Road To The Olympic Games

Analysis

Figure skaters will be feeling the crunch under new rules

The one constant in figure skating is change. Once again this season, athletes and their coaches are being forced to adapt to a new scoring system and new rules that present a fresh set of challenges.

New scoring system, shorter free programs present challenges

Under figure skating's revised rules, two-time Olympic champ Yuzuru Hanyu and his competitors in the men's division will have less time to work with in their free programs. (Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images)

In a sport like figure skating, you can always expect changes — on and off the ice.

On the ice, it's the skaters who make the changes as they continue to push the sport forward with new jumps and other manoeuvres. Off the ice, the way those skaters are judged occasionally needs to be updated to keep up with those advancements.

To that end, the International Skating Union has made some very significant changes to the judging system that will be in effect for the next two seasons and maybe beyond.

Watch our explainer on the new figure skating rules:

The International Skating Union has made some rule changes to reflect the evolution of the sport, making sure no one else will turn a jumping loophole into an Olympic gold medal. 2:18

"I think it was felt that a ceiling had been reached and too many programs were looking the same," says CBC figure skating analyst Carol Lane, who has coached skaters in the Olympics and world championships. "By changing the process of how points are gained, I think they are hoping for a better balance and more variety in the way skaters use their elements."

The biggest change is to the way that elements will now be evaluated on what's called their grade of execution. Before this season, judges worked on a minus-3 to plus-3 scale to score how well an element was performed. This has been changed to a minus-5 to plus-5 range.

With the revised scale of values coming into effect, along with some other factors, the world record books have been reset. So expect to see a bunch of new records established during the Grand Prix season, which opens this weekend with Skate America (watch live on CBCSports.ca beginning Friday at 10:30 p.m. ET).

Why the expanded scale for the grade of execution scores? Lane weighs in: "I think it gives skaters a much clearer picture of what they need to accomplish during the elements and places a higher value on execution than it previously did, if used correctly."

Skaters explain their most difficult elements:

Canada's figure skaters work extremely hard to perfect their craft and make the most difficult elements look like a walk in the park. Hear straight from the athletes what they find most difficult and why. 2:23

I'm also interested in another rule change: the length of the free programs for both men and pairs has been cut by 30 seconds. They'll now by an even four minutes long, bringing them in line with the women's and dance events. Also, the men are now limited to a maximum of seven jumping passes in their free (it used to be eight) and the pairs teams no longer have to do side-by-side spins.

Lori Nichol, a leading choreographer who has worked with world and Olympic pairs champions, has noticed both pros and cons to working under the new rules.

"While it was a pleasure not to have to find a way to make the side-by-side spin work in context and musically, an element that often was 15-20 seconds, it was a challenge to be even more efficient yet musical and creative in 30 less seconds overall," she says.

Pairs teams like Canada's Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro have also seen the length of their free skates cut by 30 seconds. (Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images)

That time crunch is one of the biggest challenges for choreographers in creating the material for skaters to execute.

"Because of the new plus-5 criteria, [Chinese clients] Wenjing Sui and Cong Han and I focused on creativity and equal respect for all elements," Nichols says. "In theory, the plus-5 could be highly coveted and therefore inspiring. But of course, achieving that plus-5 requires time enough to perform well and authentically.

"The challenge remains the same — to give a pair enough space to feel fluid, unhurried and enough time for thoroughly developed ideas. But now in even less time."

Adapt or die

One of the best things to happen to ice dance in a long time is the newly added individual evaluation of a couple items performed by the skaters.

"Dancers are always trying to design the most creative and points-friendly programs and will continue to do so," says Lane. "The separation of levels for the lady and man on the twizzles and one-foot step sequence definitely helps with creativity."

The priority for skaters and their teams is now figuring out where and how to maximize the points. It's become even more challenging for the singles skaters, as all of the quad jumps and the triple Axel are now worth less. In some cases, a lot less — the quad Lutz, for example, is now worth a full 2.10 points less on the base value. Also, a quad jump can only be repeated once and the 10 per cent bonus for jumps in the second half of a program now only applies to the final three jump elements in the free program and the last jumping element in the short program. 

None of this is easy to factor into the overall strategy. A big challenge, says Nichol, will be trying to fit everything in without rushing the program.

"Mistakes are tiring, physically and emotionally," she says. "With less time for breathing, recovery and preparation of elements, the athletes will need to be strong mentally and adjustments made to their training."

With the rules constantly changing in figure skating, Nichol believes the most essential skill for modern skaters and their coaches is "adaptability."

As the sport continues to evolve, it's another exciting time for figure skating.

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