Bluffer's guide to figure skating

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FIGURE SKATING - All you need to know to survive the hottest contest at the Olympics

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Nathan Chen, 18, of the US, performs during the men's short programme team event.

Q: What is figure skating?

A: Ok, don't bother, these Olympics are not for you.

Q: LOL, well at least tell us why you like it

A: Well, it's the best Winter Olympics sport. With grace, grit and often controversy, athletes skate, jump and spin into millions of homes around the world.

American Jackson Haines is considered the father of modern figure skating. A ballet dancer in the mid-1800s, he adapted his techniques to the ice, and figure skating was born. The sport debuted at the 1908 Summer Olympics in London (events were held indoors). They appeared again at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics before migrating to the winter program in 1924.

Q: What are the medal events? Where are they held?

A: There are five figure skating events: men’s singles, women’s singles, pairs, ice dance and a team event that includes the first four disciplines.

All the events will be held at the 12,000-seat Gangneung Ice Arena. The venue will also host short-track speedskating.

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Q: What are the jumps?

A: There are six common jumps, which can be split into two basic categories: toe jumps (toe loop, flip and Lutz) and edge jumps (Salchow, loop, and the axel). As the types imply, with toe jumps, a skater uses the pointy toe of the skate, called the “toe pick”, during takeoff. With edge jumps, they use the edge of the skate (inside or outside).

Q: But they’re moving so fast, how can you tell what jump it is?

A: It can be really hard to tell, but here are a few tricks.

- If a skater bends their knee before launch, it’s likely an edge jump.

- If a skater plants their toe before taking off, it’s a toe jump.

- If someone is coming into a jump facing forward, it has to be an axel.

- If someone is doing a long backward skate in on their left foot, going clockwise, they’re probably about to do a Lutz. More simply: If it looks like they’re going to break their left ankle, you’ve got yourself a Lutz.

Q: What about spins?

A: There are three common spins: the camel, the sit and the upright.

The camel spin is a one-footed spin in which the free leg is extended straight back above hip level, with both the leg and chest parallel to the ice. The sit spin is pretty self-explanatory. It’s done in a sitting position with the skating leg at least parallel to the ice. The upright spin is any spin with the skating leg extended, or almost extended, that’s not a camel spin.

Q: Are there other terms we need to know?

A: From a Choctaw to a scratch spin, figure skating is an endless fount of detail. Some terms are self-explanatory (the layback spin, for instance). Others aren’t, and the US Figure Skating Association glossary is a great place to start when looking them up. A few common ones to watch out for, though.

Quad: A jump with four rotations (no one has ever landed a quad axel in competition) that has become a staple of men’s individual routines. Only one women has landed a quad in competition (Miki Ando in 2002)

Twizzle: A common turn in ice dance, done on one foot. Can be done in clockwise or counterclockwise, forward or backward, and on different edges, but forward movement is key.

Death spiral: In pairs skating, when the man anchors in the ice with his toes and rotates his partner around him by her hand. She’s almost parallel to the ice.

Kiss & Cry: The seating area where skaters go to, often anxiously, await their scores from the judges. It’s home to much excitement, disappointment and drama.

Q: Who to watch?

A: Eighteen-year-old Nathan Chen is America’s best shot at an individual figure skating medal. The young skater is known for his quad jumps and comes into the Games hot off a dominant national championship victory. On the women’s side, Bradie Tennell is also coming off an impressive win at the national championships. Runner-up Mirai Nagasu was fourth at 2010 Vancouver Games. Both could make a surprise podium appearance.

South Korea's Cha Jun-hwan emotes during the men's short programme team event.
Photo: Kyodo

In the team event, the Americans are heavy favourites for a bronze medal (even better, with some luck). Sibling ice dancers Alex and Maia Shibutani could also land on the podium.

For the men, Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu is looking to defend his Olympic title. For the women, Russian Evgenia Medvedeva (competing as an Olympic Athlete from Russia) has only lost once in international competition over the past two years. The person who beat her? Fifteen-year-old teammate Alina Zagitova. Both should vie for Olympic medals.

