U.S. Figure Skating: Stylish Men Wanted

When it comes to juding America's best skaters, it often comes down to a simple question: Artistry or athleticism?

Adam Rippon is judged at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships. Credit: Maddie Meyer/Getty

On January 24, 2016, not for the first time in the sport's history, there was buzz in the arena at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships about a 16-year-old. Two nights before, the wunderkind Nathan Chen made history by performing two quadruple jumps in his short program, more than any skater ever at the national championships. One of the jumps was slightly imperfect, but it was evident that there was brilliant pop and snap in his muscles, straight-backed textbook technique. Still, at the end of the first half of the competition, Chen had somehow landed in fourth place.

"They judged him as a junior style skater," Olympic champion Tara Lipinski explained during the telecast before the final, "If he lays down those quads and he actually performs [in the free skate], I really hope that the judges will reward that."

"Now here's the thing. Nathan Chen has three quads planned in his free program, the same as World Champion Javier Fernandez, Olympic Champion Yuzuru Hanyu. He's got a maaan's program planned," former U.S. Champion and perpetual personality Johnny Weir drawled, "and if he performs it like a man, he better be rewarded."

Already it was a strange competition, even for figure skating. It had kicked off with a minor PR fiasco of geographic proportions, in which the sport's governing body printed event programs featuring a bridge located in Minneapolis, the wrong Twin City. Then the women's short program contest, normally a crown jewel of the national championship, proved to be the sort of affair only a sadist would love, as nearly every competitor crashed and burned in catastrophes of sequins. But if Chen nailed three perfect quads that night, it wouldn't merely be a palate cleanser for Bridgegate 2.0 or the disappointing women's short. It would be more quads than the top seven finishers had been given full credit for in the same contest the year before.

There are skaters who take to the ice looking like they're ready to piss their tight pants. Nathan Chen is not one of them. The night of the free program, he wore a blue shirt with a sprinkle of clear stones stitched in like an afterthought, and to watch him, you'd guess he'd play a good game of poker. The music began, tense stringed instrumentation that in cinema might accompany the story of a long-premeditated homicide. Chen went straight for quad one. Perfect. Then another. It was so exceptional, the commentators began giggling. What no one knew, save Chen perhaps, was that he was only halfway through his arsenal. The third quad put him on par with legend Timothy Goebel's 2002 record. But what earned Chen his own place in typeface was an act of ballsy improv. Chen sped spread eagled toward the end of the arena, turned, and sprang into the air with a fast jab of his toepick. He spun four times airbound, and landed. A fourth quad. It was dizzying. Sixteen rotations in four seconds. A quadrupling of quadruples back to back.

"We talk about him being the future," Lipinski said. "He is now. Quads are what men need in figure skating, and he just did four."

"That is manly skating. That is world-caliber skating, and if US Figure Skating does not reward that and can't see it, they need to get new eyes," Weir added.

Chen did not win the competition. Nor was he placed second. The record jumping earned him third. At the end of the national championships, spots one, two and three were negatively correlated with quadruple jumps, the winner of the event, Adam Rippon, successfully landing none, while favorite and silver medalist Max Aaron completed two. Chen came in third, and maintained a straight face throughout, excepting the moment his scores first were announced, when it still seemed that making history was good enough to win.

It sounds like a simple story, but in figure skating, it never is, and the judges' decision in the men's event was no fluke. The scores were a major statement: top-notch figure skating is not defined by high-octane jumping alone. It's a response to a question that's gnawed in ice arenas since at least the late Nineties: should figure skating opt all-in on athleticism or stay true to its roots as a wonky, beautiful sport/art hybrid?

Based on elements planned, going into the free skate Chen was set to earn a technical base value of 93.25, compared to Aaron's 85.75 and Rippon's 85.87. In other words, Chen had the most athletically demanding program. However, figure skaters aren't simply judged on whether they execute jumps and spins but also on the quality of each element – the "Grade of Execution" – and the regulations include stipulations mystifying to outsiders. For example, both Chen and Rippon added onto their scores with missed jumps, which still earn some credit the elements score. Only in figure skating, do you rack up points for falling.

And what's more baffling and maddening – not to mention essential and redeeming – is the second mark for components, a rococo composite of what the International Skating Union calls "skating skills," "transitions/linking footwork and movement," "performance/execution," "choreography/composition" and "interpretation." Rippon took the highest scores of the event in all five components, his highest marks situating in the last three, which, because they're where art enters the equation, also happen to be the most subjective.

A giant four-rotation jump is easy enough to spot, but these latter components are where the judging metrics move into a perceptual twilight zone. Judges are asked to determine whether "the skater radiates energy resulting in an invisible connection with the audience." They are instructed that "the total involvement of the body and being should express the intent of the music" and that "in all skating disciplines each skater must be physically committed, sincere in emotion, and equal in comprehension of the music and in execution of all movement." If the skater's energy is invisible, how do the judges perceive it? What if the judges can't infer the intent of the music, let alone whether the body expresses it? What does it mean to sincerely perform?

After the competition, I spoke with Tamie Campbell, the referee at the national championships and an effusive skating veteran. She says that judges are required to complete rigorous training to prove artistic chops enough to assess these components. Perhaps it's a reflexive defense against criticism – because, for a staff of volunteers, judges really do suffer an onslaught of recrimination – but Campbell suggests that the artistic components are "impossible to evaluate on TV." It's a somewhat convenient explanation for how viewers might find the second mark scoring shoddy, one part excuse and another pure Walter Benjamin. It's not that the viewers are tasteless incompetents lacking artistic erudition; it's that the aura of the performance doesn't translate through the camera's reproduction!

