How Competitive Figure Skating Works

The Judging System

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An ice skater in front of the judging panel, which includes nine judges and a technical panel. Eddy LEMAISTRE/Corbis/Getty Images

U.S. Figure Skating, along with many other national figure skating associations, is folded under the huge umbrella that is the International Skating Union (ISU). The ISU was formed in the 1890s to serve as the governing body that sets the performance requirements and rules for figure skating, speed skating and ice dancing competitions. Once figure skating had become internationally established and accredited, the sport was included in the Summer Olympic Games in 1908 and 1920, and it was switched to the Winter Olympics lineup in 1924. Ice dancing joined the Olympic lineup in 1976. Today, the ISU rules govern all of the competitions that lead down the golden road to the World Championships and the Olympics, which are considered widely the two most prestigious figure skating competitions in the world.

As we've learned, competitive figure skaters have a laundry list of requirements they must meet during the various programs. In the United States, this judging system is followed at all regional and sectional events, including the U.S. Championships, the U.S. Synchronized Skating Championships and the U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships. This system is also followed in other skating competitions governed by the ISU, including the Olympics and World Championships.

In previous years, the ISU Judging System relied on the 6.0 points system, in which the judges submitted scores and the skater or pair of skaters ranking closest to 6.0 at the end of the competition won. According to the ISU, today's judging system focuses entirely on "evaluating the quality of each element performed (Technical Score) and the quality of the performance (Presentation Score). It's considered to be a fairer and more balanced scoring system. Under the old system, skaters dreaded being chosen to go first because they believed that judges consciously or subconsciously gave lower scores until the end of the competition, when they were able to compare more of the athletes.

Judges are now responsible only for evaluating the quality of each individual performance, thanks to the work of the technical panel. While nine judges oversee ISU sanctioned events, the technical panel is made up of three officials: the Technical Controller, the Technical Specialist and the Assistant Technical Specialist. Their purpose is to identify the different technical elements performed by each skater as they are completed. The Technical Specialist takes the lead on this task and is backed up by the Assistant Technical Specialist and the Technical Controller to ensure that any mistakes are caught and corrected quickly. Skaters and judges may also call for a review of the Technical Panel's work if they think a maneuver was missed or categorized incorrectly (such as a double axel being mistakenly classified as a single, which merits a lower difficulty rating).

To further cement the integrity of the technical assessment process, a video replay operator is employed to record the programs so that they can be reviewed if needed. A data operator also records all of the maneuvers and their difficulty levels. In case of disagreement, the majority among the three officials rules.

Having been relieved of this burden, the judges can concentrate on the quality of the maneuvers performed. In the next section, we'll examine the scores the judges assign to skaters.