Competitive Figure Skating FAQ:
Rules and Regulations

This article is part of the FAQ list for (amateur) competitive figure skating. This section covers rules governing the sport of figure skating.

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Table of Contents

[1] How is figure skating scored?

The singles and pair events each have two parts, the short program and the free skate. In the short program (formerly called the original or technical program), the skaters must execute eight required elements (jumps, spins, and footwork sequences); there are mandatory deductions for failures, and skaters are not permitted to retry missed elements or insert extra elements. In the free skate, there are no required elements, and falling or omitting elements counts against the skater only as far as it reduces the overall difficulty of the program, or if it disrupts the flow of the program.

Skaters are given two marks. The technical mark (for required elements or technical merit) is supposed to reflect the difficulty of the program and the clean execution of the elements. This includes spins, footwork, and connecting elements, as well as jumps. The presentation mark is supposed to reflect the choreography, flow, and balance of the program, the ability of the skaters to interpret their chosen music, and other factors such as making good use of the ice surface, skating with speed, sureness, and effortless carriage, and unison for pair skaters. Note that the presentation mark is specifically not a measure of "artistry" or how much the judges "like" a skater or program.

The two marks from each judge are added together and used to assign skaters comparative rankings, called ordinals. (In the case of ties, the technical mark has more weight in the short program, and the presentation mark in the free skate.) If you think of the judges' marks for a particular skater as forming a row of the scoring sheet, the ordinals are computed by looking at the columns; each judge's ordinals are assigned independently of the other judges.

Then the ordinals from each judge are combined to determine the overall placements; the skater with the majority of first-place votes places first, etc. There is a complicated procedure for breaking ties and determining placements when no skater has a majority of votes, but the marks from all the judges are not added together, nor are the high and low marks discarded.

The placements from each part of the competition are multiplied by a weighting factor, and then added together to get the final placements in the competition. At competitions where a qualifying round is held, the factors are 0.4 for the qualifying round free skate, 0.6 for the short program, and 1.0 for the final round free skate. Otherwise, the factor for the short program is 0.5, and the factor for the free skate is 1.0.

Scoring for ice dancing is similar, except that skaters do two compulsory dances selected from a set that rotates yearly and an original dance to a rhythm that also changes each year as well as a free dance. The weighting factors are .2 for each compulsory dance, .6 for original dance, and 1.0 for the free dance.

For the 1997-1998 season, the compulsory dances are the Golden Waltz, Quickstep, Silver Samba, and Argentine Tango, and the original dance rhythm is the Jive. For the 1998-1999 season, the compulsory dances are the Ravensburger Waltz, Paso Doble, Tango Romantica and Blues, and the original dance rhythm is the Waltz.

If you are really curious, you can find computer programs that implement the scoring rules at URL

[2] Sometimes a judge gives marks that seem way too low. Why is this permitted to happen?

First of all, remember that the marks given by a judge to a particular skater are meaningless compared to the marks given by other judges -- all that matters is how that same judge ranks the skater compared to the other competitors. Sometimes a judge consistently marks all skaters a few tenths lower than the other judges without giving them significantly different ordinals.

Because the competition results are determined by a majority vote of the judges, an individual judge can rarely influence the outcome of a competition by ranking a skater much higher or lower than is really appropriate. Furthermore, the referee of the competition is required to report instances of questionable judging, which can lead to disqualification of the judge in question for future competitions. (And in extreme cases of national bias, the ISU has been known to ban all judges from a particular country.) So judges actually have little motivation to try to deliberately manipulate the results of the competition.

[3] So exactly what are those rules for determining the placements from the ordinals?

First, make sure that you read the above discussion and understand what ordinals are, and how they are computed from the judges' marks.

For each competitor, the lowest-numbered place for which that competitor has a majority of votes from the judges is determined. Ordinals a skater gets for lower-numbered places carry over in determining majorities for higher-numbered places. For example, if there are 7 judges and a skater was given 2 first-place ordinals, 2 second-place ordinals, and 3 third-place ordinals, this skater would have a majority of 4 for second place.

Then, the placements are determined by applying these rules:

[4] [Skater A] was ahead of [skater B] until [skater C] skated, but then their placements flipped! How did that happen? Aren't the rules unfair?

There are two possible ways this could happen.

In the first case, it's possible for the positions of skaters in the standings for a particular competition phase (e.g., short program or free skating) to change. Here's an example. Suppose that after skaters A and B have skated, the ordinals look like this:

    A   1  1  1  1  1  2  2  2  2
    B   2  2  2  2  2  1  1  1  1
At this point, skater A has a majority of votes for first place, so is ahead of skater B. Now suppose skater C skates, and the ordinals are like this:
    A   1  1  1  1  2  3  3  2  2
    B   2  2  2  2  3  1  1  1  1
    C   3  3  3  3  1  2  2  3  3
Now, what has happened is that no skater has a majority of first-place votes. In this case, the winner of this competition phase is the skater with the most votes for first or second place -- in other words, skater B.

