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It's the presentation, stupid

By Sandra Loosemore
CBS SportsLine Figure Skating Writer
Dec. 2, 1998

One of the most popular topics in figure skating commentary these days is the issue of "artistry." Here are a few quick examples of the many things reporters and television commentators have been saying about the subject:

  • In her book Edge of Glory, Christine Brennan discusses Michelle Kwan as the pre-Olympic favorite: "That's what judges for years had been saying to her through their marks," Brennan wrote. "Artistry breaks the tie in the long program, especially at the Olympics."
  • Reporting on 1998 Olympics in The New York Times, Jere Longman wrote: "Six of the nine judges placed Lipinski first. She received all 5.8s and 5.9s both for technical merit and artistry. Lipinski outdid Kwan in technical marks from eight judges and matched her in artistry in the eyes of four judges."
  • During the broadcast of the men's short program in Nagano, Scott Hamilton describes the judges' second mark: "That's where opinion comes in. ... That's artistry. That's, in your opinion, what you think the program was worth."

There's only one problem with these statements: They are all false.

Olympic-eligible skating is not judged on "artistry." The official terminology
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  • for the second mark is "presentation," not "artistry," and in fact the words "artistry" or "artistic impression" do not appear anywhere in the rulebook.

    Instead, the presentation mark is effectively a second technical mark encompassing several specific criteria explicitly listed in the rules. It's not just opinion or a measure of how much the judges like a skater's performance (or even peripheral matters such as music, costume, or hairstyle, as some sports writers have asserted). While it is possible for skaters to achieve art through their sport, that is not what the judges are considering.

    What these judges are looking for in their presentation marks, as specified in the rules, is:

    1. Harmonious composition of the program as a whole and its conformity with the music chosen
    2. Variation of speed
    3. Utilization of the ice surface
    4. Easy movement and sureness in time to the music
    5. Carriage and style
    6. Originality
    7. Expression of the character of the music
    8. Unison (in the case of pairs skating only)

    It's important to consider some of these criteria in more detail:

    'Harmonious composition' and music

    The issues of "harmonious composition of the program as a whole and its conformity with the music chosen" and "expression of the character of the music" are in fact measures of the choreographer's skill as much as those of the skater's.

    For example, if a skater is skating to tango music, the steps and movements selected by their choreographer ought to shout "tango," not "funky chicken" or Swan Lake. Or, if a skater did a program consisting of a medley of a tango, funky chicken, and Swan Lake, this would demonstrate a lack of "harmonious composition of the program as a whole."

    A common myth spread by the media is that the presentation mark has to do with how much the judges "like" the skater's music, and that the judges "like" classical music more than other styles. Perhaps some judges do enjoy classical music more, but in terms of the way competitions are judged, it's far more important for skaters to choose a style of music they can interpret well, and to show up with a thoughtfully choreographed program.

    Speed and the ice surface

    "Variation of speed" and "utilization of the ice surface" also has to do with how the program is constructed. Judges want to see skaters demonstrate the ability to skate fast and slow sections, and to cover all parts of the ice surface. Placing all of the elements in the middle of the rink directly in front of the judges would indicate poor utilization of the ice surface. The same is true for placing jumps so close to the corners of the rink that the skater has to pull up to avoid hitting the boards.

    Movement and sureness

    "Easy movement and sureness in time to the music" concerns the skater's technical ability to perform the movements rather than the construction of a particular program. Are the skaters' arm movements controlled, assured and chosen for deliberate choreographic effect, or are the skaters simply flailing their arms to keep their balance or check their rotation? Are the skaters able to execute footwork with a rhythm and timing to match the music, or does it all seem forced?

    Carriage and style

    Along with "movement and sureness," the "carriage and style" refer to technical qualities of the skater's basic technique. Judges value good posture -- a straight back and upright carriage, instead of hunched shoulders or breaking forward at the waist -- and an ability to fully extend the free leg with the toe pointed. They also want to see smooth basic skating without the back, shoulders, and arms jerking or flopping about on each stroke.

    While some skaters grumble that this amounts to a supposed bias toward "classical," "balletic," or even "unmanly" skating, pointed toes and extended free legs are, in fact, simply indicative of good technique. the
    Nicole Bobek
    As much as the media would have you believe, judges don't take fashion into consideration when they grade Nicole Bobek. (Allsport)

    For example, in ordinary stroking, if the skaters don't extend fully on each stroke, they aren't getting the full power from the push. In jumps, pointing the toes in the air is necessary to get a soft landing on the toe pick instead of thumping down on the flat of the blade. In addition, crisp positions with good stretch and extension demonstrate control, strength, and athleticism. These positions are more difficult and should get more credit in the judging.

    The simple truth is that none of the aforementioned topics has much to do with supposed "artistry." Nor do these criteria have much to do with whether skaters "feel the music" or judges "like" the skaters, their programs or their music. Members of the media who cover the sport do nothing but confuse the public when they persist in using such terms to describe judging.

    Why can't sportswriters and television commentators at least get the terminology correct and refer to the presentation mark by its proper name? If reporters made similar errors in other sports -- failing to understand the purpose of a first down in football, or using the wrong terminology when describing baseball or hockey -- they would be laughed out of the business.

    Moreover, when the media keeps saying that judging in figure skating is based on "opinion" and "artistry" rather than specific rules, it leads to a public perception that skating is not a "real" sport. This is an insult to all the athletes and also to the officials, who must invest a significant amount of their own time and money to train before qualifying for a high-level judging appointment.

    Sandra Loosemore is CBS SportsLine's figure skating writer.

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