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Winter Olympics 2018: figure skating scoring explained for people who don’t follow figure skating

Or, why Adam Rippon lost to Russian Elvis.

Figure Skating - Winter Olympics Day 3
This dude beat Adam Rippon.
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

The only predictable thing about figure skating is that the sport is unpredictable. Every time a skater steps onto the ice, there’s always a sense that something could go splendidly right or disastrously wrong — and we, as viewers, never know what we’re going to get.

But it’s not just skaters’ performances that can leave our jaws on the floor; sometimes it’s the judges’ decisions too.

The scoring system that’s currently used for all competitive figure skating — including at the Olympics — isn’t easy to crack. A skater’s final marks can somehow add up to a seemingly random number like 150.49, and that figure includes both component scores for artistry and presentation, and more technical scores like the esoteric “grades of execution,” which measure how well a skater performs individual “elements” of a program. And that’s before you count any deductions or bonuses. Consequently, figure skating can feel inaccessible to casual fans, especially to those who tend to only tune in once every four years during the Olympics.

That feeling of inaccessibility can be exacerbated in cases where the scoring system yields a counterintuitive outcome — like in the recent Olympic team event that saw Russia’s Mikhail Kolyada fall but still score higher than America’s Adam Rippon, who gave what looked to be a nearly flawless performance.

Understanding how the figure skating scoring system works can help explain how that outcome unfolded — so we’ve put together a brief guide to its most confusing aspects. It may not change your mind about any given skater’s results, but it will give you a better idea of how those results came to be.

The current figure skating scoring system assigns each “element” an individual score

Those of us old enough to remember names like Kristi Yamaguchi and Brian Boitano probably remember the old 6.0 system, in which programs were judged in two parts: presentation (artistry) and technical merit (the jumps) on a scale of 0.0 to 6.0, with 6.0 meaning perfection.

That’s gone now.

Because of a 2002 Winter Olympics scandal involving fixed scores and corrupt judging, the International Skating Union — the governing body for competitive skating disciplines — adopted a new set of codes in 2004 (which was fully implemented in 2006). The “new” system assigns numeric base values to jumps, spins, and other technical elements in a skater’s program, in an attempt to standardize the potential scores for those elements and reduce the possibility of corruption (though, as BuzzFeed points out, favoritism and inflated scores still exist).

In addition to those base values, there’s a “grade of execution,” or GOE, for each element, as well as a component score that takes into account the artistic merit of a skater’s program.

Skaters are also expected to meet a specific set of criteria. The requirements in the women’s short program include a double axel or triple axel, a triple jump, a combination jumping pass, a flying spin, a combination spin, a layback or sideways-leaning spin, and a step sequence. The men’s short program has the same requirements, but with a camel or sit spin instead of instead of the layback spin.

Meanwhile, the US Figure Skating Association’s guidelines for the men’s free skate (which has a maximum time limit of four minutes and 30 seconds) and women’s free skate (four minutes and 10 seconds) include:

Jumps: There is a maximum of eight jump elements for men and seven jump elements for ladies. One must be an Axel-type jump. Only two triple or quad jumps can be repeated and they must be a part of a jump combination or jump sequence. There may be up to three jump combinations or sequences. Jump combinations may not contain more than two jumps, however one jump combination may consist of three jumps.

Spins: A maximum of three spins of a different nature - one must be a spin combination, one a flying spin and one spin with only one position.

Steps: One step sequence and one choreographic sequence, which must occur after the step sequence.

The grade of execution for each element is crucial

Judges use the GOE to score how well a skater performs — or fails to perform — each element in their program (jumps, spins, footwork sequences, etc.) It follows a scale of +3 to -3, which is added to or subtracted from an element’s base value.

For a good example of how the GOE can affect a skater’s overall score, let’s look at Canadian skater Patrick Chan’s excellent quadruple toe loop from his free skate during the team event in Pyeongchang:

Patrick Chan performs a quadruple toe loop at the Pyeongchang Olympics.
Patrick Chan performs a quadruple toe loop at the Pyeongchang Olympics.

The base value of a quadruple toe loop is 10.30 points. But Chan’s jump is more than just serviceable — note how he goes into the jump with a ton of effortless speed (the GIF above is slowed down by 50 percent), and how his position in the air is tight. He also gets good height, and the overall jump is very pleasing to the eye. The judges awarded him a positive GOE of 2.57 points, bringing the total number of points he earned for the jump to 12.87.

