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Originally published Saturday, March 28, 2009 at 4:09 PM

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Ron Judd

Overhaul scoring system before it kills figure skating

Figure skating is on life support, but don't blame the networks. Blame a scoring system that needs to be tweaked.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Olympics at a glance

When: Feb. 12-28, 2010

Events: 86 medal events in seven sports

History: The first Winter Games were held in 1924, in Chamonix, France.

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Just for the record: Figure skating as a spectator sport is not dead. But someone might want to check to see if it has one of those living wills.

Life support, in fact, might be too kind a term for the spectacle that once dominated TV ratings in this country like no other sport — all those major round-ball pursuits included.

The thought struck home this week while watching the World Figure Skating Championships on TV. Those who looked hard enough eventually found the world's biggest skating competition hidden on the Oxygen Network. You know: That place where the lead piece on its Web site all week was: "BAD ATTITUDE: Show everyone you're a bad girl in these so-hot yoga pants!"

This is the hole into which competitive figure skating has slumped.

But you can't blame the setting of America's snooze alarm for figure skating on NBC, or even the boutique teeny-bopper network to which it has consigned figure skating. The peacock people are realists, and probably sense interest waning in the sport, at least in North America.

Some will argue this demonstrable downturn is all just bad timing — a gap between stars, particularly those of female persuasion, after the (apparent) retirements of Sasha Cohen and the incomparable Michelle Kwan. But savvier observers point to a more fundamental flaw — namely, the current construct of the Code of Points.

We hate to keep harping about the complex, replay-assisted scoring system that came into being to replace the old 6.0-based scoring system after the pairs judging scandal at the 2002 Salt Lake Games.

But evidence is mounting that the COP has turned skating, particularly for women, into gymnastics on ice — and not in a good way. Because of its emphasis on athleticism at the expense of artistry, it has placed younger, pre-adolescent girls with Gumby-like flexibility and low-mileage hip and knee joints in the top pantheon of the sport. (Just wait until the Chinese figure out a way to sneak 11-year-olds into Grand Prix skating events.)

It has also created a men's skating universe where a free-skate performance is more like a grueling, quad- and triple-jump-studded obstacle-course run than a work of art. It is, in simpler terms, the difference between Dick Button and Brian Joubert.

Button himself has been critical of the scoring system and the new direction for the sport. He sees figure skating as a bastion of athletes and leapers, but not artists who know how to skate as beautifully between jumps as during them.

Other observers have begun publicly chiming in with their own beefs. Gold medalist Scott Hamilton tells us the chief flaw with the Code is that fans, who don't have access to the same slo-mo replay as officials who ding skaters for things like under-rotated jumps, don't get it. You should be able to watch a skating competition, he points out, and at least have an idea about who should have won.

And this week, NBC's Sandra Bezic pointed out, after a relatively miserable on-ice performance of the world's best pairs, that even the best in the world had become such point hogs that they were attempting routines at least one level over their heads.

But that's precisely what the Code of Points rewards. Under it, it's better to fail spectacularly than shine modestly. Look at what that has wrought, and decide for yourself if it's better.

It's not that the scoring system itself is inherently flawed. It's just a matter of the relative point values assigned. One of the system's advantages is its finite detail — slices of scoring can be tweaked to influence how skaters approach their routines. But that isn't happening.

So there you go, International Skating Union president Ottavio Cinquanta. Clearly you've got a lot of ego invested in the way things are. But your sport is clearly over-rotating its jumps and under-rotating its potential.

The verdict is becoming fairly clear: The audience, at least in America, is tuning out. And while occasional stars like Korea's Yu-Na Kim still find a way to meld grace with fire under the point system, they are the exception, not the rule.

Nobody's asking you to dust off the old scoring system. Please, just make this one work.

The 2010 Winter Olympics will be the sixth covered by columnist Ron Judd, author of a new keepsake guide, "The Winter Olympics: An Insider's Guide to the Legends, the Lore, and the Games." Contact him at 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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