How Competitive Figure Skating Works

Breaking Down the Score
Tonya Harding has an asthma attack while she awaits her scores in the Kiss and Cry Zone at the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics.
Tonya Harding has an asthma attack while she awaits her scores in the Kiss and Cry Zone at the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics.
Pascal Rondeau/ALLSPORT

With all of the technical responsibilities of scoring moved to an appointed panel, the judges are free to focus on the athletic and artistic merit of the performances, as well as the other program components. Scored on a scale of .25 to 10, these components are:

  • Skating skills -- the overall quality of the performance, flow on the ice, edge control and technique. The judges also take into consideration how effortless the skater's acceleration and deceleration are.
  • Transitions/linking footwork and movement -- the variety and difficulty of footwork, movements and positions performed
  • Performance/execution -- the performance value, which is how well the skater or pair of skaters interpret the choreography and music. Judges also look at the execution of the routine, which includes the precision and quality of movements performed.
  • Choreography/composition -- the concept and vision behind the program, as well as its originality and how well the movements match the music
  • Interpretation -- perhaps the most artistic and intangible component, interpretation is how the skater or pair of skaters translate movement to match the music.
  • Timing -- how well the athletes skate in time with the music, as well as how well they translate the rhythm into the choreography

The technical score (also called the element score) is a substantial portion of the overall score. Each maneuver is assigned a level of difficulty, or base value prior to competition. During the performance, the judges give a grade of execution in the range of +3 to -3 to each move performed. Then, the base value and the grade of execution are combined to determine the total element score.

Scores from nine of the 12 judges are randomly selected to determine the final score. To obtain an overall score, the total element score is combined with each program component score to determine the segment score. In some areas of the varying figure skating disciplines, the scores are factored, or adjusted overall, so that the program component score is comparable in value to the total element score. For example, many male skaters (thanks to their brute strength) are able to score nearly a hundred points in the technical category. Since the perfect program component score is only 50, a high score of 100 throws the balance of the two categories out of whack. In this case, the program components are factored by 2.0 (their weight is doubled, in other words), so that they are more in sync with the technical score.

Skaters wait for scores to be announced in an area known as the Kiss and Cry Zone. The purpose of this area is for skaters to do pretty much that -- kiss and cry with their parents, managers, coaches and other supporters while they wait for the judges to render an overall score. At the end of each competition, every skater is given a breakdown of his or her scores and how he or she was evaluated.

Competitive figure skating is bound by the iron-clad International Skating Union rules, and there's seemingly little room for error. But figure skating scandals are some of the most salacious in the wide world of sports. We'll take a look at a few of them on the next page.


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