2012worlds-podiumIce dancing is certainly more quantifiable than it used to be, but it is still subjective. It will always have an element of subjectivity—that is part of what makes it special. Even here at IDC, where we usually share the same standard for excellent ice dance, the free dance this year has often divided our opinions, right down to the last dance of the season. At the 2012 World Figure Skating Championships, the top four teams all delivered technically-sound, well-performed, medal-worthy free dances. In fact, the top eight teams were all superb tonight, earning only two negative GOE marks out of 558 awarded. Ranking the top four, especially, was an extremely difficult task, and perhaps one that can only be explained by deconstructing the programs.

In the familiar battle for the gold medal, Americans Meryl Davis & Charlie White faced off against Canadians Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir for the third time this season, pitting the airy yet whip-fast waltz of “Die Fledermaus” against the charming storytelling of “Funny Face.” The two teams, of course, share choreographers and both programs are lighthearted and uplifting, just what the International Skating Union requested of the dancers. At the end of the night, Virtue & Moir won the free dance with a score of 110.34, which was 2.70 points higher than Davis & White’s score of 107.64.

On the technical side, the primary difference was the diagonal step sequence. Virtue & Moir opened their program with theirs, earning a level 4 (base value a whopping 8.0) and +2.14 GOE for an element score of 10.14. They carved deep edges into the ice and maintained speed in the element in a way that seemed effortless. Davis & White’s diagonal step sequence came near the end of their four-minute program, and the effort was more visible. A bend in the waist was more evident, and their blades were not completely secure on all of the turns. Attaining a level 4 requires absolute precision by both skaters in order to achieve the bullet points required. In today’s free dance, the technical panel agreed the Americans had not met the criteria. Davis & White only earned level 3 (base value 6.5) for their diagonal footwork and +1.86 GOE for a score of 8.36, netting 1.78 points less than Virtue & Moir on that critical point-grabbing element.

The base value for the other required elements, 33.5, was equal between the two teams. Davis & White have eight additional (circular footwork, twizzles, pair spin, and 5 separate lifts, while Virtue & Moir have seven (circular footwork, twizzles, pair spin, 3 separate lifts, and a combination lift). As a result, the Americans have 72 individual Grades of Execution (GOE) and the Canadians have 63 from the nine judges on the panel. The GOE are factored differently when applied to various elements and levels, and due to a tweak in the system, one choice no longer has a points advantage over the other. The decision is purely a choreographic choice. Only eight of the 20 teams in the free dance had a combination lift; three of those eight are coached by Igor Shpilband & Marina Zoueva. (Davis & White are the only Canton-based team in Nice who do not use it.)

These 63 GOE Virtue & Moir received gave them an additional 11.28 over their base value. The 72 GOE for Davis & White gave them 10.93. So in terms of how well the judges thought both teams did what they did on all of the elements besides the diagonal steps, the edge went to the Canadians by just 0.35. The 135 different GOE came down to a third of a point separating the North Americans today, a testament to how close in ability the two teams truly are.

The edges that the technical panel analyzes fly by so quickly that the audience, either in the stands or watching at home, is usually not conscious of what happens in the moment (and do not have the luxury of instant frame-by-frame replay). The skaters usually are not either, especially when it is the difference between level 3, the expected standard for teams in the world’s top ten, and level 4, a benchmark of difficulty that is extremely high and often varies from competition to competition. It is often even less discernible than a cheated jump. Athletes are pulled off the ice and thrown into the press area, sometimes without knowing which levels they received and certainly without having any time to figure out why they received the calls that they did. Remember, in ice dance, both partners need to achieve the bullet points to get the level call; if one does a little bit less or makes a minor error, the lower level is given for that element.

“You always want to get your season’s best at the World Championships,” White said. “We felt like we skated clean and really left it all out on the ice.”

The feeling of leaving it all out on the ice is what many reacted to after the dancers’ performances and what should show up in the second mark. In Program Components, both teams earned quite a few perfect 10s. Five different judges gave Virtue & Moir perfect marks in one or two of the Performance, Choreography, and Interpretation categories, for a total of nine 10s. Five different judges also gave Davis & White perfect marks in one to three of the same categories, but they earned only (!) eight 10s in total. In terms of averages for each Program Component, the two teams were scored equally in the Performance mark, 9.68. Virtue & Moir earned slightly higher marks for the four remaining categories. This, of course, is where subjectivity creeps in fairly easily. What makes the different between a 9.50 and a 9.75 in two stellar performances? It is not something that is easily defined, and since the judges’ identities are secret, (and Judge #1 listed for Virtue & Moir is not necessarily Judge #1 on Davis & White’s protocol sheet) we cannot see how they directly compared the two teams.

