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Monday, February 20, 2006

Figure skating: Sport or Art?

Dan Engber complains that figure skating has become a video game:
Here's how the new scoring system works: A technical specialist identifies each move that a skater performs, and assigns to it a level of difficulty. Then the judges rate each of those moves with a "grade of execution." To compute a skater's total score, get out your "scale of value" chart and cross-reference the move, its level, and its grade. For example, you'd get 7.5 points for completing a basic triple axel. A perfect triple axel earns a couple more points, and a lousy one a couple fewer.

With such explicit scoring rules, skaters have learned to pad their numbers. A brief look at the chart reveals that a string of fancy moves done badly is worth a whole lot more than a string of simple moves done with grace and élan. What about tumbling on your ass? According to the rules, a fall on a jump automatically gets you the lowest grade. (Every fall also earns you a one-point deduction.) But if the jump is fancy enough, that low grade will still be worth big points...

There are required elements, of course, and limits to the number of jumps you're allowed to attempt. But skaters who know the system can treat it like a video game, stringing together fancy combos so they can rack up a high score.

And you know what, I actually think that's a feature! I don't watch figure skating myself (no TV, and no real interest, thank you very much), but to me, that's the difference between sport and art. Art should be flawless and look good, but sport should be about atheleticism, ability to perform on the event, with bounded rules and as much as possible, no subjective judgement necessary.

In a running race, nobody scores points for style --- it's whoever crosses the finish line first, even if he was the ugliest person since Humphrey Bogart. If figure skating wants to be an Olympic sport, it shouldn't be any different otherwise, it's not a sport, and should be thrown out of the Olympics. I don't understand why anyone should complain about the new rules for figure skating. To my mind, if the rules don't encourage risk-taking and achievement of the hardest possible jumps and stunts, then the rules would not be congruent with the spirit of the Olympics.

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