athletes on Monday night, condemning “systemic inequality that disproportionately impacts Black Americans in the United States.”

Then on Wednesday night, Berry said she had a “really productive” 40-minute phone call with Hirshland, USATF CEO Max Siegel and other USATF officials.

“I didn’t necessarily ask for [an apology] from [Hirshland],” Berry said Thursday. Berry said she lost two-thirds of her income after Pan Ams, that sponsors dropped her in connection to the raised fist fallout.

“We came to some good conclusions,” Berry said of the group call. “The most important thing were figuring out ways to move forward. [Hirshland] was aware of things that she did and how she made me feel about the situation, and I was happy that I was able to express to her my grievances and she was able to express to me how she felt as well about the situation.”

Berry said her probation, which is believed to still be in effect, wasn’t discussed. She made a point to say that USATF has always been on her side.

“The conversation was more for awareness purposes, and we’ll probably have more conversations this week,” said Berry.

Berry also plans to participate in a U.S. athlete town hall Friday.

“First and foremost, we should and we will discuss how people are just feeling and how people are holding up because athletes in general, because of the pandemic and because of everything that’s been going on, I know a lot of people are in distress, they’re sad, they’re confused,” she said. “I think that’ll be the main point of the discussion. Just to make sure everybody’s OK. Just to see how everybody’s holding on.”

On Aug. 10, Berry raised her fist at the end of the national anthem after winning the Pan American Games title.

The next morning, Berry said the gesture, which drew memories of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Games, wasn’t meant to be a big message, but it quickly became a national story.

“Just a testament to everything I’ve been through in the past year, and everything the country has been through this past year,” she said then. “A lot of things need to be done and said and changed. I’m not trying to start a political war or act like I’m miss-know-it-all or anything like that. I just know America can do better.”

Berry said then that the motivation behind her gesture included the challenges overcome of changing coaches and moving from Oxford, Miss., where her family resides, to Houston.

“Every individual person has their own views of things that are going on,” she said. “It’s in the Constitution, freedom of speech. I have a right to feel what I want to feel. It’s no disrespect at all to the country. I want to make that very clear. If anything, I’m doing it out of love and respect for people in the country.”

Berry also said that weekend, according to USA Today, that she was standing for “extreme injustice.”

“Somebody has to talk about the things that are too uncomfortable to talk about. Somebody has to stand for all of the injustices that are going on in America and a president who’s making it worse,” Berry said, according to that report. “It’s too important to not say something. Something has to be said. If nothing is said, nothing will be done, and nothing will be fixed, and nothing will be changed.”

NBC Olympics senior researcher Alex Azzi contributed to this report.

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