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Figure Skating 101: Get to Know the Rules and Scoring

What to know about figure skating’s point system going into ice dance

You watched Germany’s Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot win pairs’ figure skating gold. You saw Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan win a second straight Olympic gold medal in men’s figure skating. Yet, you’re wondering how Nathan Chen could fall several times in his short program and still advance to the free skate, while Adam Rippon performed two near-flawless programs and didn’t win a medal.

During a skater’s performance, you will probably notice little boxes in the upper left corner of the screen. They turn red or green as a skater moves through his or her routine depending on how well each element is executed. At the beginning of each skating season, the International Skating Union determines what will be required in each program.

Here is a detailed list of the required elements in each program this season.

For instance, in the women’s short program there are seven required elements. The elements this season are a double or triple axel, a triple jump, a jump combination, a flying spin, a spin combination with only one change of foot, and a leaning spin, sit or camel spin. The terms may be foreign, but they help provide an example of what the judges expect to see.

Here’s a quick primer on how programs are judged to get you set for ice dance, which begins Monday (Sunday night in the U.S.), and women’s figure skating, which starts Feb. 21.

The women’s, men’s and pairs’ short programs last a maximum of two minutes, 50 seconds. The women’s free skate lasts between 3:50 and 4:10, but pairs’ and men’s free skates can last between 4:20 and 4:40.

The ice dance short dance can last anywhere from 2:40 to three minutes, and the genre of music is dictated by the International Skating Union. For the Olympic season, the short dance must use music with a rumba rhythm plus any number of the following Latin American dance rhythms: samba, mambo, meringue, salsa, bachata and any closely related Latin American or Caribbean rhythms.

The Pyeongchang Olympics are the first Games in which women, men and pairs skaters are permitted to use music with lyrics. The new rule was introduced for the 2014-15 season, but this is the first Olympics the rule change affects. Ice dancers had already been allowed to use music with lyrics.

The free dance has no required musical genre, but the music must be arranged in such a way that it has a rhythmic beat and creates an “interesting, colorful, entertaining dance program.” It lasts about four minutes.

Scores and judging
Skaters receive two sets of marks for each program: the technical element score and the program component score. The technical score is based on the difficulty and execution of the technical elements, such as jumps and spins, while the program component is based on artistry, interpretation and presentation. The two numbers are combined for a skater’s total score.

The total element score is a sum of all the element scores. A total score is determined by two sets of people for each program: the nine-person judging panel and a three-person technical panel.

The technical panel identifies each element (such as discerning a flip from a Lutz, or a quadruple jump from a triple jump). They are also charged with verifying if jumps are fully rotated or landed short.

For elements such as spins and footwork, the technical panel assigns levels numbered one through four, where four is the highest. A skater can enter the spin in a difficult way, or change position during the spin to make it more difficult.

This is the reason why a technically gifted skater like Chen can exponentially rack up points, while Rippon, who relies more on his performing skills, does not post the same kinds of scores.

The members of the judging panel evaluate each element based on how well it was performed, assigning a grade of execution between -3 and +3 to the element’s predetermined base value. The highest and lowest scores get dropped while the remaining seven scores are averaged.

Then, the judging panel adds the base values with the grades of execution to get the total element score.

The program components score is based on the judges’ determination of the overall program, and not the individual elements. The judges mark five program components on a scale from 0.25 to 10.

The scores are averaged to form the score out of 10 for each component. Then, that total is multiplied by a factor, which differs for each program, so that the total element score and the program components score are weighted more equally in the makeup of the score.

The factored results are rounded to two decimal places and added, providing the program components score.

The total segment score is the technical and program scores added together. The skater’s final score is the total minus any deductions, which can be taken for missed time limits, illegal elements, costume violations, program interruptions and falls.

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