Difficulty Over Artistry: The Evolution of Women's Figure Skating

In anticipation of forthcoming Olympic events, contributing writer Olivia Lynch ‘25 explores the effect that changes in the scoring system have had on competitive figure skating.

With the Winter Olympics kicking off last Friday, Feb. 4, there has been a renewed interest from the general public in the world of competitive figure skating. As when every four-year cycle rolls around, the top ladies’ singles skaters have taken center stage, as spectators around the world eagerly await their performances. This year’s competitors come with the promise of an exciting event to watch, as they mark an important milestone in Olympic figure skating history: the first attempts by women to land quadruple jumps. While this is a thrilling prospect for the evolution of the sport, it has brought with it a slew of issues — issues which have been enabled by the current scoring system, and which some fans say are killing the sport.

After a judging controversy at the 2002 Olympics raised an uproar about the subjectivity and vulnerability to abuse of the 6.0 scoring system then in use, the International Skating Union (ISU) implemented a new, more comprehensive judging system called the International Judging System (IJS), which continues to be used today. The IJS awards an individual score to each element a skater executes, rather than one number for the entire performance. Each element is broken down into four levels with four corresponding base values. Regardless of the technical call, each element also receives a number from each member of the judging panel, which together determine the Grade of Execution (GOE) that is added to (or subtracted from) the technical base score. In addition to the score they receive for their technical elements, skaters also receive an artistry score for their performance as a whole, which is broken down into five categories: skating skills, transitions, performance, composition, and interpretation of the music. Each category is scaled from -10 to 10.

While there are many positives to the IJS, it unfortunately has also shifted the focus of figure skating away from performance to technical difficulty. When awarding base value points to a jump, the technical panel doesn’t look at whether or not the skater actually landed; rather, they look to see if the skater had completed the necessary number of rotations by the time their blade hit the ice. So, for example, if someone were to attempt a triple jump and fall, but still do three rotations, they would get the base value points for the triple and simply suffer a fall penalty and lowered GOE. For most skaters, this risk is worth the reward — the base value of a triple axel, for instance, is 8 points, while the base value of a double axel is only 3.63 points. Given the way GOEs and penalties are awarded, this means that if someone were to fall on a fully rotated triple axel, they would likely score the same if not better than someone who cleanly landed a double axel.

This scoring system has been pushing skating to transform at an accelerated pace. Back at the 2010 Olympics, American skater Evan Lysacek managed to win gold without landing a single quad. Since then, other competitors have pushed the sport to a place where Lysacek’s once impressive display has become obsolete. Over the course of the past two Olympic cycles, quads have become a staple in men’s skating, with the majority of the world’s best male competitors having added them to their programs.

For the ladies, this evolution is more recent, but it is experiencing some growing pains. This is best exemplified by the 2021 World Championships and the performance of Russian female skater Alexandra Trusova. After a disastrous short program, Trusova found herself in 12th place, 16 points off the lead. (That’s a lot in figure skating). In her free skate, Trusova attempted 5 quads, only landing two of them. If you watch her program, it’s not particularly exciting or interesting, as she glazes through her choreography, just getting to the end rather than performing. For this imperfect and unremarkable outing, Trusova earned a score high enough to catapult her to third place. To the untrained eye, her skating is impressive, but one would likely be confused by her high numbers. When you look closer at the scorecards, you’ll see that Trusova was one of only two women to attempt quads at last year’s world championships. The single other quad attempt came from her Russian teammate Anna Shcherbakova, who opened her free with a quad flip that was called with a quarter under-rotation, and who won the event. Even with clean skates and beautiful performances, the other women in the field could not keep up with the technical power of the Russian ladies. Trusova and Shcherbakova swept the podium along with their triple-axel-landing teammate Elizaveta Tuktamysheva simply because they were able to land these difficult jumps.

What does this mean going into the contest for Olympic gold? For the ladies specifically, it means that the event will be unusually focused on technical merit, and that the beauty and entertainment value of less technical programs will go unrewarded. There are just a select few female skaters in the world who plan to attempt quads at the Olympics, and as long as they rotate their jumps, they are sure to sweep the podium.