The Canadians are expected to top the team event (ahead of the Olympic Athletes from Russia). Canada should pick up at least a medal or two in other figure skating events as well. Ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir won gold in Vancouver, silver in Sochi and are back for more in PyeongChang. Second-time Olympian Kaetlyn Osmond looks to land an individual podium, as does two-time Olympic medalist Patrick Chan (though he has struggled of late).

Q: What are the rules?

A: Individual events consist of a short programme and a free skate. The former is seen as the technical test for skaters, where requirements are stricter and mistakes more costly. Of the 30 initial skaters, 24 make it to the free skate portion. For both men and women, the short programme is 2:50 long (+/- 10 seconds). The women’s free skate is 4 minutes (+/- 10 seconds). The men’s is 4:30 (+/- 10 seconds). The scores from the short program and the free skate are combined to determine a winner.

Pairs is similar to the individual events, with a short programme (2:50 +/- 10 seconds) and free skate (4:30 +/- 10 seconds). Of the 22 pairs (normally there are 20; Pyeongchang is anomalous), 16 advance. The scores are also combined.

The ice dance is made up of of the short dance (2:50 +/- 10 seconds) and the free dance (4 minutes +/- 10 seconds). Twenty of the 24 pairs advance. The scores are also combined.

The team event (which debuted in Sochi four years ago) consists of eight entries for each nation, two each of the above (men’s individual, women’s individual, pairs and ice dance). The top five countries after the short programme phase move on to the free skates.

Each event has a set of required elements.

Q: Are there any new rules this Olympics?

A: During the 2014-15 season, figure skating began allowing music with lyrics for singles and pairs skating. Pyeongchang marks the first time the change will be heard at the Olympics.

Nathan Chen, 18, of the US, performs during the men's short programme team event.
Photo: Kyodo

Lyrics have been allowed in ice dance for a while. But, each season, the International Skating Union picks a specific type of dance for the short dance. At Pyeongchang, it’s Latin American rhythms, such as cha cha, rhumba, samba, mambo, meringue, salsa or bachata.

Q: How does scoring work?

A: After a 2002 judging scandal, the scoring system was changed with the aim of making it more objective. Skaters are awarded points for each jump, spin and step sequence, plus points for overall artistry and presentation. Points are earned based on difficulty and execution. There are also deductions and bonuses. A fall, for example, is an automatic one-point deduction (in addition to negative points on the element you fell on.) And, in singles, you get a bonus on every jump completed in the second half of the program.

Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia is favourite to win women's programme.
Photo: Associated Press

It gets pretty complicated from here. In short, though, there are two components: the Technical Elements Score (TES) and Program Component Score (PCS).

Two groups are involved in determining the TES: a nine-person judging panel and a three-person technical committee. The technical committee identifies the components, which includes verifying the completion of jumps and assigning levels of difficulty to spins and footwork (from 1 to 4).

The judging panel is tasked with evaluating how well each component is executed, using a -3 to +3 grade of execution (GOE). The GOE can add or subtract from the element’s base score. Seven of the nine scores are randomly selected to be used, and then the highest and lowest of those is dropped. That leaves five scores, which are averaged to make the TES.

The PCS is also determined by the same nine-judge panel. The panel scores the overall presentation in five areas: skating skills, transitions, performance, composition and interpretation. The maximum for each is 10 points. Once again, the highest and lowest scores are dropped, and the remaining seven are averaged. Those are then subject to a multiplier, which varies by event (for instance, 1.0 for men’s short program, and 2.0 for the free skate). The goal of the multiplier to to help weight the PCS more equally compared with the TES.

The TES and PCS are combined into the Total Segment Score (TSS). A skater’s final score is the TSS, minus any deductions (time limits, costume violations or malfunctions, falls, etc.).

Q: Is the system fair?

A: Many in the sport argue that it’s still biased. Judges, for example, are picked by the national governing bodies, not the international federation. And judges are allowed to score skaters from their own country. The result is a sport plagued by controversy. Sochi was no exception, as it was in those Games that Russian Adelina Sotnikova won on home ice (and even embraced the Russian judge afterward). The result sparked complaints, which the International Skating Union dismissed, and endless intrigue.