Golden Skate

Mona Adolfsen on being an ISU Judge and the new scoring system

Mona Adolfsen

A changing of the guard – Mona Adolfsen is handed the gavel by Rune Gerhardsen, the outgoing President of the Norwegian Skating Association.

In the run-up to the biggest figure skating event of the season, the 2019 World Championships, the International Skating Union (ISU) referee, judge and technical controller Mona Adolfsen (President of the Norwegian Skating Association) tells about her motivation to work as an ISU judge as well as the peculiarities of the new ISU judging system.

“I became an international judge in 1993 and an ISU judge in 2000,” said Adolfsen. “The motivation lies in the interest and passion for the sport. As a judge you experience the sport close up, you meet many wonderful people with the same passion, and you also experience unique places and situations.”

Adolfsen used to work as a figure skating commentator in the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation NRK. She also works as an editor at Europower, an information and analytics agency. She was appointed as President of the Norwegian Speed Skating and Figure Skating Federation in June 2017. 

It takes some time to become an ISU judge. A national federation must register a judge for the examination to be approved as an international judge, however, before that, you must have judged at the national top level for a minimum of two seasons (this applies to Technical Controllers now; 3 seasons/36 months service is required to become an International Judge). Once approved, you can be enrolled for the ISU examination.

“To be eligible for this examination, one must have been on the ISU’s list of international judges for at least three years, and have judged at least four international competitions on junior and senior levels over the past three years, including both singles and pair figure skating competitions,” noted Adolfsen. “The examination is conducted in Oberstdorf, Germany, every autumn and is held over four days. It includes both theoretical tasks and practical judging in singles and pair skating disciplines.”

The ISU arranges training and educational seminars for officials on a regular base. Those who judge at international championships conduct a relevant mini-seminar for further approval. Those who do not judge at championships (for example, international judges) must conduct an update seminar at least every four years.

“With regard to the technical panel, examination and re-certification every three years are conducted for those who have not been in the technical panel at championships,” Adolfsen explained.

The technical panel and the referee for championships are appointed by the ISU. The judging panel consists of judges sent by the respective nations. However, not all nations can send a judge to championships.

“The nations with their participants in the respective segments of the championships are included in drawing lots to select 13 nations that can send judges to participate on the judging panel for the championships next year,” Adolfsen explained. “Each nation chooses which judge approved by the ISU they want to send. Of these 13 judges, nine are drawn for the short program. It is done 45 minutes before the competition starts. The remaining four do not judge in the short program, but they are guaranteed a spot on the judging panel in the free skating, where five of those nine who judged in the short program are drawn for the free skating.”

“As an example, Norway and Sweden participated in the 2018 European Championships Ladies Single Skating (Anne Line Gjersem of Norway and Anita Östlund of Sweden),” Adolfsen noted. “Norway was lucky to be drawn for sending a judge for the 2019 European Championships, but Sweden did not get such an opportunity. I was sent as a judge for Norway and was drawn for the Ladies Short Program (Judge No.1), but I was not among those five judges drawn for the free skating.”

The competitions are certainly remembered due to skaters’ performances, however, there may be some other significant events that will also be unforgettable.

“I have had several unforgettable experiences, both as an international judge and an ISU judge,” Adolfsen recalled. “Obviously, it was quite fun to be part of the panel of judges when Anne Line Gjersem qualified for the 2014 Olympic Games at 2013 Nebelhorn Trophy. 

In regards to championship situations, perhaps the most unforgettable for Adolfsen was the drama that took place at the 2009 European Championships that took place in Helsinki, Finland, when Carolina Kostner of Italy made a small mistake. She had fallen on the take-off of her triple Lutz in the Short Program where she placed third. In the Free Skate, her second change combination spin was considered an “invalid element” as she had repeated the spin. Laura Lepistö of Finland won gold and the result became somewhat of a highly debated issue.

At the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships, held in Helsinki, Adolfsen (Judge No. 8) awarded Evgenia Medvedeva, the first Russian woman ever to successfully defend her world title, a perfect score of 10.00 in “Performance” as part of the component score. She was the only lady in the competition to receive 10.00s at the event. 

Since then, some significant changes to the ISU judging system have been implemented. The biggest changes that are in effect from this season are to the way that elements are now evaluated. For example, the Grade of Execution (GOE) has been changed to a minus-5 to plus-5 range. In addition, a 10 percent bonus is added to the base value of a jump when performed after the halfway point of a program (for the last jump element in a short program and for three jump elements in free skating).

“Very often it takes some time before we get the changes completely ‘under the skin,’” said Adolfsen. “With the changes going from +/- 3 to +/- 5, the differences in each individual element can be greater. It will be an advantage, especially when the figure skaters make several mistakes in a single element. At the same time, we see that the differences sometimes become greater between the scores awarded by the judges.”

With this new scale, differences in scores from judges can occur for various reasons.

“The explanation for such differences is that judges are not completely used to the new scale,” Adolfsen pointed out. “There may be a different interpretation of the guidelines as well. One may press the wrong button when entering scores. Some judges may believe they have seen, for example, not a fully rotated jump or landing it on two feet, or other things. Sometimes one judge throughout the competition awards lower scores than all the other judges. At the same time, it must be said that if there was a requirement that everyone should award exactly the same score, then only one judge would be needed.”

