It's hard to argue that Kim Yu-Na's gold medal-winning performance in figure skating was anything but spectacular. She is surely the Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt of her sport, with other athletes scrambling for just second place.
But while we can subjectively look at Kim's performances and know they are good, the vast majority of sports fans have no idea how that appearance of excellence translates into a good score.
Kim Yu-Na earned 150.06 points from her free skate routine Thursday night, more than 19 points ahead of silver medalist Mao Asada of Japan. According to NBC's commentators, that's the highest score ever for a long program, an eye-popping score that will go down in Olympic lore.
But count me among the millions of people who watched the program without any real of clue how that score is calculated. While chatting with colleagues on Twitter last evening, there was universal amazement at Kim Yu-Na's score, but many of us also noted that we really didn't know what it represented.
(Update: Tracee "No Relation to Scott" Hamilton has a nice column on this issue in today's Washington Post.)
The current figure skating scoring system, known as the ISU Juding System or Code of Points, was put in place in 2004, replacing the 6-point system that was familiar to most fans. Supposedly, the new system is designed to be more objective. That's a fine goal, but when the end result is something that the average person can't interpret, you run the risk of losing an audience.
This Wikipedia entry seems to do a thorough job of explaining the system, and even shows some scorecards, or "protocols" of various skating performances. There's an image of Evgeni Plushenko's free skate from the 2006 Winter Olympics, and though it is initially confusing to look at, it does provide ultra-specific detail on the skater's performance.
I had no idea this was the case until I began writing this blog entry, but all of the protocols from each performance are posted online after each Olympic performance. You can even compare two protocols side-by-side. The availability of these protocols should be publicized during broadcasts. Most fans won't bother to look at them, but they could be fun to examine if the competition is close.
Average fans might not be able to interpret a protocol easily. But a skilled eye could examine a set and quickly interpret what a skater did or did not do well. And that's where the ISU, the judges and broadcasters might be able to work together.
In the future, NBC (or whoever is broadcasting the Olympics) should have someone on hand during and immediately after broadcasts to not just analyze performances as they happen, but examine the protocols themselves and explain them in laymen's terms.
This type of analysis would have been particularly helpful during the men's competition, when American Evan Lysacek edged out Plushenko for the gold medal, even though Plushenko was the one who landed a difficult quadruple jump. NBC's analysts suggested that Lysacek had more difficult elements throughout his program, but without someone analyzing the protocols themselves, viewers had no specific, objective sense of why Lysacek scored better.
I'm going to do you a favor. I'm going to examine the the protocols for Lysacek and Plushenko and tell you why Lysacek won. This is something one of the NBC analysts could have done instead of just offering generalizations. You can look at their scores here.
Plushenko and Lysacek got identical scores for the program components (transitions, footwork, choreography, etc.) So it really came down to the individual executed elements. Lysacek earned 1.86 points more than Plushenko in that area, which was enough to overcome a half-point deficit after the short program. And it really came down to Lysacek skating a bit more cleanly overall.
Lysacek's big jump combination was a triple lutz-triple toe loop. It had a base value of 10.0, and he got a "grade of execution", or GOE, score of 1.40. (The GOE score can range from -3 to +3.) So, his total score on that jump was 11.4.
For Plushenko, his big jump combo was a quadruple toe loop-triple toe loop. It had a base value of 13.8, but a GOE of .80. So in other words, Plushenko's jump was harder, but he didn't execute it as well.
Neverthless, the quad did mean that Lysacek needed to essentially score five more points that Plushenko over the rest of the program. And that's what he did.
Each man had a triple axel, but Lysacek's GOE was .60, compared to -.36 for Plushenko. There's a point there.
Each man did a flying sit spin, but Lysacek did four rotations compared to Plushenko's three, so he had a slightly higher base value. The judges also said Lysacek executed his spin more cleanly.
Each man did a triple lutz, but Lysacek earned a half-point more for execution and was given credit for doing it later in the program. Same goes for the triple loop that each man did.
Each man did a change foot combination spin, but judges said Lysacek executed his better.
Judges thought Lysacek's circular step sequence was harder and performed more cleanly.
While much was made of Plushenko's quad, the total base value of all of his elements combined was 75.03, compared to 74.93 to Lysacek. So in essence, all Lysacek had to do was execute just a hair better than Plushenko, and that's what he did.
It seems like Lysacek had a great strategy. He didn't worry about the quadruple jump, but inserted slightly harder elements throughout the program and just tried to execute each one as cleanly as possible.