Back in March of 2010, I published an interview with Patrick Ibens of Belgium. A month prior, he was one of the judges on the panel during the mens short program at the Vancouver Olympic Games. Ibens' answers on the state of judging were eye-opening to many and it became a very popular talking point across the internet and during the 2010 World Championship, which soon followed.
Ibens retired from judging following the Olympics, but still pays attention to the sport. I asked him about some of the newer rules that the International Skating Union has implemented this season, as well as a new set of questions about the judging itself and the problems that may still occur.
TW: To start off-- at most, how much do you think components scores should vary between competitions? Aside from the performance/execution and interpretation scores, I don't think the other scores should vary that much. Do you agree?
Ibens: I agree. Skating skills are there, whether you skate well or poorly. Michelle Kwan, as an example, always had a quality to her skating that was always present, no matter now she skated. This is true of all skaters (whether great or average). That mark should only fluctuate about 0.50 points at most, in my opinion.
TW: Let me stop you there. Why, then, do we see judges moving skaters' components scores around so dramatically based on performance? For example, a skater, when clean, scores in the low 8's or high 7's, but when they have mistakes or an average performance, the components might drop even into the 6's? Why does this happen?
Ibens: The problem is that, as a judge, you have an idea of which level of scores each skater is worth. Skater A would be 8.50-9.00, Skater B would be 7.00-8.00, Skater C 8.50-8.75, and so on. This would be their range when they skate clean or have small mistakes. When the top-level skaters start making small mistakes, it generally doesn't have any effect on the components; you still see high marks. One fall by Patrick Chan, for example, obviously doesn't have any influence on his skating skills or transitions.
Top-level skaters tend to still have a drive to compete and fight for every last point until the final note of the music. They know that they have lost points in the Grade of Execution, so many seem to start focusing on the components mark and not let the performance get away. Skaters at lower levels, on the other hand, are more prone to showing that they haven't had a good skate, and their marks start to drop.
But, when skaters have several major errors, that is where I believe the problem starts.
As a judge, you still want to be able to come up with the right result, and because of these big mistakes, you can't fathom still scoring the skater in first place or in a high position. So what seems to happen? The judges drop the components way lower to make sure that the scores don't result in a first placement. [Note: judges do not know the total scores that they are giving each skater. They could come up with an idea if they are quick with math, but all they do are mark elements from -3 to +3 and then assign the five components scores.]
This is something that can also work in the opposite direction. For example, one skater has a severe lack of transitions in the program but still gets a high score for it. The reason here, I believe, is that the judge feels that this was the best program but doesn't know if after all of the calculations are done that the skater will have earned first place (or a high placement) if the judge were to drop the transition score way down. That is why most of them still give a high mark.
Is this fair? No!
Is it acceptable for the sport? Sadly, yes!
Let me explain what I mean by this. The sport of figure skating already has too many controversies over the judging. Remember, this is why the IJS was instituted in the first place.
Could you image if, at the 2006 Olympics, Evgeny Plushenko would have ended up in 2nd place because of a low transitions mark? He was given high transitions marks because he was the best that night and no one wanted to take the risk of potentially not rewarding him first place because of that one aspect.
TW: So, you say it's acceptable for the sport when the judges adjust their scores to the point that they feel confident about which order the skater will place. Don't you see a huge problem with the framework of the IJS in that statement?
Ibens: This is what I already more or less said in my first interview. No matter what system they use there's always a way to get around it! And don't forget, Plushenko at the 2006 Olympics was just the very start of the IJS and nobody really knew how to find a way to judge it.
At that time judges were still allowed to compare more or less by keeping their previous sheets to themselves. Now they have to place them away making it more difficult to compare. At least that is what most people think. [Ibens is referring to judges being able to use notes they had made throughout the start of the event when they were scoring. A judge could write that they had given a 7.75 to Skater A, and base the mark of Skater B around that. Something I just learned today that this was allowed for both the pairs and mens competitions at the 2006 Olympics, but by the time the ice dance competition came around, judges were told that they had to leave any papers in a box underneath the table prior to the start of the competition. Interesting.]
TW: But, for myself and many skating fans, all this says is that even though IJS has been established where it is supposed to rank skaters against a point system, it's still a comparison game in many ways where judges can make sure the results end up how they personally want them rather than just marking appropriately and seeing what happens. I said above that judges could 'adjust' their scores, but they can just as easily manipulate scores to help out certain skaters. I know you elaborated on all of that in your first interview, but what really needs to be done to stop all of this?
Ibens: Nothing. Again, simply because it is people judging a sport, and people always find a way to get around any system to support who they want. And that's a sad thing.
TW: Skating has obviously lost a lot of fandom in the United States and other parts of the world following the incorporation of the IJS. This doesn't sound promising to gain some of that momentum back any time soon.