The second situation where such flip-flops occur has to do with the weighting assigned to the different phases of the competition.

Suppose these are the overall standings after skaters A and B have skated their free programs:

    A  1*0.5 + 3 = 3.5
    B  4*0.5 + 2 = 4.0
Assume skater C skates next, and gets marks that put her in third place in the free skate ahead of skater A. Since skater A has dropped a place in the free skate, this allows skater B to move ahead in the overall standings, like this:
    A  1*0.5 + 4 = 4.5
    B  4*0.5 + 2 = 4.0
    C  5*0.5 + 3 = 5.5
Sometimes the rules can be confusing or counterintuitive, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're "unfair". The confusing situations generally arise only when there is no clear consensus among the judges anyway, and any other way of computing the results would probably have a different set of flaws. As it is, the current scoring rules are the result of years of experience and refinement, and are unambiguous, consistently applied, and understood and accepted by the judges, coaches, and the skaters themselves.

Also, for a disinterested analysis by professional statisticians of the ordinal-based scoring system used in figure skating, check out an article called "Rating Skating" by Gilbert Bassett and Joseph Persky, in the Journal of the American Statistical Association, Sept. 94, Vol 89 #427, pp. 1075-1079. Their conclusion is that the system does work extremely well.

[5] What about rules for professional competitions?

In general, there aren't any rules -- each competition seems to have its own format and judging system. Most of the pro events are invitation-only, and often skaters are guaranteed large appearance fees in addition to the announced prize money.

Pro-am ("open") events have evolved into two distinct formats. The more serious kind of pro-am competition is conducted under a variation of the basic ISU (amateur) rules and scoring system, with a regular short program but slightly different rules regarding the length and content of the free skating programs. (For example, vocal music and movements such as back flips that are normally not allowed may be used, but the number of jumps is restricted.) The judging at these events generally follows the normal ISU standards.

The second kind of pro-am event are the team "competitions" that the USFSA puts on under its own sanction. The USFSA pro-am events seem to have few, if any, rules, and the judging at these events is as silly as that at any of the pro competitions.

[6] Are professional skaters allowed to compete in the Olympics? Are amateurs allowed to be paid for skating?

The policy of the international governing body for skating, the ISU, has been that any skater who takes part in a competition that is not sanctioned by the ISU (or one of its national governing bodies, such as the USFSA) loses eligibility to compete in future "amateur" events.

The ISU offered professional skaters a one-time option to reinstate as eligible competitors between 1992 and 1995. However, this opportunity has closed, and professionals may no longer reinstate or compete internationally as Olympic-eligible skaters.

Sometimes professional skaters talk about wanting to reinstate to compete in the Olympics again, but they cannot do so unless ISU changes the rules again, and this is unlikely to happen. Many people consider reinstatement to be a failed policy because it did not have the intended effect of bringing all skaters back into ISU-sponsored competitions on a permanent basis. The ISU's current policy is aimed at encouraging skaters to retain their eligibility by offering prize money and other financial incentives.

Appearing in an unsanctioned professional competition is the only activity that the ISU now defines as being off-limits for eligible skaters. As long as they have the permission of their national federations, so-called amateur skaters can now be paid for doing tours and iceshows, competitions, endorsements, TV appearances, and the like, as well as coaching. It is more accurate to refer to their status as "eligible" than "amateur".

For example, skaters may appear with Stars on Ice without losing their eligible status. The reason why eligible skaters typically do not appear on the US tour is that its schedule conflicts with the eligible competitive season, but several eligible skaters have appeared in their spring and summer tours of Canada, Europe and Asia.

[7] Why can't skaters do back flips in competition?

Basically, because the consensus in the skating community is that back flips aren't really a skating move, and that if they were allowed in competition, the character of the sport might change in ways that are seen as undesirable. (It doesn't really have anything to do with whether the skater lands on one foot or two.) The same reasoning applies to other forbidden moves, such as pair-skating moves where the man swings the lady around by her feet, or lifts above the shoulder in ice dancing.

[8] What is the "Katarina Rule"?

This refers to the guidelines for skaters' costumes that were adopted after Katarina Witt showed up at the 1988 European championships wearing a skimpy showgirl costume trimmed with feathers. (Many people were dismayed by the increasing emphasis on theatrical costuming and displays of pulchritude, rather than athleticism.) Ladies are now required to wear skirts and pants "covering the hips and posterior". Men cannot wear clothing that is sleeveless or that exposes the chest. A more recent rule change requires men to wear trousers and not tights. Clothing is also supposed to be free from "excessive decoration", such as feathers that can come loose and create a safety hazard on the ice.

