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What you need to know about Olympic figure skating at the Sochi Games

Figure skating is America's favorite winter sport, a beautiful art form we watch because somebody coated in glitter will have her life's work shattered because she failed to land a triple axel. But what the hell is a triple axel?

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

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Every two years, NBC asks us to pay attention to sports we haven't paid attention to in four years and expects us to watch because some of the people are American and/or have cool stories. Because we're jingoists and/or suckers, we oblige. However, we know nothing about these sports. Even the basic things.

So we bring you "Olympics, How Do They Work?" to explain/tell you everything about these wintry things.

Today, let's learn about: FIGURE SKATING.

So, uh, what is figure skating?

COME ON. You know what figure skating is. It's the marquee sport of the Winter Olympics! Like gymnastics, figure skating provides NBC the opportunity to show us incredibly talented teenage girls looking very sad or very happy after performing complex technical routines, the only part of which we could possibly understand is whether or not they fall down.

To actually answer the question though, I got in a pretty long debate during the last Olympics about whether figure skating is a sport or not.

If you view figure skating as an event demanding competitors to execute certain difficult athletic tasks and grading them on their ability to accomplish those tasks, it is certainly a sport, one of many at the Winter and Summer games that fits that description. Where it loses its sport-ness is the fact that competitors not only care deeply about presentation -- costume, appearance, choreography, musical choice -- its the fact that these elements are, in fact, graded parts of their performance that make it a bit unsporty.

So, there are different medals. How's that work?

There are five figure skating medals at these Olympics, four of which we've always had, and one of which is brand new.

Men's singles, women's singles and pairs (one guy, one girl) are pretty similar: all three ask competitors to do a short program and a longer "free" program, each of which have certain amounts of required elements, but the elements in each event are different, because guys can do different things from girls. (Also the official term is "ladies' singles, which just makes me sing ALL THE LADIES' SINGLES/ALL THE LADIES' SINGLES to myself.)

Ice dancing is the uptempo cousin of pairs skating. It's the same gist, but your song has to have a distinct rhythm/beat to it, and the elements you have to hit look a bit more, like, well, dancing.

The team trophy, which is new, will combine all of these, awarding each of the 10 teams 1-10 points for how well they placed in a given event.

I wanna know what's happening when I watch the figure skating. Can we make that happen?

No. No no no no no. You will not be able to discern what is going on as its going on.

Figure skaters do a variety of incredibly beautiful things that all look pretty good to us outsiders. However, insiders have ascertained the difficulty of each of those beautiful things and assigned point values to them. Bad jumps -- ones where the skater lands slightly off from the angle they should or lands on the wrong edge of their skate -- are nearly imperceptible to outsiders. Judges also award points to skaters who jump high or go into a jump with a lot of speed, whereas to us, once again, it just looks beautiful.

Still think you can figure it out? Okay. I suggest you head over to The Wire, which has made the jumps whose names you know into the GIFs.

Here's a triple salchow:


Here's a triple lutz:


You can tell the difference, right? Now try again, except in regular speed and without the GIF repeating.

I've helped you out by picking two very different jumps. As you can see, in the lutz, the skater jams one of her feet into the ground to provide power for takeoff. That makes this a toe jump, whereas the salchow is an edge jump, all the power coming from the edge of the skate.

Now tell me the difference between the triple lutz and this, the triple flip:



Like I said, check out that post on The Wire for the details of the minutiae of each jump. But now that you know those, you're ready to understand what's going on in real time, right? There are also stuff like spins -- when they spin without jumping -- and step sequences that are graded. And also the ones in pairs are completely different, because you can throw each other.

So, again, things are incredibly complicated. For the entire history of figure skating, the sport was graded on the 6.0 system: You do a routine, and it will be graded on a scale of 0.0 to 6.0 in technical skills and again for presentation.

Then came the 2002 Winter Olympics, when there was a point-trading scandal. You may remember, but if not, basically, a French judge gave a pair of Russian skaters additional points in return for another judge hypothetically giving a French skater more points. This was easy. All the judge had to do was say "5.8" instead of "5.7" and the fix was in. After the dust cleared, the Russian skaters and Canadian skaters shared gold, since both were very good, neither did anything wrong, and yay! Participation medals!

The 6.0 system was thrown out, flawed by subjectivity. It was replaced by a) ensuring judges' scores were anonymous -- no, you won't be able to see how the Russian judge ranked everybody -- and b) giving us something much more complicated than a 0.0 to 6.0 scale. This is what the 2010 men's singles free skate results looked like:


You see, instead of ranking technical skills from 0.0 to 6.0, each of the eight elements -- for men, its seven jumps, three spins, and two step sequences -- is assigned a point value based on difficulty. A judge from the technical panel identifies each of these elements and assigns a predetermined point value -- 4.2 for that triple salchow you saw, 6.0 for that triple lutz you saw. Obviously.

Then judges from the judging panel then add or subtract three points based on how well they think the element was performed. They're not doing this on the spur of the moment, BTW: everybody's looking at intense instant replay to determine stuff like which edge of the skate the skaters are landing on. And then they pile up all the totals from those individual elements to make what used to be the technical score.

And instead of ranking presentation from 0.0 to 6.0, the judges can now assign points for skating skills, transitions, performance/execution, choreography and interpretation.

What's gained is, most likely, a better way of sorting all this out. It's now clear what a skater did well from their score, instead of just saying "5.8!" What's lost is any hope we can follow.

And of course, there's still room for subjectivity from judges -- they can say a jump looked more impressive, and that's a valid opinion -- and of course, they still have to grade on "choreography" and "interpretation."

Long story short, you will never know what's happening in figure skating.

What's better than real figure skating?


What are the odds I see something bad happen to somebody?

Physically, little. Emotionally, HIGH. There will be disasters, coated in glitter and tears.

Because they're trying to do jumps where they rotate 1,080 degrees, figure skaters will sometimes fall, even at high levels of competition. When they do this, it means their chances of winning are ruined in a split second. Remember, the differences between a medalist and a non-medalist are the impossible-to-discern minutiae on the jumps they actually land. So falling? Yeah.

America's top male, Jeremy Abbott, has already fallen in Sochi:


Let's look at our photo editor:


Of course, half the reason this is the most popular Winter Olympic sport is because of that split second, that moment where somebody's hopes and dreams come crashing down, literally, into a heap on the ice. Then they have to get up and finish their routine and then they go over and sit in a little box and cameras film them crying.

These are all from the pairs event of the 2012 World Championships:

So, yeah, somebody will fall, and it will be schadenfreude Christmas.

More on the Winter Olympics:

Meet Team USA's brightest Winter Olympic athletes

Introducing the Indoor Olympics

The flawless Sochi Olympics | American's bathroom jailbreak

What you need to know about figure skating | Figure skating schedule

Miracle Put on Ice: 1984 US hockey team never had a chance

Hockey: Men’s schedule | All 12 men’s rosters | USA roster analysis