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.

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Tommie Smith and John Carlos Shocked the World—and Sacrificed Their Careers—By Protesting Racism at the 1968 Olympics

American athlete Tommie Smith, wearing black socks, celebrates after crossing the finish line of the men's 200-meter final ahead of Australian Peter Norman and compatriot John Carlos during the Mexico Olympic Games.
American athlete Tommie Smith, wearing black socks, celebrates after crossing the finish line of the men's 200-meter final ahead of Australian Peter Norman and compatriot John Carlos during the Mexico Olympic Games.
EPU/AFP via Getty Images

On October 16, 1968, track and field stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos stepped onto the Olympic podium in Mexico City to receive their medals for the 200-meter dash; Smith had won the gold, Carlos the bronze. They were wearing black socks—no shoes—and badges that read “Olympic Project for Human Rights.” Smith had also donned a black scarf, while Carlos had unzipped his jacket (which was against Olympic rules) and slung a long string of beads around his neck.

When “The Star-Spangled Banner” began to blare through the stadium, the two athletes bowed their heads and each raised a black-gloved fist into the air. While the crowd recognized the gesture as the familiar Black Power salute, Smith claimed it was a "human rights" salute. Regardless of what they wanted to call it, that it was meant as a protest against racism wasn’t lost on anyone; a stunned silence fell over the stadium.

“There’s something awful about hearing 50,000 people go silent, like being in the eye of a hurricane,” Carlos later wrote in his memoir.

In the Eye of a Hurricane

According to The Washington Post, it wasn't long before the momentary stillness yielded to a swell of jeers and boos, with some spectators even shouting the words to the national anthem in a sort of counter-protest. Smith and Carlos were ushered out of the arena and swiftly evicted from the Olympic Village. Before returning to the U.S., Smith appeared in an ABC news segment that aired the following day. The interviewer, ABC sports editor Howard Cosell, kept his question short and open-ended.

tommie smith and john carlos 1968 olympic medal ceremony
From left to right: Peter Norman, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympic medal ceremony for the 200-meter dash.
AFP via Getty Images

“Tommie, would you explain to the people of America exactly what you did and why you did it?” he asked.

Smith explained that their gloved fists “signified the power in Black America,” and their shoeless feet were a symbol of the poverty that Black Americans faced. (As for why each man only wore one glove, Smith stated that it was a mark of “black unity.” But Peter Norman, the Australian silver medalist with them on the podium, later claimed one of the Americans had simply forgotten his pair of gloves, so they shared them).

The Gathering Storm

Though the protest itself had been planned just before the ceremony, in the year leading up to the event, Smith, Carlos, and other athletes had already been using the Summer Olympics as a platform to further the goals of the civil rights movement. In October 1967, Dr. Harry Edwards founded the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), whose mission was originally to protest segregation in the U.S.

According to Global Sport Matters, Smith and Carlos were the first athletes to join, and the organization’s objectives became more global as it expanded. The OPHR had demanded, for example, that South Africa be banned from participating in the Olympics as long as it remained under apartheid, that Olympic teams hire more Black coaches, and that International Olympic Committee chairman Avery Brundage—who had failed to condemn Nazism during the 1936 Olympics, among other controversies—resign his position. Not all of their conditions were met immediately, though Brundage did step down from his position following the next Olympics. But South Africa was prohibited from the ’68 games, and coaching staffs did diversify a little in the following years.

In the months leading up to the Mexico City Olympics, the political atmosphere grew increasingly more turbulent. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was killed just two months later, and thousands of people across the country were rioting to protest both racial injustice and the Vietnam War. Other countries were dealing with similar unrest: In May, students in France rioted against their conservative government; the Soviet Union quelled a Czechoslovakian rebellion in August; and, just 10 days before the Olympic Opening Ceremony, the Mexican military killed scores—possibly hundreds or even thousands—of students at a rally in Mexico City.

Compared to the violence occurring around the world, Smith and Carlos’s small, peaceful protest seemed innocuous, but it definitely wasn’t without backlash. Many journalists seemed embarrassed that American athletes had shone a spotlight on the nation’s domestic issues in front of a global audience, and asserted they shouldn’t have tried to use the Olympics as a “problem-solving platform,” as Los Angeles Sentinel reporter Booker Griffin put it.

Within Black communities, however, the response was celebratory, especially among young people; according to The Undefeated, thousands of Howard University students congregated in Washington, D.C., to welcome Carlos back from Mexico City.

“From this day forward, Black people will pick their own heroes,” civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael (also known as Kwame Ture) declared at the gathering.

The eventual awakening

Olympic officials were not as impressed by the duo's actions. Echoing the sentiments of condemnatory journalists, the IOC suspended both Smith and Carlos from the U.S. track team. They both played professional football for one year before pursuing careers as track coaches.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos accept the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the 2008 ESPY Awards in Los Angeles, California.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos accept the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the 2008 ESPY Awards in Los Angeles, California.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

History.com reports that silver medalist Peter Norman, who wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on his chest during the ceremony, was not asked to compete for Australia in the 1972 Olympics, even though he qualified. When he died in 2006, Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at Norman's funeral.

In 2019, more than half a century after their controversial show of support for the civil rights movement, the two American track stars were inducted into the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame.

"I knew that I did the right thing," Carlos told KOAA News5 at the time. "I feel as proud today as I did that day. I'm just so happy that so many people have woken up to it today.”