There are lots of rules in figure skating--the rulebooks for U.S. Figure Skating, the governing body of the sport in the U.S., run to more than 700 pages. This article looks at the rules for pairs and singles skaters at international competitions, including the World Figure Skating Championships and the Olympics. For details on the rules for ice dancing and much more, visit the links at the end of the article.
For many years, figure skating competitions were judged under the familiar 6.0 system, in which judges compared skaters to one another, ranked them and gave each skater marks for technique and presentation ranging from 0 to 6. In 2004, the International Skating Union adopted the International Judging System for use at international competitions.
Determining the Winner
At each step of the competition, each skater receives points for technical elements and program components. Various calculations take place, and the scores for the short program and free skate are combined to give a Competition Score. The skater with the highest score wins.
Technical Element Score (TES)
Every element--every jump, spin, lift, footwork or spiral sequence--gets points. The base values are predetermined. A technical specialist identifies each element, and for some elements, such as spins and step sequences, also rates the level of difficulty from 1 to 4, with 4 being most difficult. Judges decide how well each element is done and give it a Grade of Execution from minus 3 to plus 3. The scores of the individual elements are added up, deductions for things like falls, time violations and illegal elements are taken, and the resulting number is the Technical Element Score.
Program Component Score (PCS)
Judges also score each skater's skating skills, transitions (linking footwork and movement), performance/execution, choreography/composition and interpretation of the music. Scores range from 0.25 to 10.
Free skates, which once let skaters showcase their strengths, have become more similar as skaters perform the maximum number of each element and go after difficult variations, regardless of how they look or whether they enhance the choreography.
Many skaters and coaches like the international judging because of the detailed feedback it gives. Others like it because the quality of elements is rewarded (or punished). Some believe it takes some of the subjectivity out of judging.
Because the system rewards complexity, simple programs done with pure technique--which many fans enjoy--do not score well. This may change over time as the rules are revised. In international competition, judges' scores are anonymous. The ISU believes that this offers judges protection to score as they see fit. Judges scores are not anonymous in competitions judged under IJS in the U.S.