With this year's Winter Olympics just one week away, now is the time to make sure you've brushed up on all your winter sports knowledge. Though figure skating is among the oldest of the Winter Olympic Games sports, it's not exactly the easiest to follow. If you're one of the many, many bewildered fans like me who claps at a score without a clue as to why or how a competitor arrived at that number, we're here to help. Here's what you need to know about how figure skating is scored.
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, per Mental Floss, the ISU overhauled the old scoring system to adopt the International Judging System (IJS), which is what we now see. We'll get into the nitty-gritty in a minute.
First things first, let's start at the beginning. There are usually two rounds to a skating competition: Short and free programs. The short program has a set of technical criteria each skater must meet in that performance, whereas the free skate is less rigid.
Oh, and there's also a broader difference to keep in mind.
No, ice dancing is not the same as ice skating.
Before we get down to brass tacks, we should probably clear this up right now: Yes, there is some choreographic elements and music in both, and yes, there is skating in both ice dancing and skating. But here's where they differ.
According to Shape, ice dancing is basically just dancing that happens to be performed with the added complication of being on ice.
As former ice dancer and coach Justin Ross told NBC San Diego: "Ice dancing is more about the quality of the edges. It's about the character, the passion of just the pure ice skating." When it comes to scoring, judges will be looking especially to see that both partners display immaculate synchronicity not only on their movements and footwork, but skating speed and angle. They'll also be looking for elegance, flow, and other dance elements.
By contrast, pairs ice skating is judged more on the jumps, spins, lifts, and throws. (Ice dancing doesn't include overhead lifts.)
And if they still all just look like fancy twirls on ice to you, you can always double-check the Olympic program to be sure which sport you're watching.
Before you even get to the tricks, there are some basic rules you should know.
In case you were wondering, the ISU pens literally hundreds of rules. One of the regulations in the 2016 regulation booklet — which is 147 pages — is that skaters are not allowed to bow to the audience prior to their performance.
Though the rules were changed in 2015 to allow mens, ladies, and pairs skaters to use music with lyrics, this Olympics is the first one we'll get to see that in action. (Ice dancers have always been allowed to.)
Age matters, too — competitors must have turned 15 by the July 1 of last year to be eligible.
Finally, there are timing limits to consider. For men's, women's, and pairs short program skates, the time limit is two minutes 50 seconds. The free skate has a range of 4 minutes to 4 minutes 30 seconds.
Still with me? I'm so glad. Now we can tackle the joyous task of explaining the judging system.
The actual scoring process takes a trained eye.
There are two general components to scoring skating, per NBC. The first is the Technical Element Score (TES), which focuses on the execution of things like jumps and lifts. The next is the Program Component Score (PCS), which is more about the overall presentation. The skater with the highest combined score wins.
Things get more complicated because there are two separate numbers, judged by two separate panels, that make up the TES, Mental Floss explains. 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 assigns a number between -3 and +3 for each of those specific moves performed. These totals are added together to achieve the TES.
Mental Floss notes that, to some extent, the performances are 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 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.
Then again, this is the Olympics, and 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 of them.
That same nine-judge panel also determines the PCS, which is evaluated based on things like aesthetics and style, footwork, and the cohesion of the overall performance (which includes music, costume, and the actual skating).
After determining the TES and PCS, they are added together to get the Total Segment Score (TSS). A skater's final score is whatever the TSS is, after accounting for any point-deducting penalties such as going overtime.
If you've read this far and are not crying or questioning your math abilities, congratulations. You're more than ready for the Winter Games!
To learn more, visit teamusa.org. The Winter Olympics will air live, starting February 8.