Rafael Arutunian

Nathan Chen jumps at nationals during his short program
Getty

New math: Figure skating’s latest recalculations change skaters’ formula for success

Leave a comment

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.

MORE: Shoma Uno considered leaving the ice

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Nathan Chen, skating coaches react to cancellation of world figure skating championships

Nathan Chen
Getty Images
Leave a comment

For two-time defending champion Nathan Chen, the cancellation of the World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal because of the coronavirus pandemic brought disappointment and relief.

“Given how quickly this virus has spread across the world, it’s definitely the right move for the populace as a whole,” Chen said in a Wednesday teleconference after a Quebec government minister had announced the cancellation.

“Even before this decision was made, I was concerned about people around me. I was worried about Raf [his coach, Rafael Arutunian] because he has been traveling a lot. Ultimately, I’m glad they are able to stay at home, to stay where they are, to sort of prevent the spread of this virus.”

His U.S. teammate Mariah Bell, like Chen coached by Arutunian and prepared to compete in a fourth straight worlds, echoed his feelings.

“I certainly understand there are bigger things than sport,” Bell said during the teleconference.

Danielle McCann, the province’s health minister, said Wednesday afternoon that in light of the rapidly spreading coronavirus, there was too much risk to allow the event scheduled for next week at the Bell Centre arena to take place.

She cited the number of foreign visitors, the fact it would take place indoors, the thousands of people involved and the declaration of a pandemic by the World Health Organization as reasons for the decision.

“As an athlete, we put a lot of time and effort into this, so it’s a little disappointing,” Chen said. “But there’s always worlds next year, and we will prepare for that.”

In fact, the International Skating Union said in a statement it would discuss the possibility of having the 2020 worlds later this year but that it could not occur before October. The ISU did not say if Canada would be the only country under consideration.

“We will do our due diligence to see if that is possible,” Skate Canada chief executive Debra Armstrong said Wednesday evening. “We appreciate that the ISU also is looking into it.”

Armstrong added she has had “very preliminary conversations” with management of the Bell Centre.

“They have provided us possible opportunities to consider,” she said, “but a lot more is involved than just, ‘Can we get the rink again?’”

A rescheduled World Championships would presumably have to end at least a couple weeks before the seven-week Grand Prix season, scheduled to begin Oct. 23-25 at Skate America in Las Vegas. The six “regular season” events run one week after another, with a one-week break before the Dec. 10-13 Grand Prix Final in Beijing.

Arutunian said that even if the 2020 worlds were held this autumn, he would not alter training plans designed to have his skaters peak at the more significant pre-Olympic worlds March 22-28, 2021 in Stockholm.

If U.S. Figure Skating’s Olympic team selection process remains the same as it has been recently, results of the 2021 worlds would factor heavily in the two-year “body of work” considered for selection. The 2021 worlds would be one of three “Tier 1” events in those selection criteria, along with next season’s U.S. Championships and Grand Prix Final.

The results of the 2021 worlds will also significantly impact countries’ quota spots in each discipline at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China.

“Yes, it would be a world title, but you cannot be prepared to be your best in October and then prepared again to be in your best shape in March,” Arutunian said.

It might lead athletes to intensify summer training, which could take its toll by the end of the next winter.

“An (autumn) worlds would not be ideal,” Chen said. “We would all be ready for it and do the best we can, but it will be a very strange situation.

“I think we would take summer pretty normal because we wouldn’t want to burn ourselves out early in the season. Worlds would almost be a progression step into the next season.”

Montreal-based Marie-France Dubreuil, who has a hand in coaching 13 ice dance teams that would have competed at worlds, said via text she thought it would be “a little unlikely” to have two world championships within a few months of each other in a pre-Olympic season.

“It’s interesting,” Brian Orser, who coaches two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan and 2014 U.S. Olympian Jason Brown of the U.S. in Toronto, said in a text message about the prospect of another worlds in autumn.

Asked if it would mean training harder in the summer, Orser replied, “Possibly. But we do what we must.”

Lee Barkell, who coaches reigning world bronze medalist Vincent Zhou of the United States in Toronto, felt most skaters and coaches will “move forward and begin preparations for next year’s competitive season and [the Olympic season].”

“It would be difficult to wait that long to reschedule / relocate,” Barkell continued in a text message. “I think we need to be mindful of the athletes’ health and workload to ensure they are at their full potential for the 2021 World Championships.”

In a statement, the Russian Figure Skating Federation said it would “soon consider and discuss with the coaches of the Russian national team further plans for training athletes in connection with the current situation.”

Asked via email what the Russian skating federation thought about the possibility of an autumn worlds, spokesperson Olga Ermolina said, “It’s hard now to talk about plans definitively.”

This was the 16th time in the event’s 124-year history a figure skating world championships has been cancelled but only the second not caused by a World War. The 1961 championships in Prague were cancelled after a plane carrying the U.S. team and coaches and officials on their way to the event crashed in Belgium, killing all 72 people on board.

Now the event has been cancelled because of a deadly virus. Once again, sport has been subsumed by an awful reality.

“I’m disappointed not to have the opportunity to compete at worlds,” Brown said in a text message. “At the same time, I recognize this situation is way bigger than me or figure skating, and I’m 100% in support of doing everything we can to protect each other and our communities.”

