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Olympic Figure Skating: The Basics

The Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic figure skating competition is divided into four events:  Men's and women's singles, pairs, and ice dancing.  If you are new to the sport, here are some things to know about what you'll see in Vancouver:

Singles: Men and Women

What is it:  Men or women perform on their own, completing various elements. Both disciplines complete a short program of 2 minutes and 50 seconds at the most, and a free skate of around four minutes for ladies and four-and-a-half minutes for men.  The short program includes required elements that must be completed, but the free skate also has parameters for a "well-balanced program," such as limitations on the number of jumping passes that can be done, how many times the same jump can be attempted, spin varieties, etc.  That's why you will sometimes see a skater not receive any credit for an element that he or she appeared to complete just fine.

Major Elements:

Jumps:  The skater launches himself off of edges and toepicks, performs a certain number of revolutions, and lands on one foot (hopefully).  Tip: Sometimes skaters dig the toepick into the ice on the landing - often producing "snow". Some have two-foot landings. Skaters who avoid this and have more balanced landings will receive higher grade of execution points on their jumps.

Spins: A skater spins on an axis.

Spiral sequence (ladies): spirals are when a skater has one blade on the ice and the other leg is raised higher than hip level for a certain amount of time.  There must be three different positions and a change of foot in a spiral sequence.

Step sequence:  A sequence of footwork, done in either a straight line, circular, or serpentine outline.

Major pop culture references: Ice Castles, Ice Princess, She's a Good Skate, Charlie Brown.


What is it: Pair skating is a man and a woman skating together, doing the same elements that are done in singles skating and then some.  Pairs complete a short program (2 minutes 50 seconds) and a free skate (4 and a half minutes). 

Major Elements:

Side-by-side jumps:  The pair completes the same jumps or same sequence of jumps next to each other.  These jumps are as strong as their weakest link - if one member of the pair falls or downgrades their jump, that is what the pair will be scored for.

Lifts:  The man lifts the woman over his head.  Tip:  Look for lifts with interesting entrances, or more difficult lifts where the man goes into a spread eagle, for example.

Twist lifts:  The twist starts out essentially as a throw jump, in which the man catches the woman. Tip:  Look out for the skaters who can make this look effortless, versus the pairs who look like they are colliding in the catch.

Throw jump:  The man throws the woman into a jump and she lands on her own.

Side-by-side spins:  The man and woman perform the same spin side by side. Tip:  Look for the skaters who can do this with perfect unison; it's sometimes rare even at the top level.

Pair spin:  The pair spins together in various positions.

Death spiral:  The man pivots with bended knees while swinging the woman on a deep edge of her skate; she is almost horizontal to the ice.

Spiral sequence

Step sequence

Major pop culture references:  The Cutting Edge, Blades of Glory

Ice Dancing

Ice dancing consists of a man and woman pair essentially dancing on ice.  Ice dancers do not jump or do solo spins. The Olympic ice dancing consists of a compulsory dance (in which the skaters perform the same standardized steps and holds to a specific tempo; the dance drawn for the Olympics is the Tango Romantica), the Original dance (each season the International Skating Union designates a rhythm or set of rhythms for the OD, this season's theme is country/folk music), and the free skate, a four minute dance to which the skaters pick their own type of music.  Ice dancing music can contain lyrics.

Major Elements:

Lifts:  Fairly strict rules surround ice dancing lifts, such as the man may not hold his arms over his head.

Step sequences:  Both together (in hold) and non-touching.  There are so very many types of steps.

Pair spin

Sequential twizzles:  The twizzle is a multi-rotational one-foot turn.  They should close, fast, and together.

Things to look out for:

Ice dancing scores are often more difficult to understand than other disciplines because there aren't moves like jumps that are easy to discern.  There are several qualities that ice dancing judges are looking at.  Among them are:  unison of movement, choreography and interpretation, speed, skating on the beat and with the music, innovation, deep skate edges, and great footwork.

An explanation of the judging system comes after the jump.


The Olympic judging panel consists of nine judges.  A random draw will select seven of those judges' scores to count, and the judging is anonymous.  

Base Value

There are technical specialists in addition to the judging panel, whose job it is to determine the type and difficulty of each element a skater performs. The technical specialist is the one who determines if a jump was fully rotated, or what level of difficulty a move was.  The more intricate or difficult an element, the higher "level" it is.  Each element and level has a different point allotment determined by the International Skating Union.

Some ways to lose points:

Wrong edge calls:  The lutz and flip jumps are similar jumps taken off of opposite edges of the skate.  The lutz is taken off of the outside edge, while the flip is taken off of the inside edge.  Skaters often take the jumps off on the wrong edges.  There are two calls the technical specialist can make in these cases:

The severe wrong edge (e on the judging protocol):  This means that the wrong edge is obvious and severe and judges are required to dole out "grade of execution" (See below) marks of between -1 and -3.

Wrong edge call (! on the judging protocol):  This means that the offense was not as severe or obvious and it is up to the judges' discretion what they decide to give for grade of execution.

Downgrades:  For a revolution of a jump to count, the jump must be rotated 3/4 of the way around in the air. Triple jumps must have three revolutions, double jumps two revolutions, etc. Axels are different in that they have a forward takeoff and an extra half-revolution (a triple axel has three-and-a-half revolutions).  Often, the rotation is started before the jump or after a skater has already landed, which is known as a "cheat."  This is why some skaters often only receive credit for double jumps, when in fact they appear to have completed a triple. This is difficult to detect without the help of slow motion.

Deductions:  There are several categories of mandatory deductions.  The one you will likely see employed most often at the Olympics is a mandatory 1.00 point deduction for any fall.

The technical specialist's determination designates the "base value" of the element.

Special Factor Bonus:
In the free skate, the base values for each jumping pass attempted in the second half of the program will be multiplied by a "special factor" of 1.1.  In pair skating, lifts, twist lifts, and throws will also be multiplied by 1.1 when attempted in the second half of the program.

Grade of Execution

The judging panel determines "grade of execution" points for how well (or how badly) an element was executed.  The range for this is +3 through -3.  This is where skaters earn points for clean landings, or lose points for turnouts or hands down during jump landings, for example. These points can really add up.  The final grade of execution for each element is determined by averaging the judge's GOEs.

The base value and grade of execution points are added together for the total technical score.

Program Components

Where there used to be a score for artistic impression, there is now the program components category.  In program components, judges provide scores for the following five categories:  skating skills, transitions/linking footwork, performance/execution, choreography/composition, interpretation. As you can see, this is an effort to reward well-choreographed and intricate programs.

These scores can go from .25 up as high as 10. The components score for each category is determined by the average of the judges' scores.  These averages are then multiplied by the following factors (ice dancing varies):
Men:  short program 1.0, free skate 2.0

Ladies and pairs:  short program .8, free skate 1.6

The total program components score is added to the technical score, and then any mandatory deductions are subtracted from that, to achieve the total segment score (TSS). 

The TSS for the short program is added to the TSS from the free skate in order to generate a skater or team's full score.  There are limits to the number of elements skaters can complete in each skate; if a skater goes over, only the first elements are counted. Skaters are ranked at the end of the competition in terms of their full score.  If there is a tie, the skater with the higher free skate score is ranked higher.