How Is Figure Skating Scored?

Photo: Mike Powell/Allsport/Getty Images.
One of the most iconic slights that former Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding experienced throughout her career didn't have to do with an injury, but rather a hot pink dress that she sewed by hand and wore during competitions. The judges despised it so much that they once threatened to kick her out of the sport if she wore the dress again. Famously, Harding told them, "If you can come up with $5,000 for a costume for me, then I won't have to make it." This true story is portrayed in the biopic about Harding, I, Tonya, which is out in theaters everywhere this Friday.
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To the uninitiated, it might seem petty or shallow to judge a world-class athlete on their clothing. But in figure skating, appearance is weighed almost as heavily as technique, and is something that judges have to take into consideration when determining a skater's overall score.
So, how exactly is figure skating scored? According to the International Skating Union (ISU), the organization that regulates the sport, judges are responsible for determining a technical score based on the quality of each "element" (a jump, turn, or other movement) performed, and a presentation score, based on the quality of the performance. These two scores get added together, minus any deductions for missteps or falls, to determine the final score.
For the technical score, the scoring process is somewhat straightforward. Each element has a base value, which varies depending on how difficult it is. Some more complex elements are broken down further, and can be awarded more points depending on the number of turns or foot sequences completed. Judges give their personal "grade of execution" for each element, which allows them to add or deduct points (on a scale of scale of +3, +2, +1, 0, -1, -2, -3), based on the skater's performance.
Interestingly, the skaters don't have a ton of freedom when choreographing their routine, because there's a list of required elements that they must include in their program. They can't get any extra points if they do more than the set elements, but they can get extra points if they attempt an extra rotation on their jumps or turns. For example, in 1991, Harding went for and landed a triple axel, making her the first American woman to do so — and earning her a perfect technical score from one judge.
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Then there's the presentation score, which is made up of five factors: skating skills, including balance, cleanness, and flow; transitions, or the footwork, positions, and movements between elements; performance, how skaters carry themselves and personality; composition, the choreography; and interpretation of the music and timing, which includes music choice and rhythm. Judges award points for each category on a scale from 0.25 to 10.
Figure skating judges are supposed to quantify all the different elements of a skater's performance, "without comparing each skater in relation to all others," according to the ISU. In other words, they're supposed to be as objective as possible, and not play favorites. In fact, judges aren't even allowed to smile or show any signs of emotion, because it could be considered favoritism. But unlike other sports, there's pressure for figure skaters to perform and be likable in order to please the judges and get good marks.
Harding had a famously resentful relationship with the judges. She wore homemade costumes and skated to music from the Batman and Jurassic Park soundtracks as opposed to Tchaikovsky or Vivaldi, but had impeccable technique. Looking back, Harding's rebellious attitude might have been her way of protesting the superficial standards that figure skaters face — or maybe it was just a refusal to change who she was for anyone. But no matter what side of history you're on, you can agree that it made for a great story.
Twenty-four years following a scandal that rocked the world, Margot Robbie takes on the role of figure skater Tonya Harding in a behind-the-scenes story that will have you questioning what’s real, what’s fake, and how much we truly know about the controversial figures who become cultural lightning rods. I, Tonya opens in NY/LA December 8th and theaters everywhere January 5th. Grab your tickets HERE
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