Sports

How To Be A Skating Score Nerd: The Futile Search For Understanding

Kim Yu-Na performs her short program at the 2010 Winter Olympics.

hide captionSouth Korea's Kim Yu-Na is in the lead going into tonight's Olympic free skate. Can the rest of us hope to understand what's going on?

Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images

The best and simultaneously meanest thing that they've done for nerds who like the Olympics is make the skaters' full, detailed scores available online. If you hit the little "plus" signs next to each score, it will show you exactly how the score was arrived at. (Start here for one primer on scoring.) It just begs for a descent into geekdom, into trying to unlock the mysteries of the subjective and make it more like deciphering nutrition labels on boxes of cereal.

Tonight is the women's free skate, which is the marquee event of the Winter Olympics for a decent number of viewers and certainly for NBC. As it approaches, let's delve into those score sheets and see whether it is possible to transform oneself into an armchair scoring geek. We have the tools!

Okay, let's get nerdy.

Oh, we get nerdy all right. After the jump.

If you expand the score for the leader (by a mile), Kim Yu-Na, you will see, for instance, that she not only had the jump combination with the highest base value of anything completed all night (10.00 for her triple lutz-triple toeloop), but she also got two GOE scores of 2.00 (for that combination and for her spiral), while only one other skater all night long got one that high (and it's Mao Asada, who's in second place). "GOE" means "Grade Of Execution," and it means, roughly translated, how well you did the element, given that you did it.

So not only did Kim perform a jump combination that was more advanced than everyone else's, but she executed it better. If you watch the video of her performance, you'll see that combination close to the beginning, and that she never, ever looks like there is any possibility she will fall down or break a sweat. If she had a cartoon bubble over her head, it would say "La la laaaaa." This equals her 2.00 GOE.

Compare that to the also excellent but significantly lower scoring program from Mao, where the early triple axel-double toeloop received only a 0.60 GOE score, as opposed to Kim's 2.00. That's a significant difference — 1.4 points out of the 4.7-point difference between them is the quality of the execution of the combination jump, despite the fact that neither one of them fell down, which is how many of those of us with very little knowledge judge good and bad jumps. Fall = bad. We know this much.

I do notice that Kim comes out of the jump with lots and lots of speed, while Mao is almost stopped at the end of hers, which I'm assuming is the difference. This is intriguing.

Note also that Mao's lone 2.00 GOE score was for her spiral sequence, and if you watch the video, you will know why. That one's not difficult to figure, because it is flat-out gorgeous, no calculator required.

Oh, we could do this all day, and tell ourselves that we are understanding it all better and better.

Consider American Rachael Flatt, who wound up in fifth place, twelve hundredths of a point behind fourth-place Ando Miki of Japan. Flatt was two full points ahead of Ando in the "Executed Elements" part — that's your element-by-element score for your jumps and spins and so forth. She's behind Ando because of the "Factored Program Components," which is the mushier part of the scoring where broad marks are given for things like choreography and "interpretation." There are five parts of your Factored Program Components score, and Flatt trailed Ando in all five: Choreography/Composition, Transitions/Linking Footwork, Interpretation, Performance/Execution, and Skating Skills.

Now, you will notice that for a system that was originally developed as an alternative to the old 6.0 system as a way of removing some of the subjectivity from scoring and make it more transparent, this system contains more nooks and crannies than an English muffin, into which any judge so inclined could dump his or her biases.

Fuzzy-sounding things like Performance/Execution and Skating Skills are explained in this document (that's a PDF, by the way), and I encourage you to review its highly scientific criteria, such as whether a skater is "sincere in emotion" and — I am not making this up — whether the skater creates an "invisible connection with the audience."

My, yes, it's impossible to see how subjectivity could creep into a discussion of who does or does not have invisible connections to the audience. Similarly, the criteria for Interpretation include "artful manipulation of nuances." Believe it or not, in discussing pairs and ice dancing, there is a reference to "'surrender' to the music and possibly to each other that creates an entity greater than the two of them." We are becoming untethered from our nerdly pursuit. In fact, somewhere along here, one is tempted to develop the game, "ISU Skating Criteria Or High School Literary Magazine Submission?"

It's not that there's anything wrong with subjective criteria, or judging emotion, or caring about interpretation and beauty. Please don't misunderstand — I am emphatically pro-beauty. I would vote a straight beauty ticket, if I were participating in all this. Beauty is part of skating. Beauty must be scored. But those detailed score sheets have a way of deceiving the studious mind into believing that they've made a very exact science out of it, dissecting beauty like a frog until you can actually cut into its heart. Alas, it is not so easy.

Ultimately, knowing what the detailed scores look like feeds the close observer in all of us. It's interesting, seeing the sometimes significant differences between what seems to be one perfectly good jump combination and another. The commentators do their best to explain where the jumps and spins won or lost the competition (there was much discussion of this following the Lysacek-Plushenko brouhaha in the men's final), but what will they say if it comes down to "invisible connection with the audience"?

The attempt at close study that this encourages — it's tempting, but it's futile. Too much remains murky, even for people who do know what they're talking about. The scoring system loves it when you grab your skate to extend your leg; Dick Button thinks it's the death of art (which you know if you have listened to him discuss skating for more than five minutes).

It turns out it's actually very difficult to study for the Olympics.

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