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.


Table of Contents


[1] How is figure skating scored?

In 2004, the International Skating Union voted to completely change the way skating is scored, abandoning the traditional 6.0 ordinal system for a new system called the "Code of Points". The general idea behind the Code of Points system is that every aspect of the skating is marked individually.

Technical elements attempted by the skaters are identified by a paid technical specialist, informally known as the "caller". The judges then assign a "grade of execution" (GoE) to each element. A table in the rulebook determines the base value of each element and the deduction or bonus corresponding to the GoE value.

The judges also assign five overall "program components" scores on a 10.0 scale, for Skating Skills, Transitions, Performance/Execution, Choreography, and Interpretation. In theory, these are also supposed to correspond to specific criteria, but in practice, the judges have so far shown themselves unable to distinguish these criteria and have simply used the program components as a subjective valuation of the program, or to fiddle the ranking of the skaters as they did under the old ordinal system.

A secret and anonymous random subset of the judges on the panel is chosen by the scoring computer. Of the selected judges, for each element and program component, the high and low marks are discarded and the remaining marks are averaged. The skaters are ranked by their total scores.

The singles and pair events each have two parts, the short program and the free skate. Both programs are scored similarly and require the skaters to complete a list of required elements; the difference is only in the length of the program and number of elements. (There is nothing truly "free" about the "free skate" any more.)

Scoring for ice dancing is similar, except that skaters do one or two compulsory dances selected from a set that rotates yearly and an original dance to a rhythm (or set of rhythms) that also changes each year, as well as a free dance. In ice dance, the "program components" are slightly different, and the marks are multiplied by various weighting factors instead of all being given equal weight.

For the 2009-2010 season, the compulsory dances are the Golden Waltz and Tango Romantica, and the original dance is a Folk/Country Dance.

For the 2010-2011 season, the compulsory dances are the Ravensburger Waltz and Finnstep, and the original dance is based on dances of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

[2] Is it true that the Code of Points prevents judges from cheating or engaging in "block judging"?

No. Because of the complexity of the system and the secrecy and anonymity of the judging, all the Code of Points does is make it harder for the public to identify instances of cheating or block judging, or even just judges who are incompetent. There is nothing in the system itself that prevents judges from manipulating their marks deliberately.

[3] Wouldn't it be better to use all the judges' marks?

Yes, using the marks of the full panel would give a result that is statistically more accurate, but the ISU people who designed and approved the system are not statisticians. In addition, the ISU is adamant that randomness and secrecy are necessary to prevent any accountability of the judges to the public.

[4] What about the old 6.0 ordinal system?

The 6.0-based ordinal system is still in use in some countries that have not yet adopted the Code of Points for their own internal competititions. Under this system, judges assign skaters two marks on a 6.0 scale, one for technical merit and one for presentation.

The marks from each judge are translated into rankings called "ordinals". If you think of each skater's marks as the rows of the scoring sheet, then the ordinals are the rankings of the skaters within each judge's column.

In the original version of the system, called the "majority ordinal" system, the placements within a competition phase are based on which skater has the largest majority of ordinals for the highest place. For example, if there is a skater who has a majority of ordinals for first place, then that skater is the winner. Another variation that was used in international competitions between 1998 and 2004 was called "OBO", or "one-by-one", and involved comparing skaters' ordinals pairwise and totalling the number of "wins" in each of these comparisons for each skater.

Under the ordinal system, the combined results from the short program and free skate are computed by multiplying the placements in each phase by a weighting factor and adding the factored placements together. The factors are 0.5 for the short program and 1.0 for the free skate.

[5] What about rules for professional competitions?

In general, there aren't any rules for non-sanctioned events -- 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 historically had a variety of formats, including team events with few, if any, rules, and judging as silly as that at any of the pro competitions; events consisting of a regulation short program and an interpretive free skate; and events consisting of interpretive free skating only. Invitational competitions for eligible skaters only may also use nonstandard formats.

[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.

Loss of eligibility isn't tied to competing professionally in a particular discipline of skating, or with a particular partner. A skater who competes as a pro in singles is ineligible to compete in ISU competitions in pairs as well as singles; and members of pro pair and dance teams who subsequently change partners can't become eligible again, even if their new partner is still eligible.

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 a number of active competitors have appeared in their spring and summer tours of Canada, Europe and Asia, and other eligible skaters have appeared in the US tour during breaks in their competitive activities.

