I Can Do Better: Talking About IJS Skating's PC(S) Culture

In the 2004 remake of "The Stepford Wives", Nicole Kidman plays Joanna Eberhart, who starts the film as a highly successful executive producer of reality television shows for a major network. We see her promoting a show called "I Can Do Better" where men and women choose between their spouses and prostitutes, which really isn't far off that "Temptation Island" foolishness they had on for a while. That repeated mantra "I Can Do Better" - which sounds like something right out of a Susan Powter self-help book - very much applies to how I feel when I watch competitive figure skating these days. If the choreography of nine out of the ten competitive programs I watch leaves me feeling empty - like I haven't watched choreography at all - then surely I can do better than that as a viewer, right? How alone am I in this feeling? I know I am most certainly not, but there seems to be such a large segment of today's figure skating fans who seem perfectly content adding up numbers and beleaguering over grades of execution, downgrades, upgrades, levels and similar mumbo jumbo that I feel the following question needs to be asked: "has the IJS judging system's adoption of Program Component Scores (PCS) as opposed to a general mark for Artistic Impression or Presentation generated a skating culture and a fan base that is less interested in the artistic side of skating?"

The quote that first prompted me to ask this question came from Debbi Wilkes' book "Ice Time" and none other than one of skating's most profilic artists himself, Toller Cranston. Toller said that "there was a very rich, creative cultural period in skating in the seventies, a very thoroughbred, Arabian stallion approach. John Curry would have aspired to the same level. It was all deliberate in retrospect, a facade that was affected and cultivated, but there was something rather imperious about us. 'Don't even look at us the wrong way, we're intelligent, we're untouchable, we're gods, we're artists.'  Janet Lynn, a great skater, the kind that comes along once in a century, but completely forgotten now, certainly in America, had exquisite programs. Her coach told me she wanted Janet's opening to reflect the attitudes she discovered on ancient Greek vases in the Metropolitan Museum. If you were going to tell a skater today, 'Now, for your opening, take this motif from a Greek vase...' they'd think you were out of your fucking mind. They're not into it. It doesn't exist. They don't want to be artistic, interesting, bizarre or be whoever the top ballet stars are."

Cranston raises a valid point as the choreography we are seeing from many of today's top skaters isn't that groundbreaking or deep material that we saw in many of the competitive performances of yesteryear, but it wouldn't be fair to say that skating under the IJS system hasn't produced many outstanding and musical skaters and programs that are absolutely memorable. Part of the problem as I see it as to why many of skating's newer fans don't have the interest in "the second mark" stems from some of the seemingly incomprehensible evaluation of PCS scores in international competition.

Sarah Kay once said that "artistry is important. Skill, hard work, rewriting, editing and careful, careful craft: All of these are necessary. These are what separate the beginners from experienced artists." In the men's short program at the 2014 LEXUS Cup Of China, Uzbekistan's Misha Ge skated cleanly, performing a triple axel, triple lutz/triple toe and triple flip. His musical interpretation and choreography were without question better than most of the men out there in that particular competition and yet his PCS scores were ALL lower than China's Han Yan, who faltered on all three jumping passes he attempted in his program and skated with poor posture. The interpretation of the lively music "If I Were A Rich Man" from "Fiddler On The Roof" looked half hearted and reliant mainly on transitional footwork and little kicks. Even under the guise or premise that IJS would duly reward his Transitions/Footwork separately from the other parts of the PCS score, it's hard to make an argument how a flawed Yan could earn just shy of ten points more than Ge with a program that was  in my opinion both technically and artistically inferior... which should have clearly reflected in the final three marks allocated for Performance/Execution, Choreography/Composition and Interpretation.

3Han YANCHN79.2139.4339.788.217.717.758.048.070.00#8
4Richard DORNBUSHUSA77.2338.9838.257.717.327.647.797.790.00#9
5Alexei BYCHENKOISR76.9643.7033.266.686.366.756.796.680.00#3
6Nam NGUYENCAN72.8538.3934.466.796.717.076.966.930.00#7
7Misha GEUZB69.4633.2836.187.046.867.437.397.460.00#6

It's about comparing apples with oranges though and while I get that subjectivity is always going to be a challenge that skating will always face, as the sport's audience we need to always reserve our right to say "I Can Do Better" if artistry is something as fans we personally value. That brings us to the pressing question at hand: "HAS the IJS judging system's adoption of Program Component Scores (PCS) as opposed to a general mark for Artistic Impression or Presentation generated a skating culture and a fan base that is less interested in the artistic side of skating?". I asked some of skating's biggest fans this very question and got some interesting and varied responses:

JOSEPH STEWART: "To answer your question, I think PCS has eliminated the concept of 'artistic impression' judging. The former artistic impression score was the best way we've ever had to score the 'je ne sais quoi' that really is the essence of artistry.  The new method of quantifying it through set areas like transitions and 'skating skills' takes away the benefit of being original and encourages skaters to try and fit a cookie cutter mold of what has been known to work in the past. Fans can't identify to this as opinion no longer matters: you need to be well versed on how the scoring system works to understand results, which is not fan friendly!"

JOSH KENNON: "Interesting question. I think it has, to a degree, because people understand the quantifiable measures on the technical side... the 'a triple axel is worth so and so points, plus or minus three if they do it well or badly' thing. People don't easily understand how you can easily quantify things like speed, emotion, leg line individually...some people have the capability to measure that because of their understanding of dance/skating..but the regular fan doesn't. All they understand is the performance that reaches across that barrier between skater and audience member, that covers that distance across the boards, to get inside their hearts and move them."

CLAIRE CLOUTIER: "I do think the adoption of IJS has changed the skating fan base a little bit. I think there are now a lot of fans who are very focused on the technical side of the sport and will argue endlessly over questions of underrotations, who has the best lutz, who has the most transitions, etc. I think it's the adoption of IJS as a whole, rather than PCS in particular, that has driven this. It's the existence of protocols and the actual code of points, which allows fans to analyze the technical side of the sport in much greater detail than ever before. Before, fans knew the differences between the jumps, but they didn't really know exactly how much the jumps counted for, or how much anything else counted. Now they have a much better sense of this. In the process, for some fans, the technical side of the sport has taken precedence. This isn't true for all fans, though; most still want a balanced approach (great artistry along with great jumps), I think."

As Elizabeth Cady Stanton famously said: "The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and from motives of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life no longer flow into our souls." Here's my humble opinion. Figure skating CAN do better... and it can start by people looking - really looking - at the skating between the all so important jumps with fresh eyes, putting down the calculator, protractor and abacus and once again thinking about how the performance in front of them made them feel and how the music was really interpreted.

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