Irrelevant Information

Mar 16, 2013

2013 Worlds: Of Vice and Men

Patrick Chan controversially wins yet another World Championships with an extremely sub-par long program.

Fans howl in protest on the forums, Twitter explodes with indignation, bloggers write jeremiads dedicated to excoriating CoP and the judges, lots of sound and fury all around, etc. The ISU does nothing.

In other words, yet another day in figure skating.

Sports fandom is such a funny thing sometimes. There's the sense that we attach a sort of moral excellence and virtue to sports, an idea that goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks and the concept of arete. To achieve the pinnacle in sport is a sort of supreme endeavor, athletic success is the result of inner virtue, and the Rules of the game are designed to mete out justice to ensure fair play. This facilitates emotional investment in sports, the veneration of athletes into demi-gods and allows sport to take up a place in our culture and inner lives that was once the domain of religion.

But what happens when the sport doesn't cooperate? What happens when the rules of the game feel fundamentally wrong? What happens when success is seemingly the result of injustice?

Bitterness and cynicism, certainly. Such feelings are especially amplified in the particular context of sport with its quasi-religious aura, as it feels like our pedestals and our emotional investment have been grossly misplaced. And if the result of the pairs scandal at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics serves as any indication, it leads to audiences leaving the sport in droves, because who wants to invest themselves in something that is perceived to be fundamentally crooked?

Granted, I don't think the result of the men's event at the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships will plunge figure skating into the sort of infamy the sport experienced at the nadir of the 2002 Salt Lake City pairs scandal, but that's simply because the wider public simply doesn't care about figure skating enough outside of the Olympics. I will bet my future second-born child that the ISU would have done nothing at SLC had the relentless scrutiny of the entire mainstream media and wider public not been there during those tumultuous weeks. So I highly doubt tonight will change anything at the ISU, just as the entire embarrassing spectacle of the men's world champion being roundly booed at Nice last year resulted in nothing. So the ISU does nothing, and skating continues. But I fear what could happen if such a result replicates itself at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. For the sake of keeping whatever shreds of credibility figure skating has left, it is imperative that the ISU fix the structural problems within the sport that allows such a result to occur.

As figure skating is a judged sport, the problem here is unfortunately two-fold: the judging and the rules of CoP itself. Both were responsible for the mind-boggling result tonight, but at this point, I'm tempted to say that the rules are the primary thing at fault here. Of course, I disagree with the judging tonight on many levels. I think a strong case could be made for the judges being overly generous with how they marked GOEs (in both the short and long programs, for that matter) as well as certain components of PCS for Mr. Chan. But I believe the main culprit here is a scoring system that counter-intuitively allows glaring, obvious mistakes to essentially mean....nothing. As long as you rotate the jumps, falling only results in a small deduction in GOE and a 1-point deduction. Points-wise, such mistakes can be easily made up for when it comes to other elements that are actually executed well, given how the point values are currently structured. After all, a fall on a rotated quad toe at this point can get more points than a well-executed triple lutz.  Plus, we are *told* by the rules that falls and other glaringly obvious mistakes do not necessarily affect the Program Components Scores, because falls are only, like, 3 seconds in a 4-minute program. All this logically makes sense in a certain kind of way...if we accept the basic premise of CoP as it is currently structured: that a figure skating performance is the sum of its parts.

But the problem is that such an assumption isn't necessarily intuitive or even widely accepted. If the reactions of many devoted fans of the sport as well as certain skaters to Mr. Chan's win tonight indicate anything, such an assumption isn't even intuitive or even accepted by people involved in the sport. The casual fans and wider public sure as heck don't accept this sum-of-its-parts assumption, because it simply isn't intuitive. The thing is, as a sport that incorporates within itself "artistic" elements, figure skating inevitably is more than than simply the sum of its nuts and the bolts--that is, the technical elements, the transitions, the amount of choreography--that grinds a program along from start to finish. By inviting in the attendant peculiarities of performance art, there's the niggling sense that the more ephemeral, elusive qualities also matter, the ones that make a figure skating performance more than just the sum of its parts: overall impression, emotion, audience connection, overall performance quality, beauty. These are the qualities that are very much impacted whenever a skater skates a program like Mr. Chan did tonight, with multiple extremely disruptive errors. So, should these qualities matter? Clearly they do to many. Somewhere along the way--rightly or wrongly--many people seem to have acquired the belief that highly disruptive errors such as falls and step-outs should significantly impact the scores enough to change a skater's placement. As long as we have a scoring system and judging that often ignores this belief, people will react negatively no matter how much they understand CoP.

