The very complicated scoring system in figure skating

Posted: Friday, February 22, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- Think you had trouble understanding the computerized BCS football rankings? Try human-driven figure-skating scores.

"Idiot's Guide to Figure Skating Maxim No. 1 and 1A" to why Sarah Hughes won the women's figure skating championship at the 2002 Winter Olympics: 1. She skated best in the long program, which counts 2/3 of the score. 2. Michelle Kwan was the third best.

There was a tiebreaker involved but we'll get to that later.

The judging system Thursday night worked the way it was designed -- the way it should have in pairs competition, which caused the one of the biggest controversies in Olympic history. Throw out reputation and past effort, the best skater on a particular night won.

And like the BCS, strength of schedule -- or strength of program -- had a lot to do with it.

Hughes, who will turn 17 in May, successfully executed seven triple jumps, including two triple combinations. Toward the end of the program, she nailed a combination involving a triple toe loop. Experts say that's the toughest triple combination for a skater because the landing on the first jump has to be perfect to even attempt the triple-toe.

"Idiot's Guide to Figure Skating Maxim 2": Hughes performed the best and the most difficult program. She was rewarded for it by amazingly jumping from fourth to first. The operative word is jump.

"I'm doing all these jumps and I land and I say 'Wow, I'm still on my feet! I'm having fun," she said.

Inspired by a crowd building in crescendo, Hughes got looser and skated beyond her years. She nailed one of the most difficult free skates ever attempted by a female in the Olympics.

Maybe the key was she was too young to be scared. She wasn't sure she could even win a medal.

"I'm at the Olympics and I'm the third person on the team from my own country," she said. "I figured I just needed to pull out everything I can. The crowd was so loud I sometimes couldn't hear my music, but I just kept nailing everything."

As one of the first of the top group to perform, Hughes set the bar high. And suddenly, the best skaters in the world wilt by the 16-year-old breathing fire down their necks.

Three skaters, Sasha Cohen, Michelle Kwan and Irina Slutskaya, all had a chance to pass Hughes. Each appeared nervous and tentative. Two of them (Cohen and Kwan) fell. Slutskaya was less energetic and upon finishing. Despite the whinings you now hear from the Soviets, the mutterings of disgust between her gritted teeth suggested she thought she had blown it.

And Hughes, who needed a miracle, saw the waters part.

To win, she had to be scored No. 1 on the free skate, and Kwan, No. 1 after the short program, had to fall to third. Basically, someone had to fall between Hughes and Kwan. Enter Slutskaya.

"Sarah skated good; I'm just surprised," said Slutskaya. "I'm good skater. I skate good today. Judges took choice. That's it."

Here's how close it was: On skating's complex Total Factor Points, Hughes and Slutskaya tied. The tiebreaker is whom the judges thought was best overall in the free skate.

Five judges picked Hughes first, two picked her second and two (including the Russian judge) fourth. Four judges pick Slushkaya first, two of them second and two thirds, one fourth.

"Idiot's Guide Maxim No. 3": First-place votes are what count.

Actually, the judge from Finland scored the overall free skate a tie between Hughes and Slutskaya. When that happens, the tiebreaker is whom that judge thought was the best in presentation (the second marks) of the free skate. The judge gave the edge to Hughes by .1 of a point.

"Idiot's Guide To Skating Judging Maxim No. 4": Hughes was both the most daring and the best.

Her effort characterized the Olympic ideal: Higher, Stronger, Faster." She was three for three.

(David McCollum, sports columnist for the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway, Ark., is part of the Morris News Service team covering the Winter Olympics).

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