Here’s Chan’s scoresheet from his free skate, which lists his quadruple toe loop (“4T”):

Patrick Chan’s scores

Jumps performed in the second half of a program are worth more than jumps performed in the first half

Another thing you might notice from Chan’s scoresheet is several small X’s. These X’s indicate the jumps that Chan performed in the second half of his program, and they’re important because jumps that a skater performs in the second half of a program are awarded a 10 percent bonus, on top of their base value (on the sheet, the base value score already reflects the 10 percent bonus).

The idea behind the bonus is simple: The longer a skater’s program goes on — and free skates usually run four to four and a half minutes — the more tired a skater gets. So performing difficult jumps in the second half requires more strength, endurance, and skill, and the 10 percent bonus is meant to acknowledge that.

One skater who takes advantage of this rule is Russian skater Alina Zagitova. During her free skate program, she performs all her jumps in the second half to take advantage of all of the bonus points, as seen on her scoresheet from the team event in Pyeongchang:

Alina Zagitova’s scoresheet from her free skate during the team event.

In plain English, a higher number of difficult jumps landed cleanly (unsurprisingly) leads to higher scores. And ideally, you want all those jumps to happen in the back half of the program.

But there’s still a lot more to a high-scoring program than just gaming the point system.

Strategy is important, but there are limits to how many points a skater can earn by padding their program with difficulty

In the Olympic free skate, men are allowed a maximum of eight jumping passes and women are allowed seven, which restricts how much difficulty any one skater can pack in.

Skaters are also not allowed to repeat their quadruple and triple jumps more than twice per jump, unless the repeated jump is part of a combination. If they repeat a jump even once (e.g., they perform two quadruple toe loops in one program), they can only receive 70 percent of the base value of the jump on the second time around.

In Mikhail Kolyada’s free skate during the team event, for example, he repeated his quad toe loop, which gave it a base value of 7.93 instead of 10.30. You can see this on his scoresheet, where the second “4T” is followed by “+REP” (his first jump was downgraded). Because he repeated a single quad jump not in combination, he only received 70 percent of its base value, plus a 10 percent bonus for performing it in the second half of his program:

Mikhail Kolyada’s scoresheet.

If these rules didn’t exist, a skater could ostensibly build a program in which they simply repeat one high-value jump they’ve mastered, over and over again.

There are deductions for everything from falling to under-rotating a jump

Under the older 6.0 system, falling during a program typically spelled doom for a skater. A fall was considered a huge mistake because programs were judged as a whole, with less attention paid to the minutiae of individual elements. But falls weren’t ever given a base numerical value, since that system wasn’t really mathematical; it was much more relative than that, a way to rank skaters against one another.

But because elements now have base values and can each account for a certain number of points, flaws in the way a skater executes them — and any resulting point deductions for mistakes — are now tabulated on an element-by-element basis. Naturally, the easiest mistake for casual viewers to spot is a fall, and each time a skater hits the ice, they’re penalized with a 1-point deduction from their total score. They’ll also see that fall reflected in a lower GOE score for the element they were performing when they fell.

Another instance where a skater might be penalized with a deduction is if they under-rotate a jump. Every triple jump that isn’t the triple axel requires three revolutions, with the axel requiring three and a half. But there are cases where a skater may complete the jump yet still fall short of performing three full revolutions.

When a skater performs a jump and misses more than quarter of a revolution but less than half of one, they are docked points for under-rotation. This is marked by a < symbol on their scoresheet:

The “&lt;“ symbol on this skater’s scoresheet shows that their triple loop (“3Lo”) was under-rotated.
The “<“ on this skater’s scoresheet shows that their triple loop (“3Lo”) was under-rotated.

A skater who under-rotates a jump will only receive 70 percent of the base value of the intended jump. If a skater performs a jump and misses by more than a half revolution, their jump will be “downgraded” by a full revolution — say, from a triple lutz to a double lutz. That’s indicated by a “<<“ symbol on their scoresheet, and the skater will only receive credit for the downgraded, less difficult version of the jump.

Here’s the scoresheet for a skater who had their triple lutz downgraded:

This skater executed a triple lutz but failed to complete more than two and a half revolutions, so the jump was downgraded to a double lutz.

That’s a major loss of points. The skater above was trying to go for 6.0 points — the base value of a triple lutz — but was only credited with a double lutz, which carries a base value of 2.1 points (the 2.31 above reflects the 10 percent second-half-of-program bonus). On top of that, their GOE scores reflected how poorly they executed the attempted triple jump, and their score suffered even more.

Essentially, the jumps a skater performs will always have a base value. But how they execute those jumps determines whether that base value stays the same, or whether it’s downgraded due to under-rotation (or, for that matter, raised because it was performed in the second half of a skater’s program).