If there is a major difference of scores, an Officials Assessment Commission, made up of top level judges, is selected by the ISU in order to make an extra professional assessment of these differences in scores. There are two judges who assess the cases together.

“Sometimes they may support the judge who is ‘out of line,” observed Adolfsen. “That is good, because we can then meet those who really dare to use the GOE scale fully. It may be right, but not always. In addition, the referee may comment on whether he/she supports the minority, and these assessments are ultimately taken into consideration by the ISU Technical Committee.”

To establish the starting GOE, judges take into consideration the bullets for each element (there are six for each element).

“We assess the criteria and at the same time the criteria for the minus GOE,” said Adolfsen. “At the same time, we must make an overall assessment of a performance before we establish the GOE. Anyway, according to this system the skaters are not assessed against each other, but against the standard.”

Pre-rotated and under-rotated jumps in figure skating are a much discussed topic.

“If it is very clear that the rotation is done on the ice before the take-off, the jump is downgraded and evaluated using the scale of values for the jump of one rotation less,” Adolfsen explained. “The position of the toe pick/skating blade on the take-off is considered here, not the body position as some may believe. The position of the blade where the toe pick hits the ice is considered to assess whether the jump is under-rotated or not.”

“We cannot see the jumps in slow motion, otherwise there will soon be many jumps to be considered and may be downgraded,” she continued. “Again, there are small margins, and here it has been decided that it must be visible in normal speed to consider whether the jump is pre-rotated or not. The rule for pre-rotations is not as strict as for landing of jumps as it is physically impossible to not have any pre-rotation.”

The standards on awarding scores for the program components appear to be more complicated.

“It is not easy to give a brief answer,” admitted Adolfsen. “As judges, we actually use four days for a seminar to update us on components. All of the components have criteria that we must consider. All criteria must be emphasized as much and evaluated throughout the program. Judges often make some notes on the components on paper and enter the score into the computer. Some choose to note something under each component, while others do not. The components are assessed independently of each other. That means that a skater can get the score 7.50 in Transitions and 9.50 in Performance, but at the same time, it often has to be a particular spectrum performance where the skater gets a full score, for example, in Compositions. Small adjustments within each score are to make a differentiation between the skaters, for example, if it is closer to 9.00 or closer to 8.00.”

The choice of a program and music can influence the score for components, but only in that meaning that the skater manages to meet the criteria by following the music. If the skater/pair manages to use the music and convey it in the form of movements, it does not matter what type of music one chooses.

Some top skaters get a higher score for components than the others at the end of their debut season. The ISU judge explains what affects the program components score growth a top figure skater gets during his or her debut season.

“It may be because they have improved overall during the season and have been able to express the music better as they have performed run-throughs of their programs many times,” Adolfsen commented. “The reason may also be that the skaters have become more confident both in elements and programs. The programs must be assessed independently from competition to competition, though.”

Some feel that there may be a pre-formed opinion based on a skaters’ titles and that those titles may have an effect on scores awarded by judges.

“As it stands in our regulations, as well as we are reminded at the start of each competition, we shall judge regardless of how the skaters performed earlier, and it also applies to performances by skaters in the ongoing competition.”

The ISU regulations say that in a program containing Falls or Serious errors, the score nine-fifty (9.5) or higher should not be awarded for Skating Skills, Transitions and Composition and the score nine (9.0) or higher should not be awarded for Performance and Interpretation. However, sometimes we see that judges do not follow this rule and award such scores for components in programs with falls and serious errors as seen below.

ISU Judging Protocol

“I do not know what lies behind the scores for the components when they are as high as they are in the programs performed with falls and obvious errors,” admitted Adolfsen. “We have now clear guidelines, but they have only become clearer this season. It is good for the sport. I wouldn’t like to comment on the way the judges award high scores in such situations, as it will be wrong of me as a judge. We shall not comment on such things in accordance with our code of ethics as well, but what I can say is that there is no kind of exception to whom it applies.”

If judges make obvious mistakes (like awarding high scores for components in programs with falls or serious errors, helping the skaters from their countries with a higher score, awarding the scores much different from scores awarded by other judges etc.), this should be registered and assessed by the ISU (see comment on Officials Assessment Commission).

“It is specifically described in the regulations how many errors made by a judge entail assessment and how many assessments result for the judge in getting a lower level approved by the ISU and possibly repeating the examination,” Adolfsen explained.

Adolfsen emphasizes that starting from the competitions on local, national and international levels, the judges try to do their job as good as possible judging what they see from each skater that particular day.

“It is important that we make an assessment that also seems reasonable for those who follow our sport from the outside without any specific figure skating competence,” she summed up. “During my career as a judge, we have got more and more details to consider and criteria to use for assessment. It is good in many ways, but there may also be a focus on too many details. As judges, we are very focused, but, obviously, we are just people.”

Adolfsen gave an example using the 2018 World Junior Figure Skating Championships in which there were 48 participants in the Men’s discipline.

“Each judge entered 576 single scores in this segment,” she pointed out. “It takes time as we sit and judge almost continuously for eight-10 hours. The fact that a judge can also do a ‘misjudgment’ when entering the 576 scores is a reality.”

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