Ever wonder how Olympic figure skating is scored? We talked to Mirai Nagasu and Tara Lipinski, two Olympian figure skaters, about the complex system and the incentives it creates for skaters.
Figure skating completely overhauled it’s scoring system after a judge rigged the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics pair’s event. The changes were intended to prevent collusion and guarantee that skaters were fairly judged, but they also changed how skaters approach the sport, which is why the scoring system remains controversial.
Figure skating programs have two components
Figure skaters perform what’s known as a “short program” and “free skate,” and they receive two sets of scores for each.
The Technical Element Score evaluates the difficulty of a skater’s jumps, spins, and footwork. Each move has a base value, and a nine-judge panel grades the skater’s execution of the move. A judge’s evaluation of a move can range from +/- 3 points, so for a move like the triple axel, which has a base value of 8.5, the maximum score, without bonus points, would be 11.5, and the lowest score would be 5.5. The final score for an element is calculated by removing the lowest and highest judges’ scores, taking the average of the remaining 7 scores, and adding that to the base value.
This is the reason why, at the 2018 US Figure Skating Championship in San Jose, California, Mirai Nagasu’s imperfect triple axel got her two more points than her US Olympic teammate Bradie Tennell’s flawless double axel.
Despite her stumble as she landed the jump, Nagasu attempted a triple axel, which has a higher base value than Tennell’s double axel.
The Program Component Score evaluates a skater’s presentation and artistry on the ice. Judges award points on a range from 0.25 to 10, awarding skaters for skating skills, transitions in their routine, performative elements, composition, and musical interpretation. The program component score, therefore, has a maximum of 90 points, unlike the technical component score which has no ceiling. Taken together, the sum of these component scores are the skater’s final score.
What this scoring system means for figure skaters
We spoke to Tara Lipinski, a former Olympian and the youngest person to receive a gold medal in the ladies singles event. She claims this new system rewards risk and difficulty over artistry, by adding more weight to the technical component of a skater’s routine. Skaters are incentivized to go for bigger jumps and to incorporate more jumps into their routines overall.
This can pay off for viewers, like in the case of Nagasu. She made history on Sunday, February 11, by becoming the first American woman to land a triple axel at the Olympics during her free skate of the team competition in Pyeongchang.
Despite its ability to create historic moments like Nagasu’s triple axel, there is a downside to the new system as well. Fans and general audiences were stumped when American figure skater Adam Rippon, despite having skated a flawless performance, placed third behind Russian skater Mikhail Kolyada and Canadian skater Patrick Chan, both of whom fell during their routines. Chan and Kolyada were rewarded by the new scoring system for incorporating more difficult elements, even though they didn’t execute their programs as well as Rippon.
Watch the video above to learn more about figure skating scores and to see our interviews with Nagasu and Lipinski.
You can find the official rules for figure skating judges here and the scale of values for each element here.
This video and all of Vox’s videos are on YouTube. Subscribe for more episodes.