Judges can also ding a skater for mistakes on other technical elements like spins, or for not performing required program elements. Skaters can even be penalized for things like costume violations. But the clearest place to see deductions is in how the judges score jumps.

Difficulty level isn’t everything. The component score — or “artistic” score — matters too.

In addition to the points a skater earns from the difficulty level and execution of the technical elements of their program, there’s also the component score — formerly known as the measure of a skater’s “presentation” or “artistry.”

The component score is composed of how well a skater does in five categories: “skating skills,” “transitions,” “performance,” “composition,” and “interpretation of music.”

Each of these five categories is graded on a scale of 1 to 10.

The latter three categories — performance, composition, and interpretation of music — are subjective judgments on the aesthetics of the skater’s performance. “Composition” refers to how the program is crafted and how the elements of the program are arranged in a sequence. “Performance” refers to the overall quality of a skater’s movements, like the extension of their arms and legs during spins, jumps, landings, and footwork sequences, as well as their posture and alignment. And “interpretation of the music,” as defined by the US Figure Skating Association, is intended to “reward the skater who through movement creates a personal and creative translation of the music.”

“Skating skills” and “transitions” refer to how a skater moves across the ice — judges look for and reward speed and effortless-seeming power. They usually award lower scores to skaters who make figure skating look like the hard work that it is. And with transitions, judges are looking for intricate, varied footwork in the pockets of time between jumps and spins.

How a skater’s final score is tallied

To determine a skater’s final score, judges throw out the single highest and lowest scores in each of the five component categories and in the GOE for each individual element. Then the remaining scores get averaged out.

For example, on the first line of the scoresheet below, you can see that the highest GOE score the skater received was a 2 and the lowest was a 1, so one of the 2s and one of the 1s will be discarded, and then the remaining seven scores will be averaged.

An example of how judges average out a GOE score.

To factor a skater’s final GOE scores into their overall score, judges add or deduct standard point values that correspond to the skater’s GOE for each element of their program. For example, a triple lutz has a base value of 6.0, and if a skater achieves a +2 GOE average, they receive an extra 1.4 points. If the skater’s GOE on the triple lutz is -2, they will have 1.4 points deducted from the jump’s 6.0 base value.

A skater’s component scores are averaged in the same way as their GOE scores. The highs and lows in each category are thrown out, and the remaining scores are averaged.

In this skater’s “skating skills” category, the high (8.00) and low (7.25) will be thrown out and the remaining scores will be averaged.

The resulting total component score is then multiplied by a factor of 0.8, 1.0, 1.6., or 2.0, depending on the event — free skate versus short program, and men’s versus women’s versus pairs’. Men’s free skates are multiplied by 2.0, while women’s and pairs’ free skates are multiplied by 1.6. According to NBC, the weight of the component score goes up in the free skate to match the technical score, and so the overall score comes from both equally.

Finally, a skater’s weighted component score is added to the base values of all their elements, as well as those elements’ respective GOE scores (both positive and negative). Then any overall deductions for falls are subtracted. And that’s how the judges arrive at their total score.

It’s a little easier to make sense of this complicated process if you look at a scoresheet. Here’s Chan’s full scorecard from his free skate during the team figuring skating event in Pyeongchang:

Patrick Chan’s scoresheet from his free skate during the team figure skating event in Pyeongchang.

The numbers enclosed in the red box are the base values of Chan’s individual program elements, some of which reflect a bonus for Chan performing them in the second half of his program.

In the GOE column to the right of the red box, you can see his averaged GOE scores for each element (which, again, can be as high as 3 or as low as -3).

The numbers enclosed in the blue box are the judges’ individual GOE scores for each element, which were averaged after the high and low scores were dropped to arrive at a final GOE score for each element.

And the “Scores of Panel” column shows the total number of points Chan earned for each element — i.e., the base value of the element, plus the final GOE score.

The numbers enclosed in the yellow box pertain to Chan’s component score and display the judges’ individual marks for his performance in the component categories. Just like with his GOE scores, the high and low numbers for each of the five categories were thrown out, and then the remaining numbers were averaged together.

Finally, his total component score was multiplied by 2.0, since this scorecard is for a men’s free skate event. (Remember, the component score multiplier changes depending on the event, as described above.)

So Chan’s total score for his free skate was 179.75 (as seen in the purple box), which is his element score of 87.67 plus his multiplied component score of 93.08, minus an overall 1-point deduction for falling while performing his triple axel (which you can also see reflected in his GOE of -3 for that specific jump, which is marked on the scoresheet as “3A”).

