Opining on the ISU Judging System: 5 calls to action for the ISU

With the Olympics approaching, I start reflecting back on the past four years of figure skating and what can be improved with the ISU Judging System (IJS) over the next four years. After this season (as is the case after every Olympic season), a number of sweeping changes will go through the ISU Congress in the summer. And while we know of a few potential changes that are coming (e.g., wider and percentage-based GOE system), there are a few things that I'd still love to see the ISU tackle for the next season.

Here are my top five for the ISU to look at, just for the sake of continuous improvement (and fairness).

 Diagrammatic/not to scale

Diagrammatic/not to scale

1. More (and better) replay cameras
You know how I always talk about camera angle when it comes to calling wrong edges or underrotations? Well, when the technical panel only has one camera that it officially calls from, it can make for some dicey calls. If you ever wondered why skaters love to put their flip or lutz on the corner to the left of the judging panel, you're not seeing things.

The replay camera is always on the side of the judging panel, and it is very often located to the right of the entire panel. So that corner is the most difficult for the camera to notice wrong edge issues with the lutz or flip.

Then there is the actual camera, which is typically a good enough camera for a lot of tasks. But when you are talking about zooming in for slo-mo replay of rotations, I'm not quite convinced that it's got the goods. Either way, the replays that you see on the jumbotron in the arenas of major televised competitions are almost always better in quality and angle than what the judging panel gets from its one camera.

Call to action for the ISU: At the minimum, get two cameras (with the second on the opposite side of the rink) with better specs for resolution and slo-mo. And at big competitions that are televised with professional TV cameras, figure out a way to get proper replay footage from the media outlets you license rights to, and use the standard ISU cameras as backup.

When competitions can be won and lost because of an edge call or another few degrees of underrotation, we cannot continue to be ok with relying on one not standard camera for these calls.

Also, while we are at it, clarify the flat-edge entrance. For me, a flat-edge entrance into either jump should not be penalized - at maximum, it shouldn't be penalized like a wrong-edge entrance, which is what is currently happening.

2. Properly recalibrating elements and components
It's been pretty obvious for a few years now that the technical elements have disproportionately outweighed program components. One of the potential solutions is to bring down the values of the harder elements (e.g., quads). But if certain elements are going to be brought down, all elements have to be brought down proportionally as well. We've spent years trying to calibrate the relative values of elements to their respective difficulty (e.g., the revaluation of quads after 2010). It would be a shame to lose that relativity now, because it would once again hinder the progress of the sport.

Call to action for the ISU: As you are recalibrating TES and PCS, simulate a world in which seven-quad programs for men and eight-triple/one-quad programs for women are in play (that may be the physical limit for the time being). Work backwards from there to make sure that components are given the proper weight relative to the technical elements. We would only be losing technical progress if the solution is to solely devalue difficult elements.

3. Penalties in bonus scoring
This one is simple - we give skaters a bonus for completing difficult elements later in the program, but why do we still give skaters a bonus for mistakes? I wrote about it in an earlier post.

Call to action for the ISU: Jumps with a visible error (e.g., fall, hand down, step out, two-foot, and/or downgrade) in the second half automatically have the bonus taken out of their base value, and it's called by the technical panel. The reason for stipulating "visible error" as opposed to, say, anything with a negative GOE, is to control (at least somewhat) for potential exuberance in GOE-handout that judges sometimes do.

While we're at it, redefine "balanced program," which currently talks about the inclusion of elements, not the distribution of elements.

4. A review of how (and how often) bullets count
Remember when Biellmann spirals were all the rage? And remember when Biellmann spins were done ad nauseum? And then remember when the IJS re-thought them and placed limits on the number of times they could appear as a feature (and took out the spiral sequence altogether)? This is what a free market system does - skaters maximize points as efficiently as possible. It had nothing to do with the skaters, it had everything to do with the system.

And while we don't see Biellmann variations nearly as often now because features have become more restricted (e.g., features are counted once per program in spins), we do see things like arm variations on jumps repeated ad nauseum because they are considered bullets, which are part of the way judges look at GOEs.

When Denise Biellmann first introduced the spin, it was novel. When Brian Boitano first introduced the Tano variation (one-arm up) on his triple lutz, it was novel. But when you train Biellmanns or Tano and Rippon variations on jumps from a young age, and then do them throughout your program, they cease to be innovative - they are just part of your technique.

Call to action for the ISU: Revisit the way bullets are counted, much like features were revisited during the past decade. Anything that has to do with innovation (e.g., variation) should count as a bullet once. After all, innovation isn't innovative if it's done all the time.

Embed from Getty Images

5. An all-out effort in behavior change
As we enter the fourth Olympics for the IJS, I go back to how it was rolled out. The structural change of the system happened, but with any organizational transformation, there has to be a concerted effort to change mindsets and behaviors. As far as I know, there has been and continues to be classroom-style training, with the expectation that officials know what to do with the information they are given. Worse yet, there is the expectation that all officials actually buy into the training they are given.

There's a reason that components aren't spread out as they are meant to be. There's a reason that you still sometimes feel like judges *save* higher scores for later groups or later skaters. The structural change may be in place, but the mindsets and behaviors still have remnants of the 6.0 system.

Call to action for the ISU: Go beyond simple training of your officials. Bring in experts to put your officials through a transformation program that is more in line with the latest knowledge in behavioral psychology (e.g., self-discovery, experiential learning). You've already gone bold with how you changed your system; you have to be just as bold with how you change your people.