[9] What is the "Zayak Rule"?

This refers to the rule that disallows skaters from repeating the same triple jump over and over in their free skating program. Skaters can only repeat two triple jumps, and only if at least one of the attempts at each repeated jump is in a jump combination.

Note that this rule does not put an absolute limit on the number of triple jumps allowed in a program -- the effective limit is only a consequence of the fact that there are only six different triples commonly attempted by men, and five for women. If a skater were to "invent" a new kind of triple jump, they'd effectively be able to do one more triple jump in their program than their competitors.

This rule is associated with Elaine Zayak, who for a time was including up to four triple toe loops in her competitive programs, but it was actually a more general trend in the early 1980's for skaters to pack their programs with repeated jumps. The rules were changed to reward skaters with a greater variety of skills rather than jumping for its own sake.

[10] How do they decide which skaters get to go to the Olympics or world championships?

The ISU allocates the slots to the different countries depending on the placement of their skaters at the previous year's world championships.

In past years, the formula was based on the placement of the highest skater from each country in each discipline. Now the formula is based on adding the placements of the two best competitors from the country. Competitors who didn't qualify for the short program or original dance are arbitrarily assigned 20 points, competitors who didn't qualify for the free skate get 18 points, and anyone who finishes lower than 16th overall gets 16 points. There is now an exception made for skaters who have to withdraw in the middle of the competition because of injury or equipment damage.

For a 2- or 3-competitor team in the previous year, 1-13 points qualifies 3 entries, 14-28 points qualifies 2 entries, and more than 28 qualifies only 1 entry.

For a 1-competitor team in the previous year, 1-2 points qualifies 3 entries, 3-10 points qualifies 2 entries and more than 10 points qualifies 1 entry.

Because the number of skaters participating in the singles competitions has become very large in recent years (making it hard to judge these events), there is now a qualifying round competition at the world championships to reduce the number who make it to the final round to a fixed limit of 30. Skaters perform their long programs only in the qualifying round. There is also a cut made after the short program in all disciplines to further reduce the field to the top 24 for the free skate.

There is no qualifying round competition at the Olympic games, but the ISU has instead strictly limited the number of skaters in each event, again giving priority to countries whose skaters placed higher at the previous year's worlds. For the 1998 Olympics, a qualifying competition was held in the fall of 1997 to fill up the last few slots in each discipline, so that countries who did not previously qualify at worlds could have a second chance.

In some countries, the national skating federation and/or Olympic federation impose additional rules on qualifying. For instance, thanks to "Eddie the Eagle" (the frighteningly incompetent ski jumper), the British Olympic federation now won't send athletes to the Olympics unless they have shown they have a reasonable chance to place in the top half of the field. Similarly, Canada sets requirements for Olympic qualification based on minimum placements at past international events.

In the US, the teams for the Olympic games and world championships normally consist of the top finishers from the US national championships. In theory, the selection committee is permitted to deviate from the consecutive order of finish, but in practice about the only time they do so is when a top skater from the previous year is unable to compete at nationals due to injury. (There is actually a legal reason for the loophole in the selection procedure: if the national championships were considered "Olympic trials", the TV rights and revenues would belong to the US Olympic Committee rather than the USFSA.)

In turn, skaters qualify to compete in the US national championships by skating in regional and sectional qualifying competitions. Canada has a similar three-level hierarchy of qualifying competitions.

[11] Why was [well-known skater] not disqualified when she had trouble with her skate laces?

The rules specifically allow for situations where skaters have problems with their equipment or clothing breaking that make it difficult or dangerous for them to continue skating, as well as similar problems with their music or the ice surface. Depending on the nature of the problem and how long it takes to fix it, the referee can either allow the skaters either to immediately pick up where they left off, or to reskate their entire program after all the other skaters in the group are finished. The rules even allow for such restarts after accidents that are clearly the fault of the skaters (one such incident at 1996 US Nationals involved a pair skater who required first aid after being whacked in the nose in a collision with her partner.)

[12] How was [some skater] able to compete in both the World Junior championships and senior-level competitions in the same season?

The ISU doesn't actually recognize separate junior and senior divisions. Instead, eligibility for the World Junior championships is based strictly on the age of the skaters. It's not uncommon (especially among European skaters) to continue to compete at World Juniors after also starting to compete in senior-level international events.

In USFSA-sponsored events, on the other hand, "junior" and "senior" refer to skill levels rather than age. Skaters who have qualified at the senior level may still be selected to compete at World Juniors as long as they meet the age requirements. Likewise, there are some juniors who are too old to be eligible for World Juniors.