Chan’s scoresheet also shows how his component score turned out to be really important in the end; it’s basically what helped him land at the top of the men’s free skate event in the team competition even though other skaters performed more difficult — and thus higher-scoring — programs.

How Russian skater Mikhail Kolyada beat America’s Adam Rippon despite having a sloppier skate during the team event in Pyeongchang

One of the biggest questions during the team event in Pyeongchang was how OAR (Olympic Athlete from Russia) skater Mikhail Kolyada ended up with a higher score for his messy free skate than Adam Rippon, whose free skate seemed near flawless. Kolyada finished with a total free skate score of 173.57, while Rippon earned a 172.98.

This outcome stems from the fact that a messier program with a higher level of difficulty can score higher than a clean program with a lower level of difficulty. The base values of Kolyada’s jumps and other components were higher than Rippon’s — which meant that even though Rippon skated a cleaner program and earned higher GOEs and component scores (Rippon had an 86.78 on his components, while Kolyada had an 86.22), Rippon couldn’t make up the difference between the two programs in their level of difficulty.

The difference in the two skaters’ base values is pretty striking if you look at their scoresheets side by side:

Rippon and Kolyada’s scoresheets.

Kolyada’s executed elements had a base value of 81.41 versus Rippon’s 74.3. And what you’ll notice, as evidenced by the 4s in the “Executed Elements” column on Kolyada’s scoresheet, is that Kolyada attempted a total of three quadruple jumps. Those quads are what helped him achieve the higher base value.

Anyone who watched the live broadcast of the two men’s free skates could tell you that Kolyada didn’t land those quads cleanly, and his scoresheet reflects as much. For his first jump, he fell on a quadruple lutz (denoted on his scoresheet as “4Lz”) and earned a negative GOE, meaning he executed the jump poorly. The same goes for his quadruple toe loop (“4T”), which was downgraded (marked “<<“ on the sheet) to a triple toe loop. But no matter how sloppy those jumps were, merely doing them earned Kolyada a higher base value score.

Rippon, meanwhile, opened his free skate with two double axels (“2A”) and a triple flip and triple loop combination (“3F+3Lo”). He performed the four jumps cleanly and earned positive GOEs for all of them but earned a lower base value than Kolyada because the jumps weren’t as difficult overall as Kolyada’s quads.

The result was something of a seesaw battle between Rippon’s positive GOEs on easier jumps and Kolyada’s negative GOEs on more difficult ones. In the end, Rippon’s higher GOEs weren’t enough to make up the ground he lost to Kolyada’s higher base values.

Before 2006, under the older 6.0-based scoring system, a fall like Kolyada’s would have spelled doom for his chances at a medal because of how programs were judged as a whole. But under the current system, where a skater can still earn a pretty high number of points for falling on a quadruple jump, there are a lot more scenarios where seemingly any outcome is possible.

The bottom line: Taking the risk of attempting quadruple jumps is handsomely rewarded. And that’s a controversial detail.

“I don’t even enjoy watching skating today because it’s all about quadruple jumps,” skating legend Dick Button told the New York Times last month. “If you’re a pole vault jumper and you knock the pole off its supports, do you get points for it?”

The other determining factor in the Kolyada-versus-Rippon result was that Rippon under-rotated his triple lutz, the last jump in his program (it’s the “3Lz” on his scoresheet, marked by a “<“ symbol). As far as mistakes go, under-rotation isn’t as easily spotted as a fall, but it can be just as costly.

Adam Rippon’s triple lutz, which was under-rotated.

Because the judges said Rippon under-rotated his lutz, he only received 70 percent of the base value of the jump, or 4.62 points instead of 6.6. He also lost 0.6 points on his GOE. It’s hard for casual viewers to see the mistake, even in the slowed-down GIF above, but the judges caught the under-rotation, and Rippon’s score reflected that.

Had Rippon not under-rotated his lutz, his total score would have ultimately surpassed Kolyada’s, as only 0.59 points separated the two skaters in the end. And the -0.6 GOE that Rippon received for his under-rotated lutz essentially accounted for the difference. It just goes to show how if you opt for Rippon’s strategy of performing a simpler but cleaner program instead of a messier but more difficult one, mistakes are even more costly.

Despite placing third and the ensuing outcry that he was robbed, Rippon seems to have accepted the result with good spirits and a sense of humor.

“I think we need to get those people who think that I was ripped off on a judging panel immediately, maybe before the individual competition,” he told Good Morning America.

Rippon — along with the top men’s skaters in the world — will next compete at the Pyeongchang Olympics during the men’s figure skating individual event, which begins with the short program on February 16, 2018, and concludes with the free skate on February 18.