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

MORE: Final women’s Alpine World Cup races canceled, spoiling Mikaela Shiffrin’s planned return

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Q&A with Nathan Chen before he attempts to win his third world championship title

Nathan Chen
AP
Leave a comment

When Nathan Chen enrolled at Yale in the fall of 2018, his California-based coach, Rafael Arutunian, was concerned about Chen being able to keep up his level of skating with essentially a phone and FaceTime coaching arrangement.

Since then, the Yale sophomore has won all nine of his competitions, including a world title, two Grand Prix Final titles and a third and fourth straight U.S. title. His performances to beat two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan at last season’s World Championships and at this season’s Grand Prix Final were both simply brilliant and also the best of Chen’s career.

With the 2020 World Championships beginning March 18, NBCSports.com/figure-skating recently spoke via telephone with Chen, 20, about Arutunian’s acceptance of the coast-to-coast separation, the rivalry with Hanyu, and Chen’s plans for next season.

Rafael was very excited after visiting you at Yale in February. What was it like having him there for the first time?

I thought he was able to see what my whole training program looked like and what my life looked like. We walked around campus, and he really enjoyed it.

Arutunuan and Nathan Chen
Rafael Arutunian and Nathan Chen Yale’s Ingalls Rink last month. (Courtesy Rafael Arutunian)

Did you get a sense that it made him appreciate why you chose to go to Yale, so far from him?

I think he started to understand that when we were walking around, just from looking at architecture and spending time with a couple of other students. He recognizes and appreciates that finally I have an opportunity to broaden my reach outside of skating by not being in a traditional ice arena atmosphere with the same people every day. He has a new perspective on me being here.

Note: After the four-day visit, Arutunian said to me in a text: “Lots of smart kids and beautiful buildings. I totally agree it was the right decision [for Chen to be at Yale]. He made a good choice.”

After the free skate at nationals, Raf told me he was astonished you were able to skate so well after being literally knocked flat by the flu until about 10 days before the competition. Did it astonish you?

I was happy I was able to do that, but I have been in situations where I have been ether sick or injured, and I have had to compete. So, I have kind of learned how to do that. But, yeah, I was pleasantly surprised with how things went. [Getting through] the programs was definitely easier than I thought. Stamina was definitely an issue going into that competition. Halfway through the program, I wasn’t as gassed as I thought I would be. I was pretty proud I was able to get through it without generally dying.

From what Yuzuru Hanyu said at the Grand Prix Final, it seems everything in his mind now is geared to trying to beat you. Do you think you are in his head a little bit?

Having this sort of competition is definitely making him approach programs this season differently than if I were not there to compete against him. Without him, my approach would be different too, and it would influence some of the decisions I make in in my programs. It goes both ways.

So, you are both in each other’s head?

I think saying we’re in each other’s head has a negative connotation, and I don’t believe we are influencing each other negatively. I think it’s definitely positive. We are both trying to figure out the best way to approach a competition so we can come out on top. If you consider it from that perspective, yeah, I think we’re both in each other’s head.

In a good way?

We’re not like throwing bad voodoo out to mess with psyches. We’re pushing each other. At least that’s how I picture it, and I would imagine he is pretty similar.

Will you spend any time training in California before worlds?

I won’t, unfortunately. We have spring break [March 6-23] before Worlds, but that’s too tight of a timeline, so I don’t think I will go back.

Let’s talk about whether you will stay at Yale next year. Apparently one factor is that as you have moved into upper-level courses, the time and scheduling demands have become more complicated. Is that correct?

That’s a big part of it.

After three semesters at Yale, has it surprised you have been able to do these two difficult things so well?

I am surprised. I had doubts coming here that I was going to maintain skating and school. For reference, I was doing all home school for two or three years [before the 2018 Olympic season], and I took a gap year for the Games. Home school is an opportunity to continue studying, but the learning environment is completely different than it is here – the level of study, how rigorous it is. I wasn’t sure what that was going to be like.

As the semesters have gone on, I learned how to study a little better, and I think that learning how to study is a huge part of succeeding in school. And it kind of goes the same way with skating – learning how to prepare.

One thing I didn’t realize before getting here was how in selection of classes you can make it a very easy semester or an incredibly hard semester. I think I overloaded my plate too much with hard classes the first couple semesters. [This year], I got into a class that meets only once a week, and that incredibly eases my schedule. All these things I should have considered, you don’t know about until you are there.

What are your plans for the next off-season and summer?

I’ll be doing shows, but the priority will be going back to California and maximizing the time I have with Raf and determining whether or not I’m coming back [to Yale] or taking a gap year. I might take an online class through Yale over the summer just so when I come back for the next semester or future semesters I won’t have to have quite as hectic of a work load.

Is it still possible you will return for your junior year this fall?

I’m 50-50 on it right now.

Will what happens at worlds affect your decision?

The results of worlds, and the results of the school year plus considering what classes I will have to take the following year all will definitely influence me. [Chen is majoring in statistics and data science.] The classes will be pretty tough, and I’ll have to max out the science credits, which means a lot of labs. And I don’t know how well I’ll be able to manage that. I have to figure this out for myself.

Back to skating for a final question. Do you think at Worlds you will need more than the four free skate quadruple jumps you did at nationals?

Probably. I saw online that Yuzu is planning a quad Axel. I really hope that he does, because it is going to be amazing to see. If he does, and I want to have a fighting chance, I’ll have to up the quad count. But if by the time I get to Worlds, my quads are all over the place – which could totally happen – then it’s more logical to do four and skate very, very clean. Assuming everything is to plan, I assume I’ll do something similar to what I did at the Final [five quads].

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

MORE: Coach Rudy Galindo draws on previous experience

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!