That said, I don't believe the CoP is fundamentally irredeemable and should be scrapped, even though I understand how tonight's results certainly points towards that direction to many. But I still believe that many of the aforementioned problems could adequately addressed within the structure of CoP itself (e.g. change the GOE values to penalize falls and other disruptive errors more, completely overhaul the PCS categories, beat the judges into actually following the rules, etc), but of course that depends on the ISU waking up and actually doing something, which is highly unlikely.

Anyway, onto actually discussing the skaters:

You know...before the competition, I was hoping that Patrick Chan would do well here. I actually enjoy his La Boheme long program very much this year (the light, jaunty character of the music seems a much more natural fit for him than the old utterly serious Lori Nichol warhorses like Phantom of the Opera and Aranjuez) and I respect the fact that he has been listening to criticism and has actually tried to improve the performance part of his skating when he could have easily coasted along with the same old Lori Nichol programs he had been skating to forever. That said, he still has a long ways to go before being considered an Arteeste, but hey, he's trying, and in the spirit of CoP, I'm willing to give points for trying.

But to win like win with such a disastrous long program, especially when he's coming into the event with a rather controversial World Championship win last year's disheartening. Disheartening because such a victory makes a mockery of the sport and adds fuel to (false) image that the sport is fundamentally crooked and not worth watching, and also disheartening because a win like this one will likely tarnish the legacy of a very talented skater. At least we can be grateful that Mr. Chan didn't win the long program this time (unlike last year's farce), but it still boggles the mind how he could get nearly 170 points with such a sloppy performance that was pretty much disastrous after the first two jumping passes not only in terms of all the mistakes on the jumps, but also that he seemed quite off-balance and unsettled for pretty much 3/4ths of the program.

Denis Ten had the competition of his life, finally realizing the potential he displayed so many years ago when he made quite the splash placing 8th with a strong skate to Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 during his senior debut at the 2009 World Championships. After so many years spent wandering in the figure skating wilderness (including most of this season, actually), to skate like he did at Worlds is just...phenomenal. Given his past history, I was entirely expecting him to fall apart completely in the long program (remember that time when he fell five times in his LP at Skate America?) but thankfully, he didn't, thereby saving a night of extremely sub-par skating. Lovely, smooth skating all around and the jumps came so effortlessly, especially in the short program. Next season, though, I hope he gets better choreography as both his programs seemed a bit one-note.

Javier Fernandez deserves a congratulations for being the first Spanish skater to win a world championship medal in figure skating. Despite the unfortunate popped jumps--which is sadly the worst thing one can do under CoP, points-wise--Mr. Fernandez managed to win the bronze medal after a disappointing seventh-place short program that featured yet another popped jump. I've taken issue with Mr. Fernandez's PCS in the past given that he has certainly been the beneficiary of the Magical Quad Bonus, but he has clearly worked hard on improving his components since leaving Nikolai Morozov, especially in regards to skating skills, connecting movements and choreography while still remaining a charming presence and a sense of character on the ice. Pity he peaked at Europeans, though.....

Yuzuru Hanyu, all things considered, skated very well tonight, insofar as he managed to rotate and land almost all his jumps. With rumors of a knee injury and illness, as well as his asthma/stamina problems, it was quite the surprise to see him give a respectable showing after his entirely disastrous short program. That said, Mr. Hanyu looked very slow tonight, didn't seem to make much effort to really perform/interpret the music, and didn't finish off his movements, which gave an overall impression of sloppiness and made the entire performance look like a sort of Sisyphean effort from start to finish (to be fair, it probably was). Thankfully, this was somewhat reflected in the PCS.

Also, as I've generally been disappointed by Mr. Hanyu's long program all season given that it appears to be a poorly-done retread of his own (and far superior) Romeo and Juliet long program last year, I do hope that David Wilson will be able to cook up something better for Mr. Hanyu next season. I also hope that such a program will be able to bring back some of the pure balls-to-the-wall rawness and heart that made Mr. Hanyu so exhilarating to watch last year, as this season has generally been disappointing on that front as well.