Since there's very little practical difference any more between "eligible" and "ineligible" skaters, many people wonder why the ISU doesn't do away with the distinction entirely and open up all competitions to all skaters. The ISU's monopoly over the World Championships and Olympic Games is both the reason for their policy, and the means they have of enforcing it. For example, the fact that they can ban people who take part in unsanctioned competitions discourages skaters from taking part in (and hence lending credibility to) any other supposed "world championships" which might be put on by private promoters or by a breakaway federation or skater's union, and which might conceivably rival or displace the ISU's own World Championships if such a check were not in place.

[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.

Note that pairs tricks such as Detroiters and head-bangers were originally banned because they originated in, and were strongly identified with, show skating, and the governing bodies for the sport explicitly wanted competitive pair skating to keep its own separate character. It used to even be encoded in the rulebook that "performances suggestive of carnivals or shows" were forbidden in pairs skating.

These elements are not forbidden specifically for safety reasons, either, as other pair-skating elements, such as lifts where the woman is carried or swung in a head-down position, are also very dangerous. In fact, in 1998 the ISU Congress basically ignored a recommendation from their own medical advisors to ban such lifts.

[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, and no skirt. (Many people were dismayed by the increasing emphasis on theatrical costuming and displays of pulchritude, rather than athleticism.) As a result, ladies were required to wear skirts and pants "covering the hips and posterior" until this rule was repealed in 2004, allowing women to wear tights, trousers, or unitards in addition to skirts. Men are required 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 or quadruple jump over and over in their free skating program. Skaters can only repeat two triple or quadruple jumps, only if at least one of the attempts at each repeated jump is in a jump combination or sequence, and no triple or quadruple jump may be attempted more than twice.

Note that this rule does not, by itself, put an absolute limit on the number of triple jumps allowed in a program. That limit is now enforced by the restrictions on the number of elements that were adopted with the Code of Points.

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.

[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 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, the fields are cut to 24 after the short program. The ISU voted in 2006 to eliminate the initial qualifying rounds that had been part of the World championships for several years.

At the Olympic games, the ISU has strictly limited the number of entries in each event, again giving priority to countries whose skaters placed higher at the previous year's worlds. The ISU designates a qualifying competition in the fall prior to the Olympic games to fill up the last few slots in each discipline, so that countries who did not previously qualify at worlds 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 doesn't the US send its top skaters to the Four Continents Championships?

US Figure Skating does offer the top finishers at US Nationals the opportunity to compete at the Four Continents Championships every year, and every year, the top singles skaters choose to turn it down. Nobody (other than possibly ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta) really seems to think it is a good idea to force skaters to compete at events they don't want to enter.

Part of the trouble is that the timing of the Four Continents Championships has invariably been inconveniently close to US Nationals and/or the Grand Prix Final and/or the Olympic Games, and it often involves fatiguing travel to Asia. Aside from wanting to concentrate on preparations for the more prestigious World Championships or Olympic Games, the top US singles skaters generally have enough other competition and performance opportunities during the year that the prize money isn't enough to tempt them to compete at Four Continents. It's a different story for the pairs and dancers because they have fewer opportunities to make money.

[12] 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. Prior to the 2000-2001 season, the rule used to be that the referee could 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 finished, depending on the nature of the problem and how long it would take to fix it. Now the rules have been changed to disallow the second option; skaters are given up to two minutes to correct the problem and pick up mid-program again, and they are disqualified if they cannot continue.

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

Eligibility for ISU junior events such as 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 some countries (notably Japan and Russia), skaters who are age-eligible can also compete at both junior and senior nationals in the same year.

In US events, on the other hand, "junior" and "senior" refer to skill levels rather than age. Skaters who have passed their tests and qualified at to skate at the senior level may still be selected to compete at ISU junior events as long as they meet the age requirements. Likewise, there are some US juniors who are too old to compete as ISU juniors.

The ISU's current age restrictions are:

It used to be that skaters who placed in the top three at the World Junior Championships received an age exemption to compete in the ISU senior championships, but that loophole was abolished in 2000.

[14] 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.

[15] 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.

[16] Why is vocal music permitted in dance competitions? 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.) Apparently the ISU has decided that dance would now be too boring without vocal music so the rules change to allow vocals has carried over into subsequent years, and to the free dance as well as the original dance.

Prior to 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.

[17]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.

[18]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.

[19]Where do they get those judges from?