But I jest, sort of.

The panel is tasked with an incredibly difficult responsibility in marking components, a little like the work of a music critic, except that the qualitative remark is instead administered via numbers. Just imagine trying to peg a digit to Joey Ramone's soul. Campbell notes "We're the combination of art and sport, and art is not quantifiable." But that's exactly what the component score is: a quantification of art. And someone's got to win.

At the U.S. Championships, Rippon skated a program with overall less demanding jumping passes, but his spins were the best of the American men, he attempted the single most difficult jump of the competition, and performing to a Beatles medley, he carried himself with snakey grace, articulating the musical exclamation points with swagger. In the Nineties, when choreographer Lori Nichol was recruited to morph Michelle Kwan into an artist, she famously told Kwan to imagine a tube of toothpaste oozing over the ice. Rippon oozed. The judges noticed.

Speaking with Campbell, it became apparent that judges aren't tyrants happy to ball-bust but that, just like laypeople, they are charmed by flair. When I ask her about judging the performance/execution component, she speaks repeatedly of delivery, of selling a skate, of confidence.

"It's a feeling of throwing it out there. 'I'm here. I'm great. Look at me,'" she says. "I mean, some skaters will come by and smile at us. They'll look at us right in the eye and smile."

Campbell describes Chen as "more introverted." She says that Aaron is "emotional, but holds it in." What if Chen or Aaron had smiled more, gave a little more publicist oomph? Would either have won?

Weir was skeptical of Rippon's scores, criticizing the positive GOE for an under-rotated triple lutz-half loop-triple Salchow and calling the U.S. Championships judging "very suspect." But in terms of the components, the judges were operating on the metrics they'd been instructed to use. After speaking with Campbell, I thought of Rippon, his grinning and toothpaste moves. He had that energy radiating "invisible connection." He sold. He smiled. You could even say that in the semiotics of figure skating, he got on the ice and flirted. He dominated, components-wise.

There's some discretionary wiggle room in the IJS judging standards, and in a sense, judges must decide which is harder, or at least more worthy: balanced skating evoking a charming soul or pulling off punishing athletic feats. The American judges communicated unequivocally: panache trumps jumps. What's less certain is whether their values align with the rest of the international judging community.

Coaches like Tom Zakrajsek, who trains Aaron, and Rafael Arutyunyan, who works with both Rippon and Chen, are quick to make diplomatic statements: they accept the judging system and favor concentrating on instruction rather than results. They say that their job isn't ranking skaters. It's assisting them in becoming the best they can be. But evaluations of the best vary, and though the U.S. Championship generally acts as a qualifier for the World Figure Skating Championship, the order of placement at the national competition does not always translate in international competition. Some believe that U.S. judges inflate the components mark in comparison to their counterparts abroad.

Part of the problem is the very hybridity of skating. Components and technical facility aren't binaries but deeply enmeshed. Aaron, for example, pulled off an impressive two quads in the final leg of the competition, but where he most consistently excels is "skating skills," a component criterion encompassing fundamentals like balance and power. Aaron cuts the ice deep with his blades and he carries incredible force over the ice. To many, power would be considered an athletic measure along with other program elements, but it's counted alongside all the touchy-feely intangibles. The interpretation of skating skills also varies country to country, Zakrajsek has observed:

"European judges tend to tie a quadruple jump to the 'skating skills' mark. I'm only saying that generally. It seems that the men who do quads are in a certain range because doing a quad means you have a certain kind of ability. Once that quadruple is attached to the skating skills mark, then the components are in a certain range because of that. In the US, I don't think judges attach the quadruple jump to the skating skills mark."

Because Chen injured himself after the U.S. Championships, the American team for the World Championships will be comprised of Rippon, Aaron and fourth-place finisher Grant Hochstein. Altogether, these three men completed fewer quads than Chen in the free skate. If international judges factor high-difficulty jumps into the components, Hochstein – a flat-footed, melodramatic arm flailer who completed no quads at the national championships – stands no chance at breaking the top ten at the World Championships. These placements matter long term, because the number of world team berths a nation is allotted is determined by how highly the country's skaters are ranked at the world championships the year before.

And so, there is some soul-searching for U.S. Figure Skating to do if they want to send robust, competitive teams to the World Championships. They might, for example, ask whether skaters four through seven in the men's competition this year, none of whom landed quads, really were that much better in the components and grade of execution than someone like 15-year-old Vincent Zhou, the number-eight guy who landed two slightly flawed quads in the free skate and who is often spoken about as someone who needs to mature.

"You don't send someone who looks like a junior to senior worlds," Campbell tells me. But what if that person happens to be one of the most technically senior skaters in your country?

Campbell couched the statement in terms of fairness to the young athlete, and as far as I could tell, she really did believe she was looking out for a talented kid. She was excited about all the U.S. men. It's just that she was a little more excited about the smiling and emoting than some international judges might be.

Perhaps judges worldwide would do well to adhere to American standards of judging. Much of what makes figure skating unique is the aspect of performance, and Zakrajsek, for one, suggests that the subjectivity of judging makes the sport incredible TV. In the meantime, the American men will compete this year at the World Championships in Boston, and no matter how fraught the national championships may have been, no matter how contentious the quad debate has been, the U.S. will be sending its strongest men's team since 2009 when the country last won a medal. Once more, there may be a reason for Rippon to look at the judges and smile.