Judging a thankless job

BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:35 AM ET

It was a devotion born on unending ribbons of desolate Alberta roads, fostered through hundreds of cold mornings, bad coffee and truck-stop diners.

It was nurtured through countless frigid nights spent in remote, wind-whipped prairie rinks.

Month after year there were kids' competitions, examinations and practising on judging panels.

Fifteen years it took Jodi Abbott to get from Edson, Alta. -- a pimple on the map outside of Edmonton -- to the big leagues. Her reward? She gets booed and second-guessed and doesn't earn a penny for the privilege.

Welcome to the elite world of the figure skating judge.

"You do have to learn to have a thick skin," said Abbott, who is in London working the national championships. "Most judges are like myself. We're former skaters and you reach a point when you decide skating isn't going to be a career ... this is one way of staying in the sport."

Abbott holds a PhD in psychology and works for the Alberta health department. Which probably helps when an arena full of people are screaming that she is, no doubt, blind as well as a numskull. "On occasion I've had our whole judging panel get booed. A lot of it is a lack of understanding by fans about the technical aspects. As a judge you just have to be confident in your ability and decisions."

Abbott has been judging for 24 years -- seven at the national and international levels. "Most of us start out in small arenas in front of mom and grandma, judging kids just starting."

Judges often put in 15 years before even being considered for an international panel.

"It's a huge commitment," Abbott said. "Sometimes people don't understand, it's all volunteer, the only money you get is to cover expenses."

So what's the motivation? "It's having a love for the sport and knowing you're doing a very important job making sure the right decisions are made. There's satisfaction in knowing you're keeping integrity in the sport."

That integrity took a hit after the scandals of the Salt Lake Olympics. This year, the International Skating Union adopted a new scoring system that has been met by applause from judges such as Abbott -- as well as skaters and coaches.

"The judging (scandal) didn't help the sport's popularity but maybe it was the best thing that ever happened to the sport," coach Doug Leigh said. "Under the old system, none of us bitched about it too much. We just worked our way through it and said: 'You know you just can't put the best guy down for long.' But before, if you were in seventh place there was no way you could win. Now, you can. It's like hockey, you can have a bad first period, but still have a chance to win."

The old system, where a skater was deducted points for mistakes and awarded an ethereal mark out of 6.0, is history. It's the best thing to happen to judging since East Bloc countries stopped passing brown, unmarked envelopes back and forth. "It's easier for the judges," Abbott said. "It's more black and white."

Now skaters start at zero. "Each element is assigned a certain number of points. Depending on how a skater completes each element their points either go up or down," Abbott said. "The new system is more understandable for the public. If a skater falls he may only get two out of the 10 points for that element but if they score well in other areas it's obvious to fans why that skater should still win."

Not to mention, why it should save a judge a razzing.

Skaters love it because after each skate they get a list of the scores they receive for five program components: Skating skills, transitions, performance execution, interpretation and choreography.

"As a skater you're able to take something from every competition and see where you have to improve," Jeff Buttle said. "Under the old system it was: 'Okay, here are your marks.' But what does that mean? A lot of times you just didn't know where exactly you went wrong."

COMPLETE SKATER

In theory it rewards the complete skater but not necessarily the most dynamic or flamboyant. "It's an advantage for me," said Buttle, who doesn't include a quad in his program. "But I think it's about time that we've been rewarded for that extra effort we put in on other things like skating skills and choreography that didn't get as much recognition before."

All of which, Abbott said, is what the sport should be about anyway. "The new system reflects the best overall performance of the day. Now a completely unknown skater can come in and do the performance of his life and end up winning."

Imagine: Figure skating where they can't announce the winners before the event? It's this kind of revolutionary thinking that might just save the sport -- and keep a judge's ears from burning.


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