More than a week has passed since the Olympics have ended, but some complaints have yet to die down. Specifically, some remain adamant that Yuna Kim should have won the gold medal in the women’s figure skating competition rather than Adelina Sotnikova. The advocates of this position incorrectly weight measures such as the cleanliness or elegance of the skate and go so far as to accuse the judges of fixing the event so that a Russian would win first place. While the grace displayed by the performer may factor into the final score, there is a much more structured approach to awarding points. Judges don’t just watch a performance without taking any notes or arbitrarily award points based on how gracefully the skater performed.
The much more rigorous figure skating scoring system is as follows: In all four disciplines (pairs, men’s individual, ice dancing, and women’s individual), there is a short program that qualifies skaters for the free skate, which is the medal round, the next day. But it is not only the free skate score that decides the medals, but rather the combined total of the short program and the free skate scores. Within each of the two phases, there is a technical score and a component score. These are summed, and then the two program scores are summed. So there are actually a total of four different scores that go into the final score. To reiterate, the final score is the short program technical plus short program component plus free skate technical plus free skate component scores.
Analyzing the point breakdown further reveals that the technical score refers to the overall difficulty of the specific program that the specific skater plans to display. The skater submits her full program, which includes not only what jumps and other elements she plans to display in her routine, but also at exactly what minute- and second-mark in the piece each element will take place. The judges award a score based on the difficulty of the submitted routine. Thus, the technical score is set before the skate even takes place. The only score calculated during the actual performance is the component score.
In this year’s event, the difficulty of Sotnikova’s program was 5.85 points higher than that of Kim’s. In the end, Sotnikova ended up winning by 5.76 points in the free skate. Thus, it is possible that the slight misstep Sotnikova had in her performance could have resulted in a .09 deduction. Even if one were to argue that the deduction for that misstep should have been larger, it is close enough to truth to say that most of Sotnikova’s final victory margin was due to her technical score. This score was predetermined even before the short program took place.
Complaints that the final result was rigged in favor of Sotnikova because she is Russian hold little weight, as she was a surprise to everyone. Her first day score, which was only 0.28 behind Kim’s, came out of the blue. If a Russian were to win it, the initial expectation was that it would be Yulia Lipnitskaya. The 15-year old sensation had stolen the show in the team event and won the individual figure skating event for Russia in the European Championships a month earlier. If the judges truly intended to rig the scoring in favor of a Russian, they would have almost certainly upped the technical score of Yulia Lipnitskaya. If any Russian were expected to upset Kim, it would have been Yulia. The judges certainly weren’t thinking about Sotnikova when they assigned technical scores to both phases of the program before the short program even took place.
Breaking down both skaters’ routines enables us to see where Sotnikova managed to score 5.85 points more than Kim. The two key areas were the double-triple combination and the layback spin. Sotnikova chose the hardest double for her double-triple: the double axel. She reached an excellent height and distance on both jumps and received a ten percent point bonus for executing the combination in the second half of her program. Kim, on the other hand, chose one of the easiest doubles. In addition, neither of her jumps in the combination reached as high in the air as either of Sotnikova’s. The combination finished with little speed. Thus, Sotnikova scored 3.44 points higher than Kim on the double-triple combination. Likewise, Sotnikova changed positions with ease while maintaining speed and intensity from her layback position into the second position. Thus, she scored 0.73 higher than Kim. There are several other smaller elements involved in determining the technical scores of the two skaters that more fully explain the 5.85 point differential.
Looking into the structure of figure skating’s scoring system reveals Adelina Sotnikova did, in fact, deserve the gold medal.