Judges are unpaid volunteers who have spent years of their own time and money to qualify for their positions.

The procedures for qualifying as a judge vary from country to country. In the US, it works something like this:

To get started, you must be a member of the USFSA, and at least 16 years old. You do not have to be a skater, although it helps. There's an accelerated qualification track for former high-level competitors.

Prospective judges start by trial-judging tests (not competitions) for beginning skaters. "Trial judging" means you basically do what the judges do, but your results don't count towards the outcome of the test, and are only used to evaluate whether you know what you're doing. Once you have trial-judged an adequate number of low-level tests, you are eligible to receive your first appointment to judge these tests "for real". At the same time, you may begin to trial-judge intermediate tests. From there, you can move up to judging high tests, and then novice, junior, senior, and national-level competition judging assignments. The judging tracks for ice dance and synchronized skating are separate from the singles/pairs track, and you must qualify to judge each discipline separately.

As a judge, you must take the yearly judge's examination and attend judging schools. You must also judge a certain number of events each year in order to retain your appointment.

You will probably need to travel outside of your home area to get enough trial-judging experience to qualify for a high test or competition judge appointment, unless you live somewhere where there are multiple clubs with lots of high-level skaters. (If you live near Boston or Los Angeles, you're in luck; if you live in Mississippi or North Dakota, you're not.) Judges usually have their expenses paid by the club sponsoring the test session or competition, but any travel you do to trial judge or to attend judging schools is at your own expense.

For more information about what's involved in becoming a judge, check out this web site:

http://www.usfigureskating.org/About.asp?id=108

[20]Why do the judges all sit together? Doesn't this just encourage them to cheat?

The judges are not allowed to confer with one another during the competition, but they have to sit where they can communicate easily with the referee. The referee has to be able to give instructions to the judges (for instance, to make sure that all the judges are aware if a skater's program runs overtime, or what to do in case a skater's program is interrupted and they have to restart). The referee (and sometimes the assistant referee or accountant) may have to consult with a judge as well if there is some sort of problem with their marks -- for instance, if they're having trouble punching in the right numbers on their keypad.

Also, when the electronic scoring system is not being used, the referee has to collect "chits" -- slips of paper with the marks written on them -- from the judges. (The referee double-checks these against the marks that are read from the cards that the judges hold up.) It has happened from time to time in the past that the electronic scoring system has failed in the middle of a competition and the judges have had to revert to the manual method, so this is another reason why the judges have to be situated near the referee instead of scattered all around the rink.

[21][TV commentator] says that skaters are marked down for being young! Isn't this unfair?

It sometimes happens that TV commentators make statements about the rules and scoring system that are just plain wrong. This can happen for a variety of reasons. The ex-skaters who do TV commentary often have no real training in judging or accounting and may not even have bothered to read the rulebook. They may have more regular involvement with the professional side of skating, instead of the eligible competitive side, and have a tendency to view skating from their personal perspective where entertainment is more important than sport. They may be remembering the way things used to be when they were competitors themselves, which may be long enough ago that the rules have changed significantly in the meantime. They may have been misinformed by staff researchers or coaches who had the wrong information. They may actually know better in their own minds, but be unable to articulate what the rules really say when they're "on the spot" and only have a few seconds of air time before they must move on to something else.

On the specific issue of judges marking down skaters for being young or inexperienced, sometimes people involved with skating say this as a kind of shorthand to describe technical problems that are legitimately penalized under the rules. When one says that a skater "skates young" or "looks like a junior", what this typically means is that they still lack speed and power, that their edges may not be as strong and deep as those of more developed skaters, that they may still lack security or a fine degree of control on certain elements, that their programs may be constructed with less complex connecting moves in between the elements, and that they aren't able to fill the entire ice surface as they skate.

[22][TV commentator] says that under the 6.0 system the judges won't give high marks to the first skater! Isn't this unfair?

Remember that in the 6.0 system, the marks don't mean anything by themselves; all that matters is the relative placement of the skaters.

The judges can't give out 6.0 marks to a competitor who has to skate early in the draw order unless they are absolutely, positively certain that none of the remaining skaters could conceivably, under any circumstances, turn in a better performance. Judges are rarely willing to go that far out on a limb. It is far more appropriate for them to leave some room just in case later competitors do turn in better performances. If nobody does outskate the first competitor, then his/her marks will still hold up for first place. There are many, many examples of real competitions where skaters have won when they had to skate early in the draw order.

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