Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
I had to remind myself of that sentiment in the early hours of Friday morning as I watched Russian figure skater Alina Zagitova clinch the gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics ahead of the K-pop loving, goth jock of my cold, black heart, Evgenia Medvedeva, who won silver. Zagitova’s combined score from the women’s free skate and short program was 239.57, which beat Medvedeva’s combined 238.26 by 1.31 points — a small margin that was basically determined by the short program earlier this week.
For anyone watching the women’s free skate, 1.31 points feels like an arbitrary number because we aren’t often asked to subjectively quantify sports. And it’s especially dubious for anyone (including the judges) who believed Medvedeva had the more charismatic and powerful free skate.
But the best explanation of Zagitova’s win lies in the current figure skating scoring system — which favors jumps — and Zagitova’s ability to hit the most difficult jumping combination in the women's field: a triple lutz–triple loop.
The women's free skate was almost a repeat of the short program in that Zagitova successfully landed her triple lutz–triple loop combination in both programs. The only difference was that when she first attempted it as the opening jumping pass of her program — where she usually places the combination — she hesitated on the landing of the lutz and didn't perform the loop. So she ended up adding the triple loop after the second triple lutz in her program (highlighted in yellow on the scoresheet below):
Zagitova’s combination had a base value of 12.21 points, and she earned an additional 1.70 points in her Grade of Execution (GOE) for the combination, bringing her total number of jumps to 13.91. The GOE measures how well (or how poorly) a skater performed a technical element like jumps, spins, and step sequences.
Medvedeva actually had two triple-triple combinations in her routine — a triple flip–triple toe loop and a triple salchow–triple toe loop — but neither one was worth as many points as Zagitova’s combination. Being able to hit that combination was crucial to Zagitova’s routine, and to her gold medal win.
Zagitova also made a point to maximize how many points she could earn by strategically stacking all her jumps closer to the end of her program. By doing this, she took advantage of a detail of the scoring system that awards a 10 percent bonus to the base value of all jumps performed during the second half of a routine, because those jumps are done on ostensibly tired legs. It’s conventional wisdom that It’s easier to hit jumps earlier when your legs are fresher.
Zagitova’s ability to complete all of her jumps in the second half of her program makes her an exception — Medvedeva was only able to put five of her jumping passes into the second half.
By stacking her difficulty in both her short program and free skate Zagitova made it very difficult for the other skaters to catch her. Medvedeva actually tied Zagitova in the free skate, but didn’t have enough difficulty in her short program to make up the difference.
Medvedeva turned in the better performance, but it wasn’t enough to catch Zagitova
Many people who watched the women’s free skate came away thinking that Medvedeva skated better. The numbers don’t disagree. Medvedeva’s base scores for her free skate elements, including all her jumps, was 62.33 points. Zagitova’s was 66.01 points — 3.68 points higher.
But when you add in the two skaters’ GOE scores, Medvedeva closed the gap to 2.44 points (Medvedeva’s score once her GOE scores were factored in was 79.18, while Zagitova’s was 81.62), meaning that Medvedeva did a better job of performing the elements in her routine.
Medvedeva also had the better component score. The component score primarily applies to the appearance, choreography, and interpretation elements of a skater’s program. Here’s a breakdown of Zagitova’s 75.03 component score:
And here’s a breakdown of Medvedeva’s higher 77.47 component score:
Notice the 10s littered throughout Medvedeva’s scoresheet. The judges clearly felt that Medvedeva skated a superior program in terms of its overall aesthetic and Medvedeva’s artistic performance.
But because the more technical side of figure skating scoring is such a numbers game, Zagitova’s high base values and large number of bonus-eligible jumps kept the two skaters close.
In fact, from a strictly numbers standpoint, the women’s free skate ended with a tie — Medvedeva beat Zagitova by 2.44 points in her component score but trailed Zagitova by 2.44 points in the technical elements.
Yet, because the scoring system favors strong jumpers and Zagitova tailored her routine and her strengths to maximize the number of points she could earn, she ultimately came out on top. Medvedeva performed only five of her jumping passes in the second half of her program, putting her at a points disadvantage when Zagitova performed seven in the second half of her program.
Both women skated spectacularly, with Zagitova taking gold and Medvedeva taking silver. But even though the numbers can explain why that outcome wasn’t reversed, something about the system still feels imperfect.