I am extremely relieved that the tech panel chose not to overlook Kevin Reynolds' chronically under-rotated jumps tonight, as a podium placement for Mr. Reynolds tonight would probably be the last straw for my already tenuous sanity. No matter how many tiny quads he manages to eke out, Mr. Reynolds' mediocre basic skating quality should and will (Xenu willing) hold him back from reaching the uppermost echelons of the sport. Plus, Mr. Reynolds' long program is a snooze anyway, as opposed to his much more engaging short program, which he performs quite well.

I'm crushed for Daisuke Takahashi. Well, I suppose placing 6th in the world with his geriatric status and a gimp knee isn't all that bad....actually, who am I kidding. For someone of his stature and talent, his jumps were absolutely dreadful tonight, but--even worse--his usually-incredible performance abilities also seemed rather more muted than usual. I can only hope that such a disappointing result would lead Mr. Takahashi to dump Nikolai Morozov, but I have a feeling that isn't likely. Sigh.

*But then again, the fact that the judges seem to be overly GOE-happy when big elements are landed is not exclusively limited to Mr. Chan. It should be noted that I am of the belief that +3 GOE should be merited only when elements of a truly exceptional quality are landed.


  1. I agree with almost everything here regarding the IJS and how it's currently being used, or more correctly, misused. Like you, I don't find the system unfixable, but it needs a major overhaul. I can't agree about the assessment of the LP only because I didn't stay up to watch; in hindsight this was probably a wise decision.

    Now, tell us the truth: how much of this post was written ahead of time? :) Because unfortunately it seems as though plenty of competitions these days warrant this sort of reaction (e.g. there was ridiculous scoring during the GP, too).

    I realize this is not the main story, but any thoughts about Joubert's scoring? There seems to have been quite a disconnect between the judges (and audience) and the technical panel in assessing his performance last night.

    1. Joubert's PCS was actually not that bad at all - it's the tech that killed him, mostly thank to a discredited (second) triple flip due to already repeating the quad toe and triple sal. The UR calls on the triple axel and his later quad didn't help either. The Oda phenomenon seems to always linger amongst the skaters even when Oda himself isn't competing.

      As for the rest...I'm too tired. The event really was an exhausting experience to watch. Maybe we should just increase the automatic deductions on falls or something, and instead of trusting the judges with the GOEs on other disruptive errors (like a hand down)...make those an automatic deduction too. I read that suggestion on one of the big forums and I have to say I kinda like it. I definitely agree with the PCS overhaul as well.

    2. I'm optimistic that ISU will probably start working on PCS after Sochi. Reviewing the past rule changes, it's evident that the system is trying to reward artistry by introducing the choreo sequence, reducing the number of required elements, and giving positive GOE on elements well toned to the music. They also will allow the use of vocal music in Singles skating. I think the current PCS judging relies too much on SS and TR. If they start to assess PE, IN, and CH separately, skaters who do interpret the music and reach out to the audience will receive scores they deserve.

      Compare Chan's FS and Kostner's SP. They both have falls but Chan's affected the overall performance while Kostner's didn't. I don't think a fall or two automatically undermine the performance quality. E.g., Hanyu's FS at the Nice Worlds last year. He had a fall in the middle, but a lot of people commented that the fall even enhanced the performance because of the strong recovery. Likewise, Jeff Buttle might have had some programs with falls, but he recovered quickly and focused on his performance. In contrast, if a skater falls, is reluctant to get up, takes forever to get back to the program, it does affect the performance even if it is just one fall. Chan's performance had too many falls and other mistakes that were distracting. Even though he recovers quickly, the number of interruptions was too many for the audience to focus on his artistry. I love his FS this year and can see how much he worked on artistry. So it was unfortunate.

  2. I am so worried about Hanyu's injuries: his left knee was seriously injured and, at the final practice, he twisted his right ankle again. I wish if he had withdrawn, had let Kozuka or Oda skate instead, and hadn't further damaged his body like that. Knees and ankles are so important for skaters and I am worried about his future. But since he decided to skate, I am glad that he completed his mission to earn three spots for Japan. Otherwise, he would have been severely bashed for many years. It was really a miracle that he was able to land those jumps. I was moved very deeply. That was the most emotional performance of his this season. The situation was similar to the last year when he twisted his right ankle the day before SP. But this time was so much more painful that I can't watch it again.