[13] Why do the TV commentators keep patronizingly referring to women skaters as "ladies" instead of "women"?

"Ladies" is the official and traditional terminology of the ISU. Back in the old days, figure skating clubs were typically snobbish social organizations where the rich and well-connected could hobnob with one another, and it would have been a gross insult not to use the term "ladies" to refer to the kind of rich society women involved in the sport. It's very similar to the elitist traditions surrounding country clubs and golf, another sport where women athletes are still referred to as "ladies".

Nowadays, most people don't take the terminology very seriously, often using the term "ladies" with tongue planted firmly in cheek and an attitude of exaggerated reverence for the traditions of the sport that long predate contemporary notions of political correctness.

[14] Isn't it unfair for the judges to watch the practice sessions? Aren't they supposed to judge only what happens in the actual competition?

It's actually a good thing for the judges to watch the official practices at competitions, because it reduces the possibility that skaters will be judged by reputation or past performances instead of the way they actually skate at the event in question.

Chances are, the judges have already seen some of the competitors at previous events and are somewhat familiar with their strengths and weaknesses as well as the layout and content of their programs. If the judges didn't go to practices, then the other skaters that the judges weren't already familiar with would be at a disadvantage. Not only does attending practices give the judges an equal opportunity to see all of the competitors, but it also gives them an impression of how they are skating now as opposed to during past events or previous seasons.

The judges have an awful lot of things they have to look for during a performance, and it can be very difficult to catch everything when seeing a program for the first time. The skating goes by very quickly and there are no slow-motion replays. So becoming familiar with the skaters' programs in practices helps the judges do a better job in evaluating them in the actual competition. If the judges have a rough idea of the planned technical content of the program and where in the program the big jumps are, they're less likely to miss them in the final performance because they blinked at the wrong time or were writing notes or otherwise distracted. The practices also give the judges an opportunity to observe if the skaters are doing anything unusual or especially difficult, so that they know to look for these elements and give the skaters extra credit if they're completed. (For example, a lutz with an unusual footwork entry might be confused with an easier flip jump on first viewing, or a quadruple jump might be mistaken for a triple.) Conversely, practices also give the judges a chance to observe whether skaters have particular problems with faulty technique that they should especially watch for during the competition.

Besides keeping track of what technical elements the skaters complete, the judges also have to pay attention to factors like the difficulty and variety of connecting steps, whether the program is balanced in terms of its layout and use of the ice surface, and the skaters' speed, carriage, and ease of movement in harmony with the music. It can be hard to evaluate the overall structure and choreography of a program at the same time that you're looking for specific technical elements, so again it's helpful for the judges to be able to make some preliminary observations in the practice sessions. These factors generally don't change much in between practice and performance anyway.

In short, while judges are supposed to judge only what they see during the actual competition, watching the practices gives them a better idea of what to look for, so that they see the right things.

[15] Why is vocal music permitted for the original dance (jive)? I thought vocal music wasn't permitted in eligible competition.

The ISU develops requirements for the music and choreography for the original dance each year that are specific to the particular rhythm that is being skated. In the case of the jive for the 1997-98 season, they decided to allow vocal music because coaches and skaters complained about the difficulty of finding suitable music without lyrics. (Similar problems were encountered some years earlier when rock'n'roll was the designated rhythm.)

Incidentally, this is not the first or only time that vocal music has been used in eligible competition. Up until 1990, there were actually no rules prohibiting the use of music with vocals in the singles and pairs events and it was simply a tradition not to do so. When a few skaters used vocal music in the 1989-1990 season (notably US skaters Erik Larson and Natasha Kuchiki & Todd Sand, who both skated to opera selections), the ISU reacted by closing the loophole.

[16]Why are there four skaters on the podium at US Nationals instead of only three?

At the regional and sectional qualifying competitions for US Nationals, there are four skaters on the podium because it's the top four that advance to the next level of competition and it makes sense to honor all of them at the medal ceremony. US Nationals is also considered a "qualifying" competition in the USFSA rulebook, and is governed by the same rules regarding medals and awards.

The medals presented to the fourth-place skaters are made of pewter.

[17]Why do they bother having the World Championships immediately after the Olympics?

Television revenues from the World Championships are the principal source of income for the ISU, the international governing body for figure skating. The ISU doesn't make money from the Olympic games.

Also, the number of entries in the figure skating events at the Olympics is now strictly limited. The ISU is actually much more controlled by the many smaller member countries than by the traditional skating "powers" such as the US, Canada, and Russia, and they are firmly committed to holding an open competition in which all countries which are ISU members can participate. Moreover, the World Championships have been in existence much longer than the Olympics, and they carry a considerable amount of tradition and prestige of their own.

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