In the end, only 0.85 separated the teams on the Program Components. Even if Davis & White had earned higher marks than Virtue & Moir on Performance and Interpretation/Timing, (the two components where IDC staffers are in agreement that Davis & White were superior today), they would not have gained more than a point. The decision still would have come down to that step sequence.

Is it right for a world title to come down to a single step sequence? Maybe it is, and maybe it is not, but having it spelled out in the protocol sheets is probably better than the days when we did not have any explanations at all. And when two teams are skating at such a high level, and on any given day one can be just “thatmuch” better than the other, sometimes a decision can only be made between the smallest details. How many times have we seen a singles event come down to a skipped double toe loop at the end of a three-jump combination? And at least we have something to discuss in our article, instead of reducing our sport to a cop-out call of prejudgment.

“This season has been complete,” Virtue said, referring to the training time missed due to injury over the past few years. “To really reach the program’s potential, it’s a good feeling, and it’s very satisfying. More important than this gold here was all the training that we put in at home.”

The battle for the bronze medal was just as fierce, with two teams laying down terrific performances under pressure. Nathalie Péchalat & Fabian Bourzat, with Péchalat still on the road to recovery from a broken nose, managed to hold off this season’s “it” up-and-comers, Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje, to win the bronze medal at home. Their mummy-and-pharaoh program was on the cheesier side of uplifting, but it was entertaining and they skated it well, to the delight of the audience in Nice. Péchalat & Bourzat earned level 3 on both of their step sequences and level 4 on the rest of the elements, for the same base value as Davis & White. Their GOEs were not quite as high, though, and the technical elements score was 49.50, the fourth-highest on a very proficient night. Their lifts did not seem quite as secure as they usually are, but they were still impressive, and they captured the character of the program, which contributed to their PCS of 54.55. Over the course of the season, Péchalat & Bourzat have steadily improved and are beginning to close the once enormous gap that existed between the top two teams and the rest of the field. They earned a score of 104.05 in the free dance and finished with 173.18 points overall, just 5.44 points from Davis & White.

Weaver & Poje’s passionate performance of “Je Suis Malade” made it seem like they were skating a fresh program, instead of performing the dance for the seventh time in competition this season. They earned the same base value as Virtue & Moir, with GOE giving them a TES of 49.64, just a hair ahead of training mates Péchalat & Bourzat. Part of this was due to their circular step sequence, which earned one of only two level 4s award on step sequences in the entire event. On the program components, though, they earned 50.54 points, earning marks mainly in the 8.00-9.00 range. Of all the component judging among the top contenders, this is probably the most glaring example of where reputation can make an impact on marks. Their scores in the 8s on skating skills and linking footwork/movement are a bit more justified, as they do not always have the effortless edging of the teams that finished above them, but it is hard to understand how any judge scored them below a 9.00 in interpretation and performance. In the end, though, like the subjective calls between Virtue & Moir and Davis & White on the components mark, a point or two would not have made a difference in the final rankings. Weaver & Poje did an excellent job to break 100 for the first time, scoring 100.18 in the free, and ended up with 166.65 points overall.

Elena Ilinykh & Nikita Katsalapov maintained their ranking after the short dance to break into the top five with a total score of 161.00 and 95.66 in the free dance. Plagued by low levels in past competitions this season, they finally delivered the technical goods all the way through their program, earning level 4 on everything except two level 3 step sequences.

Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte were fifth-best in components for their charming take on La Strada, but a level 3 spin cost them fifth overall. Still, they were thrilled with their scores and with their best-yet Worlds finish of sixth with 160.62 points.

Ekaterina Bobrova & Dmitri Soloviev moved up two spot to finish seventh with a score of 150.75. Maia Shibutani & Alex Shibutani struggled in the free dance after a botched twizzle sequence that earned no level (and no points). Their total of 144.72 left them in eighth, just ahead of Ekaterina Riazanova & Ilia Tkachenko with 144.43. Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue rounded out the top ten.