With the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing just a few days away, now is the time to make sure you've brushed up on all your winter sports knowledge. Though figure skating is among the most popular and oldest of the Winter Olympics sports (in fact it is the oldest, according to the International Olympic Committee), it's not exactly the easiest to follow when it comes to the actual scoring of the event. You might even be one of the many mostly clueless fans who clap at a score without any idea as to why or how a competitor arrived at that number. So, how is figure skating scored, exactly?
The International Skating Union (ISU), the body that oversees Olympic skating judging, takes this stuff pretty seriously. After a scandal in the 2002 Winter Olympics, the ISU overhauled the old scoring system to adopt a new International Judging System, which is now used as the scoring criteria at the Winter Olympics — and there’s a lot of nitty-gritty.
To start with the basics of figure skating, there are two programs, or rounds, to a skating competition: one short and one long. The short program will have a set of technical criteria that each skater must meet in that performance, whereas the longer, free skate is less rigid. What those programs are called and how long they are depends on the skating event — yes, there are quite a few of them. In fact, there are five skating events in the Winter Olympics.
Below, you’ll find all you need to know about the different ice skating events and how they’re scored.
Pair Skating Versus Ice Dancing
When most people talk about figure skating at the Olympics, they’re specifically thinking men’s, women’s, and pairs skating. However, there is another separate event under the figure skating umbrella in the Winter Games that people often confuse or conflate with pairs skating called ice dancing.
There is some overlap, as both pairs skating and ice dancing involve a pair of figure skaters, choreographic elements, and music. The most basic way to think about the difference is that ice dancing is basically just ballroom dancing performed on ice, according to the ISU. Two big distinguishing factors are elements in the air and acrobatics: Ice dancing doesn’t include overhead lifts or major jumps.
In ice dance, which consists of a rhythm dance and a free dance, judges look to see that both partners display immaculate synchronicity and precision, not only on their movements and footwork, but also in their skating speed and angle, according to U.S. Figure Skating. Judges will also be looking for elegance, flow, and musicality.
By contrast, pairs ice skating consists of a short program and free skating (the same as in men’s and women’s singles), and the couple works as one unit, performing overhead lifts, jumps, throws, and spins. The judges focus on synchronicity, level of difficulty, and technical skills.
Despite their differences and unique components, all figure skating events — men’s and women’s singles, pairs, ice dancing, and the team event — are subject to the same basic rules and scoring system.
The Basic Rules Of Olympic Figure Skating
The ISU pens literally hundreds of rules. For example, Rule 351 in the 2021 Special Regulations and Technical Rules booklet — which is 150 pages long — states that skaters are not allowed to bow to the audience prior to their performance.
During the last Winter Olympics, viewers were able to see the 2014 rule change of allowing singles and pairs skaters to use music with lyrics in action (ice dancers have always been allowed to), and there will undoubtedly be program music with lyrics again this year.
Age matters, too — international senior-level competitors must have turned the age of 15 by the July 1 preceding the Winter Olympics, according to the ISU Constitution.
Finally, there are time limits to consider. For men's, women's, and pairs short program skates, the time limit is two minutes and 40 seconds, and the free skate limit is four minutes. For ice dance, the time limit for rhythm dance is two minutes and 50 seconds, and the free dance is four minutes. And for all of these programs, skaters are allowed to finish within 10 seconds plus or minus the required time. No wonder the skating athletes get up so quickly when they fall!
How Figure Skating Is Scored
There are two main components when it comes to scoring ice skating, per the ISU. The first is the Technical Score, which focuses on the execution of things such as jumps and lifts. The next is the Presentation Score, which is more about the overall presentation of the performance, with five program components: skating skills, transitions, performance, composition, and interpretation of the music (or timing for ice dance). The skaters are then ranked by their combined scores, and the athlete or pair with the highest final score wins.
Things get slightly more complicated because there are two separate numbers, judged by two separate panels. First, there is a five-judge technical panel that identifies each move attempted and assigns it the ISU-standard point value. Next, there's a nine-judge execution panel, which judges each of the specific moves performed based on the skaters’ level of execution.
That same nine-judge panel also determines the Presentation Score, which is evaluated based on things including aesthetics and style, footwork, and the cohesion of the overall performance, which includes music, costume, and the actual skating. After determining the Technical and Presentation Scores, they are added together to get the Total Segment Score (TSS). A skater's final score is whatever the Total Segment Score is after accounting for any point-deducting penalties, such as going over the allotted time for each program.
One thing to note is that, to some extent, these performances are about quantity over quality. Remember, that first scoring panel assigns points for every move attempted. So, if one skater botches a move during their routine, but they attempt a ton of other complicated moves, they can still get a higher overall score than a competitor who has a technically perfect performance but plays it safe and only attempts a few moves in their program.
Then again, this is the Olympics, and all the skaters are damn good. That's where that second panel's score comes in: to assign a quality value to each move. So, it's all a numbers game. A skater is looking to pull out an impressive array of challenging attempts, and ideally, nail most (or all) of them.
Figure Skating At The 2022 Winter Olympics
The figure skating competition kicks off on Feb. 4 and goes until Feb. 20 at the Capital Indoor Stadium in Beijing, and the competition field this year will be sure to make the 2022 Winter Games exciting. It’s worth noting that this year’s Games will be a little different (and subject to added scrutiny) due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the highly contagious Omicron variant. All athletes, judges, and onlookers will undergo daily testing and quarantine away from the broader population in order to minimize any chance of infection.
For Team USA, Nathan Chen comes to Beijing favored for the gold, but he’ll have to fend off a talented field of competitors — particularly two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu from Japan, who is looking for his third consecutive men’s singles title, a feat not achieved since 1928. Chen is joined by U.S. teammates and Olympic veterans Jason Brown and Vincent Zhou.
As for the women, Team USA’s Karen Chen will return for her second Olympics, joined by first-timers Alysa Liu and Mariah Bell. Bell, in particular, recently made big headlines this January when she won her first U.S. title at age 25, becoming the oldest U.S. women’s champion since 1927. The women will face steep competition against talented skaters from Russia and Japan, among other countries.
Now that you’re an absolute pro at understanding all of the rules and distinctions of ice skating at the Olympics, you're more than ready for the 2022 Winter Games. Be sure to tune in for all five of the figure skating events!
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