Russia’s dominance of skating less about drugs, more about math | Radio WGN 720

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BEIJING (AP) The dominance of Russian women in Olympic figure skating, regardless of how superstar Kamila Valieva’s doping case plays out, has less to do with performance-enhancing drugs than something very much simpler: mathematics.

While the sport’s oft-criticized judging apparatus has undergone overhauls, teardowns and total rebuilds over the years, it has ultimately produced a convoluted system that rewards high-flying jumps – even those with hard landings – by relation to skating skills and art. And that gives the few women in the world capable of these jumps, almost all Russians, an unassailable advantage even before setting foot on the ice.

“You know, I’ll be honest: yes, I’ve had these thoughts before,” said American figure skater Karen Chen. “I think any athlete in my position, or in a similar position, would have those thoughts. … Maybe my best is not comparable to the Russians?

Perhaps no one’s best is comparable to them.

It’s the unintended byproduct of the International Skating Union’s attempt at a fairer scoring system.

Those who remember the sport in the 1980s and 1990s, when Brian Boitano and Tara Lipinski won gold medals for the United States, no doubt remember the simple 6.0 system. The judges gave this perfect number a score of 0 based on two factors, a program’s presentation or artistry and technical merit.

This system is long gone, relegated to mothballs after the judges scandal at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002.

In its place? A system that only Euclid and Pythagoras could love.

The system these days is split into two scores: the technical score rewards how well a skater performs jumps and spins, and the component score, designed to value skating skills, transitions, performance, composition and interpretation – all nebulous and purely subjective numbers. .

This is the score of the component where the Russians find an advantage.

Each skater must execute certain jumps in their program – the axel in the shorts, for example. But they can do any variation of it, and each is worth a different point total. So while the majority of skaters on Tuesday night opted for a relatively easy double axel, with a base value of 3.30 points, Valieva and her Russian teammate Alexandra Trusova did a triple axel, which carries a base value of 8.00 points. Essentially, they had an almost 5 point lead in the field.

There is another score that accompanies each jump or spin called the “Execution Level”, which allows judges to adjust a higher or lower score to reflect the quality of the execution. But even a perfect double axel, like the one Kaori Sakamoto of Japan did in her short program, won’t make a difference over a poorly executed triple axel.

Sakamoto’s brace scored 4.29 points; Valieva’s triple, on which she nearly fell, scored 5.26.

Valieva’s program base value was 37.71 points, the highest among 30 skaters, and despite a shaky performance, she made it to fruition and a solid score of 82.16 points. That was more than eight shy of her own record, but still enough to give Valieva two points ahead of teammate Anna Shcherbakova in Thursday night’s free skate.

Shcherbakova, incidentally, did a double axel and had one of three clean skates in the entire field – further proof that boldness on the jumps is much more valued by the current system than a perfectly executed program.

“I understood that I was skating in the Olympics and I wanted to do this skating to the best of my ability,” said Shcherbakova, who is in second place, “so I’m very happy that I was able to accomplish that.”

The mathematical advantage of the Russian team – and Valieva in particular – will be even more pronounced in the free skate, where skaters are required to do seven jumps instead of three and allowed to do quadruple jumps.

The reason Valieva, Shcherbakova and Trusova, known colloquially as the “Quad Squad”, can pull off the jaw-dropping four-rev jumps and most others can’t is largely due to the Russian system. The trio, all coached by beleaguered Eteri Tutberidze, learned impeccable jumping technique at a young age, then their still-developing bodies were pushed to extreme limits as they began to jump higher, spin faster and to add more rotations.

“I didn’t do jumps until I was much older,” said Natasha McKay of England, who learned the double axel and triple jump when she was 19, the age at which many Russian skaters are retiring. “I was the odd one out.”

Valieva typically attempts three quads in her free skate, including a quad toe loop in combination with a triple toe loop. These heavily weighted jumps give Valieva’s program a base score of 86.07 points, nearly 25 more than Sakamoto’s free skate base value, which does not include any quadruple jumps.

Again, it comes down to the math: Even with a clean schedule on Thursday night, Sakamoto would struggle to close the gap even if Valieva fell on all of her quads, and might struggle to hold on to her bronze spot.

And that leaves Sakamoto and his Japanese teammate Wakaba Higuchi, who sits in fifth place after his short program, competing more against themselves than against their high-flying Russian rivals.

“I just want to stay focused on all the elements and keep working on quality and doing it well,” Higuchi said. “I can just put on the best performance without making big mistakes and put on a performance that I’m happy with.”

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