Ibens: The IJS has good parts and bad parts just like the the 6.0 system. However, in the 6.0 system, you had all the ingredients of a good soap opera: the star skaters, the bad judges, and everybody was hoping something controversial would happen like Kerrigan/Harding or the toe-tapping [the judging incident caught on camera at the 1999 World Championships where one of the judges tapped his toe twice which was suggested to signal to another judge to put a pair in second place], Kerrigan against Baiul, the Battle of the Brians, the Battle of the Carmens and of course the Salt Lake 2002 Olympics.
And even though these Olympics would change the sport forever they were the highlight for the ISU for media coverage! All other Olympic sports just faded away that year!
TW: Getting back on track. Wouldn't you think that skaters would see their scores in the first competition of the season and then adjust accordingly? Why do you think we don't see dramatic changes in programs where, let's say-- the transitions mark is low? Are the skaters just not capable of the more complex movements?
Ibens: Skaters and coaches are calculating and reviewing their scores all the time. They have to make some compromises, from what I have seen and talked about with skaters. Let's use this example: I complete a triple Axel and get the base value score for it (which is a great number of points), but my transition mark at my first competition is scored a 5.00. Now, for my next competition, I decide that I am going to add some linking steps and maybe some footwork before this triple Axel. I am not sure that I will receive a 6.00 for transitions (or anything higher than the previous score), but I do know that since I added this footwork, I have been missing my triple Axel in practice on a regular basis. The risk becomes too high. I can't be missing the triple Axel and at the same time still not scoring higher transitions marks. Will the 1.00 point increase (or any increase) in the transitions score cover the difference if I miss the triple Axel? No, probably not. So in the end, I stay with the triple Axel that is either telegraphed or doesn't have any unique entry or to be sure that I will get the points for it.
TW: Do you believe that judging panels should be broken up with one panel judging the GOE of technical elements, and one panel judging the PCS?
Ibens: At one point, I really thought that this would be the best thing. I was still judging at the time, and the ISU even tried it at an early event one season. The question, though, is who should be judging the components scores?
People from the ballet? Do they know anything about skating skills? What about the transitions into a solo jump in a short program, for example? Is this for the ballet people or for the judges because it's a required part of an element? Would they know the difference between rockers, counters, and three turns and their difficulty?
Or should normal figure skating judges score components still? They are doing it now, and as we see, some are really good at it and others are not, in my opinion.
Ultimately, I don't know what the best thing to do would be at this point.
TW: Are there any changes to the technical side of the IJS that you would like to see? For example, how do you feel about a triple loop/double toe combination earning as many points as a double toe/triple loop? Certainly not the same difficulty. Anything else?
Ibens: I know what you mean. In my opinion, the value of an element should be increased by 10% when the jump is performed as the second in a combination, and by 20% when it is the third jump. This is only for true combinations, not sequences.
TW: Do you think any specific changes or requirements should be made to the short program or free program? In the 6.0 system, it was a 'do or die' situation where all of the elements needed to be successful. In IJS, the only difference between the short and free is four or five more jump elements in the singles programs.
Ibens: In my opinion, the short program is fine as it is. The free program, as it is called, is not really free at all! I would come up with something like this for singles skaters:
7 jump elements + 3 spins or
6 jump elements + 4 spins or
5 jump elements + 5 spins
And then a step sequence and moves in the field or spirals sequence with a fixed value, as the current rules prescribe.
Then, the base values for spins would have to be more in line with the base values for jumps.
People will not agree with me on this, but I feel like the layback of Caroline Zhang should be worth as much as a quad toe loop. People will argue, 'But not everyone is flexible enough to do a spin like that!' But then I tell them, "Well, not everyone is capable of doing quadruple jumps, either, and no one seems to mind!"
TW: What do you think about the ISU technical minimums that were established?
Ibens: I'm not in favor although I can understand the reasons why.
There are too many participants at Worlds and since television companies are not willing to pay the high coverage prizes, the ISU runs out of money. No money means not as many skaters present. However, I think the minimum requirements are too high this season! Just my opinion.
By doing this, it looks to the outside world that the ISU only cut down on skaters and judges. Less skaters, judges can't stay for the whole championships, and so on. But there seems to be enough money to run the new IJS, which compared to the 6.0 system is obviously much more expensive because of the people and computers needed to run it. Also, not to mention what it will cost that every season there has to be an update for all the new technical changes.
TW: Do you think that the whole maximum number of entries per country rule should be done away with to allow all top skaters to go to Worlds? For example, six Japanese men have medaled on the Grand Prix this season and it looks likely that four of them will qualify for the Final.
Ibens: Not really, because in the end you will end up with mostly Japanese, Russian, American, and Canadian skaters and I don't think you can call that a World Championship. In other sports, such as track and field, I'm sure that the top 10 American 100m runners are all faster than most other countries, but they aren't all getting a chance to compete, either.
What I would like to see is the rule that says that the 3 best skaters at the Grand Prix Final can participate at worlds and those skaters don't count for the maximum amount of skaters a country can send to Worlds. For example, if the top three of the Final are all Japanese men, then Japan can send 6 men to worlds! (3 places earned at last season's Worlds and the three medal winners from the Grand Prix Final)
TW: Thanks once again for your time, Patrick!