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Philip Hersh: Rachael Flatt deserved systematic victory, but fans deserved an explanation

January 25, 2010 |  8:29 pm
Some final thoughts on the women's result at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships:

Evan Lysacek, both a friend and training partner of Mirai Nagasu, was sitting among the press for the end of the women's free skate Saturday.  When Nagasu, last to skate, had finished, I asked Evan what he thought. "She was a million miles better,'' Lysacek said, meaning Nagasu had outdistanced Rachael Flatt.

Nearly everyone in the Spokane Arena -- including NBC TV commentators Scott Hamilton and Sandra Bezic, which means their audience as well -- shared the essence of Lysacek's opinion: Nagasu would win the free skate and, since she also had won the short program, would be the national champion.Getprev

The score sheets said otherwise, making Flatt the free skate and overall winner by some 12 points.  That opinion was right as well, given the parameters of the code-of-points judging and scoring system being used.

This time, the problem was the system, not the judging.  And, as I have frequently noted in this blog since the 2008 Skate America, it isn't as much a fault with the system itself as much as with the decision to use it negatively that took effect two seasons ago.

So Nagasu was penalized for under-rotating three triple jumps, which meant she did not make at least 2 3/4 turns in the air.  Justification for the downgrades came from video replay using only one camera, which many times will not give the right angle to provide irrefutable evidence (the National Football League's replay system uses multiple camera angles, and even that frequently does not provide conclusive reasons to change the call made on the field.)

In figure skating, an official known as the technical specialist, who is part of a three-member technical panel, calls out the elements as a program progresses and notes which ones need review. (The calls are heard by the technical panel.)

For jumps, that review can involve rotations, falls, takeoff edge (the lutz takeoff must be from an outside edge, which makes the jump more difficult than the flip, from an inside edge, because of the physics involved; so the lutz has a higher base value), and whether the landing was on one or two feet.

Any of the members of the technical panel can ask for review.  The decision is by majority vote.

Under the old 6.0 system, Nagasu would have won.  The first iteration of the New Judging System implemented after the 2002 Olympic pairs scandal had less emphasis on downgraded jumps, so Nagasu would have lost fewer points on downgrades and could have won.  Under the terms of the iteration used Saturday, she lost in a fair decision -- unless one disagrees with the downgrade decisions, as her coach, Frank Carroll, did with two of the three downgrades.

While the system has "artistic" marks (the so-called "program components," which judges frequently use to prop up skaters they favor; nothing new there), it chops a performance into so many pieces that the result often makes no sense to live or TV audiences.  It is as if one were judging a Monet water lily picture not by the overall impression it leaves but by whether Monet's brush strokes or use of color on each lily conform to some code of painting.

Flatt followed the skating code perfectly, executed her elements cleanly, and her performance reflected that dispassionate approach.  Nagasu was fire on ice, her performance burning into the minds of everyone who saw it -- and she also made no obvious mistakes.

"You had two things going on out there," Carroll said.  "One is a great athlete.  One is an artist."Mirai

To be fair, skaters who emphasized the athletic side of skating also beat artists under the 6.0 system, but those usually were exceptional athletic performances: Midori Ito of Japan, at the 1989 worlds, Tonya Harding at the 1991 U.S. championships, Tara Lipinski of the United States at the 1998 Olympics.  And Surya Bonaly won three world silver medals and five European titles with 100% athletic emphasis in her otherwise forgettable performances.

But, as a friend who wrote about figure skating for years pointed out, the new system would have given fewer points to Oksana Baiul's captivating 1994 Olympic free skate, which won the gold, than to either Flatt's or Ashley Wagner's artistically unremarkable performances Saturday.

Also to be fair, it is easier to grab audiences by interpreting a character from well-known music, as Nagasu did with Carmen.  It takes a different level of audience sophistication to identify with music that does not tell a story, even if it is relatively familiar (at least to classical music lovers) and emotionally fiery music like what Flatt used: the Rachmaninoff "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini."  The interpretive issue here was the discord between Flatt's paint-by-code-of-points skating and the florid romanticism of the music.

The bigger problem was skating officials' inability to communicate the reason for the result immediately to the public. 

NBC couldn't explain the decision because it went off the air only a few minutes after Nagasu skated, too soon to analyze the downgrades by airing video replays of the jumps in question.  Although the Spokane Arena crowd was given "ear bugs," allowing them to listen to the real-time, expert commentary by technical specialist David Kirby (who was not working in that capacity at nationals), that commentary also ended before Kirby could explain the score sheets.

(I explained the reasons for the outcome -- in less detail than I am doing now, given space restrictions -- in the final Sunday editions of the Los Angeles Times, although a glitch in the Tribune's new editing system meant that story was not posted until today.) 

A similar situation at the upcoming Olympics will cause uproar that will further damage figure skating, a sport losing its appeal in the United States because of a lack of home-team stars and the incomprehensibility of the scoring system.  And one can only imagine the reaction if the Olympics is decided by a controversial downgrade -- or failure to downgrade.  Downgrades given to Korean star Kim Yuna at last month's Grand Prix Final already have led to heated -- if nationalistic -- Internet arguments.

Was Nagasu a million miles better?  Or even an inch better?  Not by the mathematical standards of the judging system, which have become exponentially more punitive in the past two seasons.  And it has long been no secret that the numbers game is taking the joy out of the sport.

-- Philip Hersh, reporting from Spokane, Wash.

Photos: (Above) The computer panel used in skating's by-the-numbers judging system.  (Getty Images / Go Chai Hin.)  (Below) Mirai Nagasu's fiery interpretation of Carmen in Saturday's free skate at the U.S. Championships.  (Getty Images / Matthew Stockman)

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