A Guide to Scoring Figure Skating at the Olympics

Harry How/Getty Images
Harry How/Getty Images

Have you watched figure skating at the Olympics and wondered what the heck is going on? Why did the guy who fell still win over guys that didn't fall at all?

First used during 2004 competitive season, the International Judging System (IJS) is the modus operandi for the competitive sport of figure skating. It's far more complex than the previous 6.0 system, and understandably creates a lot of questions about competition results from figure skating fans and insiders alike.

Here is a brief primer to help make better sense of it so you can enjoy the PyeongChang Games.

A Brief History

At the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002, a French judge confessed to being pressured to take part in a vote-swapping scandal after a questionable result in the pairs competition that rocked the skating world. It forced the International Skating Union to dump the long-esteemed (and infamously subjective) 6.0 judging system and build a more objective system from scratch. The result was the IJS; to say it's complicated is like saying rocket science is basic arithmetic.

The (Im)Perfect 6.0

While the new system is complicated, the old system wasn't a cakewalk either. In the 6.0 system, a panel of judges (anywhere from three judges at small competitions to nine at major elite-level events) would assign skaters two marks for their performances, rating them on a scale of 0.0 (horrible) to 6.0 (perfection). The “technical merit” mark measured the level of difficulty and quality of execution of jumps and spins, and the “presentation” or “artistic merit” mark went for quality of overall performance, including footwork, artistry and interpretation of music. Those two scores were then added together and translated to “ordinals”—that is, if the top skater receives two 5.9s (a total of 11.8), and the next best receives two 5.8s (11.6), 11.8 becomes a “1,” while the 11.6 becomes a “2.” From there, the majority rules. If the top skater got a majority of first place ordinals, they win. To come in second, the next skater would need to receive a majority of second place ordinals or higher. Third place needs a majority of third or higher, and so on. 

After the 2002 Olympic pairs competition, it became evident that the 6.0 system was too easy to scam. The new system is designed to force the judges to dissect a skater's performance down to its individual elements.

...In with the new.

The new system is points-based. Skaters receive two marks for each performance—a “technical” score and a “program components” score—that are added together to form a composite score. Add the two together and the skater with the highest composite score wins.

But it's not as simple as it sounds. There are two sets of officials evaluating the competitors. The first is a “technical panel,” made up of five specialists (including an instant replay video operator) who watch each performance, identify each point-worthy element attempted by skaters, and assign it a base value in points. (For example, attempting a triple axel is worth 8.5 points, per the ISU's preordained rules.) Their evaluation provides one part of the overall technical score for the performance.

The second set of officials is a nine-member judging panel that evaluates the quality of execution of those identified elements, based on a scale of -3 to +3. (Falling while attempting a triple axel could earn a -3 score for that element, for example.) The judging panel's assessment provides the rest of the technical score.

The judging panel also assesses each skater's footwork, flow, skating quality, musical interpretation, and other movements that link the technical elements together to come up with the “program components” score.

Finally, there's an official referee, who oversees everything, to make sure there are no shenanigans afoot.

Racking up the points

To use the men's event from Sochi as illustration of the IJS scoring, Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu won the gold medal  despite two falls and some major bobbles. (He won gold again in PyeongChang.) But Hanyu really knew how to work the system, throwing enough high-scoring elements into his program, and doing (most) of them with style. One could almost hear the cha-chinging of points in the bank as he completed each element, like Super Mario collects coins on his way to save the princess.

Here's how it played out: In Hanyu's 2014 gold medal-winning freeskate, his first technical element was a quadruple salchow, and he fell. So the technical panel looked at it and determined that yes, it was a quadruple salchow—in which he takes off on a back, inside-edge of a blade and completes four full rotations in the air—and thus it has a base value of 10.5 points. Boom! Points in the bank for Hanyu.

The judging panel then looked at it, saw that he fell, and gave him the lowest score for execution: -3. (All judges give individual scores, but the top and bottom scores are thrown out and the rest are averaged.) Add them together and Hanyu now has a total of 7.5 points. His next technical element was a quadruple toe loop, which he landed. Again, the technical panel determined that it was indeed a quad toe, so he got a base score of 10.3 points. The judging panel then awarded him 2.14 points for execution (it was a great jump), so he got 12.44 total for the quad toe. Add that to the quad salchow attempt, and the points racked up fast.

Just for comparison's sake, let's look at the first two elements of Canadian silver medalist Patrick Chan's freeskate.

Chan landed a quadruple-toe-loop-triple-toe-loop combination right off the bat. Because it was a combination of jumps, the technical panel said it was worth 14.40 points. The judging panel gave him the highest possible execution score of 3. That gave him 17.40 points. (At that point, Hanyu only had 7.5.) He then tried another quad toe, but touched his hand down on the ice during his landing. The technical panel gave him the base of 10.3 just like Hanyu, but the judging panel gave him -1.57 points because of the slight misstep. So he got a total of 8.73 points for the second quad toe, while Hanyu got a 12.44 for his.

