Nancy J. Hamilton earned her MA in East Asian Studies at Stanford. She is a former competitive figure skater, coach and 1996 National Masters Bronze Medalist.
After the disastrous ending of the Women’s Figure Skating Final at the Beijing Olympics on February 17, many are left wondering, what is wrong with this sport and can it be saved? On a night that ended in emotional pandemonium with team ROC’s simultaneously-occurring multiple meltdowns, there was actually some pretty spectacular skating: Kaori Sakamoto’s sheer brilliance, Wakaba Higuchi’s impeccable musicality, Mariah Bell’s sublime radiance. Unfortunately, what lingers in the mind instead is the bizarre and heart-wrenching conclusion brought to us by team ROC’s toxic implosion.
The three Russian entrants, all coached by the infamous Eteri Tutberidze, were favored to sweep the podium. However, just as the events had gotten underway, one of Eteri’s skaters, the 15-year-old gold medal favorite Kamila Valieva, was found to have tested positive for a banned substance during the Russian qualifying event in December. The report cast a pall over the entire women’s event, setting aswirl questions over the extent to which Eteri’s training program, already reputed for its draconian rigor, may have veered into abuse. What could explain the presence of a cocktail of heart medications, the combination of which is known to enhance endurance, in a 15-year-old girl’s body?
This disturbing question, together with the role of Eteri and her training program, is now under investigation. However, limiting the inquiry to this one program’s dysfunction misses the larger question: what is driving the relentless push to continue upping the technical content of this sport beyond the limits of the healthy female body? The answer lies in the scoring system.
Known as the International Judging System (IJS), it was introduced by the International Skating Union (ISU) after the 2002 judging scandal that occurred in the pairs event during the Salt Lake City Olympics. Replacing the old “6.0” system in which judges would rank skaters by relative preference, IJS assigns points for every element a skater can do. The new system was seen as a reform that would protect the sport from judging malfeasance by introducing an objective basis for scoring together with safeguards against judges’ collusion. While one can argue that the system has largely been successful at achieving these aims, it replaces one set of problems with another, incentivizing a voracious appetite for points that endangers the athletes and threatens the future of the sport.
The IJS was designed to reward risk-taking. Allotting points for even partially-completed difficult maneuvers, it incentivizes training heretofore unachievable elements, like quadruple jumps. Under this system, it is possible to rack up more points with a botched quad attempt than to land the same triple jump perfectly. This dramatically lifts the lid on points that can be amassed under the technical side of the score — the side that tracks points for completed elements. Yet, the cap on artistic points remains fixed.
The result is a system that vastly overweights the technical score relative to the artistic score. When the IJS was introduced, the point distribution was calibrated toward skaters performing mostly triple jumps. The women were not performing quads and the men only sparingly. So there was relative parity between the technical and artistic marks. But now, with the quad revolution, it’s no longer a 50/50 equation; it’s more like 60/40. Take, for example, American Mariah Bell’s Olympic free skate, comprised primarily of triple jumps. Very similar in technical content to the women’s programs of 2002, her program earned scores that reflected a 50/50 ratio of technical to artistic points (68.3 / 68.7). Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto, with superior speed plus a triple-triple combination lacked by Bell, earned a greater overall score, but still a 51/49 ratio (78.9 / 74.4). Now, ROC’s Alexandra Trusova, who attempted an earth-shattering 5 quadruple jumps — 4 landed cleanly — scored the highest overall score, with a whopping 60/40 ratio (106.2/71).
The outsized impact of quadruple jumps in the scoring equation fuels a relentless drive to push the technical content of the sport, but at what cost for women’s skating? Eteri’s track record of success with teenage phenoms is littered with a trail of these same skaters burning out or becoming debilitated by the age of 20 if not earlier. Brutal training regimens and restricted diets stunt puberty, keeping bodies lithe and aerodynamic. Poor jumping technique that capitalizes on “pre-rotation” (basically counter-twisting the upper body prior to takeoff in order to unleash rotational speed) leaves many of her skaters debilitated. Witness Evgenia Medvedeva, 2018 Olympic Silver medalist, unable to jump 2 years later due to chronic back pain — retired at age 21 and unable to perform many of the elements she formerly enjoyed. Is this the horror show we want?
The harm is not limited strictly to Eteri’s skaters. The Russians’ success with quads has pushed skaters worldwide to train these nearly impossible elements. Take Japan’s Rika Kihira, who became Japanese National Champion in 2021 with a quadruple Salchow. Why was she not in Beijing? Injury. How about American Alysa Liu? She wowed the skating world in 2019 when she won the US Championships at the age of 13 with 2 triple Axels; the following year, she won with a quad Lutz. She lost these jumps soon thereafter due to injuries and a growth spurt. After recovering and skating a truly delightful (and quadless) program in Beijing, she was asked if she would continue to train the quads. Her answer: No, because every time she trains them she becomes injured.
And what about the mental health effects? One needs only to revisit the disturbing aftermath of the women’s Olympic final for a clue. 15-year-old Valieva took the ice last, the week-long saga of the doping inquiry clearly weighing on her slender shoulders. She landed her first jump shakily and then either fell or stepped out of the majority of her remaining elements. After this devastating performance, she was greeted rinkside by Eteri harshly demanding “Why did you let go, why did you stop fighting?” As Valieva deteriorated into a pile of tears, her coaches sat steely-eyed, and the disconsolate skater was left to be comforted later by a crew member of the Russian TV broadcast team. Meanwhile, teammate Alexandra Trusova, who felt that her connect-the-dots, quad-packed free skate deserved to win the night, was having a temper tantrum of epic proportions, screaming at her coaches, “I hate this sport, I hate everyone! Where’s MY gold medal!?” And Anna Shcherbakova, the final Russian teammate and now gold medalist, was left to sit alone in the green room staring vacantly into space, clutching a stuffed animal while no one from team Russia came to congratulate her or surround her. Not exactly the Olympic moment one dreams of.
And, lastly, the judging of the artistic mark, now called the component score, needs major reform. The component score evaluates the quality of the skating itself — the basic stroking and edges, the connecting moves, the speed, the flow and the intangibles of performance and interpretation — what is the story, what is the emotional impact? Judges have for years been grossly negligent in their application of this mark, lackadaisically aligning the component score with the technical score. This is lazy and egregious. Case in point — the artistic mark ranking of the competitors in this event, in order from the top: Shcherbakova, Sakamoto, Trusova, Valieva and then everyone else. This is utterly indefensible. Are we to understand that Trusova’s brutalist program with minimal artistic effort is actually better quality skating than the flawlessly executed interpretive genius of Wakaba Higuchi? Or that Valieva’s effort as the distraught skater struggled to finish her program after her soul had left her body — going through the motions detachedly as an empty shell of herself — was somehow better quality skating than the ethereally heartful free skate of Mariah Bell? It is simply not possible to make that argument. It is so wrong, and it needs to change. The ISU must address it or risk that the dystopian ending of this Olympic women’s event becomes a recurring nightmare.