Five-ring Circus

They All Fall Down

Figure skating, the world’s least-graceful sport.

Olympic figure skater Sasha Cohen

Olympics watchers, get off the couch and pour yourself a glass of pinot noir. The snowboard-cross portion of your program has come to an end; it’s time for ladies’ figure skating.

Prepare for a delicate spectacle of athleticism and artistry, of acrobatic leaps and gentle arabesques. Roses will be cast on the ice and fans will shout, Brava! Twenty-nine young women will glide across your television set like swans on a crystal lake. They’ll soar and spin in toe loops and flips and triple-axel jumps. And then—almost without exception—they’ll fall on their asses.

The figure-skating wipe-out has become so commonplace you could easily mistake it for a required element. During last week’s men’s finals, four of the top six competitors hit the ice during their free program. Both the bronze and silver medalists ate it; Yevgeny Plushenko won gold simply by managing to keep his butt in the air for four-and-a-half minutes.

It’s astounding that figure skating maintains its self-image as an art form in the face of so much flopping. According to the rules, an athlete must display flow, finesse, and an “effortless movement in time to the music.” She has to skate with style and clarity, “according to the principles of proportion, unity, space, pattern structure, and phrasing.” In other words, she can’t just jump and spin—she has to dance.

A dancer sweeps you away with her grace and flow and hides her sweat with a flourish. A world-class figure skater, on the other hand, pulls you into her own anxiety. She performs just barely above the limits of her skill, trying jumps you both know she can’t always land.

The stress of these make-or-break moments overpowers whatever artistry a performance may have. What should be a choreographed composition becomes a series of near-impossible leaps strung together with idle tootling. Skaters fill up the dead time with gratuitous arm movements as they catch their breath and get in position for the next jump. Meanwhile, the announcers expect the worst. Shouting over the music, they frantically set up each risky move—Here comes the triple toe loop, this is big!—and then sigh with relief when it’s over—Ohhh, gorgeous. That was huge. (Lest you think the booth personalities were less excitable in the old days, watch this movie of the first triple Lutz in 1962.)

Even the athletes themselves seem surprised when they complete a jump without falling down. Sarah Hughes couldn’t stop thanking the Lord as she finished her perfect, gold-medal-winning program in the 2002 Games. “I never did that before in my life!” she exulted.

If one of the goals of figure skating is to make it look easy, no one succeeds. To win the gold, you have to abandon any pretense of “effortless movement,” and use the fanciest moves you can to scare up points. Never mind that it makes you look like a bungling oaf.

You can’t blame the skaters for this—they’re just trying to win. It’s the scoring system that sets us up for the fall. Until a few years ago, judges rated a performance with two fairly subjective numbers. The first mark, for technique, reflected the difficulty of the program and the cleanness of its execution. You could pump up your technical mark by trying harder jumps, but if you fell down, you’d get a major deduction. The second mark, for presentation, was supposed to reflect the artistry of your performance.

The system came tumbling down after 2002’s Skategate scandal. The International Skating Union updated its rules, making the technical score far more precise, while still allowing the judges to rate artistic presentation with their usual whimsy.

Here’s how the new scoring system works: A technical specialist identifies each move that a skater performs and assigns to it a level of difficulty. Then the judges rate each of those moves with a “grade of execution.” To compute a skater’s total score, get out your “scale of value” chart and cross-reference the move, its level, and its grade. For example, you’d get 7.5 points for completing a basic triple axel. A perfect triple axel earns a couple more points, and a lousy one a couple fewer.

With such explicit scoring rules, skaters have learned to pad their numbers. A brief look at the chart reveals that a string of fancy moves done badly is worth a whole lot more than a string of simple moves done with grace and élan. What about tumbling on your ass? According to the rules, a fall on a jump automatically gets you the lowest grade. (Every fall also earns you a one-point deduction.) But if the jump is fancy enough, that low grade will still be worth big points.

The hardest maneuver in figure skating—a quadruple axel—can get you up to 16 points with a perfect landing. But if you blow it, you’ll still get 10 points—more than you’d earn for almost any other move. To put this in perspective, you can fall on your ass trying a quadruple jump and still get almost twice as many points as you would for executing a flawless double. That’s why Japanese skater Miki Ando will attempt a quadruple this week, even though she has every expectation of taking a spill. Men’s medalist Jeffrey Buttle did the same last Thursday. According to the announcers, his flopped quad may have boosted him from fourth place to the bronze.

There are required elements, of course, and limits to the number of jumps you’re allowed to attempt. But skaters who know the system can treat it like a video game, stringing together fancy combos so they can rack up a high score.

What’s so insidious about this system is how thoroughly it divorces the casual viewer from what’s happening on the ice. It’s bad enough that ugly spills earn valuable points. But even stuff you may not be able to see—like the difference between a Lutz and a toe loop—makes a big difference in the end.

What about those effortless, eye-blurring spins? I’ve always found them to be the most compelling part of a skater’s performance. Nobody ever falls while doing a spin, but they’re thrilling and graceful nonetheless. Some skaters are clearly better at spinning than others, but none of that matters in the end: In terms of scoring, the spin is a chintzy move. One of the highest-scoring spins you can possibly do—a perfectly executed flying change foot combination level four—is worth just five points. You could pick up that pocket change just by flubbing a triple axel.

As long as the judges keep rewarding ugly failure, you’ll never see a beautiful skate program. Imagine a ballet in which the dancers weren’t afraid to fall down: Here comes a tricky move—this fouetté en tournantis not her friend … Oooof, well, points for trying. The fearless modern skater hurls herself through the air, hoping she’ll get lucky with a perfect landing. She’s the opposite of graceful—she battles gravity at every turn.