In the end, Hanyu attempted more elements with higher base scores, and got higher grades of execution on most of them. The pair ended up with an almost four-point difference in their technical scores, and even though Chan got a higher program component score than Hanyu (by 1.72 points), it was not enough to make up the difference.

In the end, the final score in an Olympic- or World-level competition is actually a combination of the marks from the short program and the long program—so it's possible to do badly in one program or the other, and still win a medal, mathematically speaking.

Oh, and if you have several hours and want to know what every technical element is worth, feel free to comb through the exhaustive ISU rules.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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10 Fast Facts About Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph breaks the tape as she wins the Olympic 4 x 100 relay in 1960.
Wilma Rudolph breaks the tape as she wins the Olympic 4 x 100 relay in 1960.
Robert Riger/Getty Images

Wilma Rudolph made history as a Black female athlete at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy. The 20-year-old Tennessee State University sprinter was the first American woman to win three gold medals at one Olympics. Rudolph’s heroics in the 100-meter, 200-meter, and 4 x 100-meter events only lasted seconds, but her legend persists decades later, despite her untimely 1994 death from cancer at age 54. Here are some facts about this U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame member.

1. Wilma Rudolph faced poverty and polio as a child.

When Rudolph was born prematurely on June 23, 1940, in Clarksville, Tennessee, she weighed just 4.5 pounds. Olympic dreams seemed impossible for Rudolph, whose impoverished family included 21 other siblings. Among other maladies, she had measles, mumps, and pneumonia by age 4. Most devastatingly, polio twisted her left leg, and she wore leg braces until she was 9.

2. Wilma Rudolph originally wanted to play basketball.

The Tennessee Tigerbelles. From left to right: Martha Hudson, Lucinda Williams, Wilma Rudolph, and Barbara Jones.Central Press/Getty Images

At Clarksville’s Burt High School, Rudolph flourished on the basketball court. Nearly 6 feet tall, she studied the game, and ran track to keep in shape. However, while competing in the state basketball championship in Nashville, the 14-year-old speedster met a referee named Ed Temple, who doubled as the acclaimed coach of the Tennessee State Tigerbelles track team. Temple, who would coach at the 1960 and 1964 Olympics, recruited Rudolph.

3. Wilma Rudolph made her Olympic debut as a teenager.

Rudolph hit the limelight at 16, earning a bronze medal in the 4 x 100-meter relay at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. But that didn’t compare to the media hype when she won three gold medals in 1960. French journalists called her “The Black Pearl,” the Italian press hailed “The Black Gazelle,” and in America, Rudolph was “The Tornado.”

4. After her gold medals, Wilma Rudolph insisted on a racially integrated homecoming.

Tennessee governor Buford Ellington, who supported racial segregation, intended to oversee the Clarksville celebrations when Rudolph returned from Rome. However, she refused to attend her parade or victory banquet unless both were open to Black and white people. Rudolph got her wish, resulting in the first integrated events in the city’s history.

5. Muhammad Ali had a crush on Wilma Rudolph.

Ali—known as Cassius Clay when he won the 1960 Olympic light heavyweight boxing title—befriended Rudolph in Rome. That fall, the 18-year-old boxer invited Rudolph to his native Louisville, Kentucky. He drove her around in a pink Cadillac convertible.

6. John F. Kennedy literally fell over when he invited Wilma Rudolph to the White House.

President Kennedy, Wilma Rudolph, Rudolph’s mother Blanche Rudolph, and Vice President Johnson in the Oval Office.Abbie Rowe/White House Photographs/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum // Public Domain

In 1961, Rudolph met JFK in the Oval Office. After getting some photos taken together, the President attempted to sit down in his rocking chair and tumbled to the floor. Kennedy quipped: “It’s not every day that I get to meet an Olympic champion.” They chatted for about 30 minutes.

7. Wilma Rudolph held three world records when she retired.

Rudolph chose to go out on top and retired in 1962 at just 22 years old. Her 100-meter (11.2 seconds), 200-meter (22.9 seconds), and 4 x 100-meter relay (44.3 seconds) world records all lasted several years.

8. Wilma Rudolph visited West African countries as a goodwill ambassador.

The U.S. State Department sent Rudolph to the 1963 Friendship Games in Dakar, Senegal. According to Penn State professor Amira Rose Davis, while there, Rudolph independently met with future Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah’s Young Pioneers, a nationalist youth movement. She visited Mali, Guinea, and the Republic of Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) as well.

9. Denzel Washington made his TV debut in a movie about Wilma Rudolph.

Before his Oscar-winning performances in Glory (1989) and Training Day (2001), a 22-year-old Denzel Washington portrayed Robert Eldridge, Rudolph’s second husband, in Wilma (1977). The film also starred Cicely Tyson as Rudolph’s mother Blanche.

10. Schools, stamps, and statues commemorate Wilma Rudolph’s legacy.

Berlin, Germany, has a high school named after Rudolph. The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp celebrating her in 2004. Clarksville features a bronze statue by the Cumberland River, the 1000-capacity Wilma Rudolph Event Center, and Wilma Rudolph Boulevard. In Tennessee, June 23 is Wilma Rudolph Day.