Most skating fans will agree that the rules in competitive skating and the ISU Judging System are far from perfect. IJS aside, there are two rules that greatly influence competition that really needs a bit of rethinking – the minimum age requirements in major senior international competitions and, as this season’s Grand Prix Series, including the most recent NHK Trophy, has shouted loud and clear, limiting the number of entries per country to the World Championships.
I have already aired my thoughts about the minimum age requirements, and there’s an easy fix – just get rid of it. But with the entries limitation rule, it gets a lot trickier. You can’t just eliminate the rule, because chaos would ensue. And do we really need chaos at this point in the sport?
Japan has four men in the Final.
Of course, the impetus for this whole discussion is Japan’s prowess in the singles disciplines, particularly in the men’s event. For a number of years, we knew there to be a solid top three – Daisuke Takahashi, Takahiko Kozuka, and Nobunari Oda – in some order. But last season, Yuzuru Hanyu emerged. And this season, Tatsuki Machida and Takahito Mura have made a mark for themselves by winning Grand Prix events.
So now, instead of three, we’ve got six Japanese men who are no doubt among the top 15 male skaters in the world. Therein lies the problem – the de facto determination of who the best skaters in the world are is the World Championships, and each country is allowed a maximum of three entries per discipline to Worlds (provided that they qualify that many skaters). So come March of next year, three of the best skaters in the world won’t be competing at the event that should determine who the best skaters in the world are.
After Hanyu’s win and Takahashi’s silver at NHK last week, four Japanese men have qualified for the Grand Prix Final – Hanyu, Takahashi, Kozuka, and Machida. Mura, who won Cup of China, and Oda, who took bronze at Skate Canada, did not make the cut. That said, there will be more Japanese men at the Grand Prix Final – really, the second most important completely-international event of the season (note that I’m not counting Europeans or Four Continents because they are restricted by continent) – than there will be at Worlds.
The only other time that a country has qualified more than three entries in a discipline at Grand Prix Final was Russia during the 1998-1999 season, when Alexei Yagudin, Alexei Urmanov, Evgeni Plushenko, and Alexander Abt all went to the Final.
We’ve seen this kind of depth of talent before – the Japanese men and ladies in the past decade, Russian men and American ladies in the late 90s and early 00s, just to name a couple. It doesn’t happen that often, but when it does, it’s a great shame that one or more of the best skaters in the world have to stay home due to the rule.
What about rankings?
There are other sports that don’t have a qualify-by-country rule. Take tennis, for example, where there is a ranking system. At each of the four Majors, a certain number of the highest-ranked players get automatic entries, others get wildcards given by the tournament, and others have to go through qualifying.
That’s fine and good, and you could see it working for skating. But there are some major differences between the two sports. There are a lot more entries in a tennis Major than there are at a figure skating Worlds, making this kind of ranking-based system fairer. The system of ranking for figure skating, at this point, is a bit of a joke (much less reliable than the system in tennis, which has its share of criticism) – and given the relatively small number of competitions skaters enter per year, anomalies like injuries and withdrawals could have an unnecessarily large impact.
There are just not enough competitions that skaters compete in every season for a rankings-based qualification system to be even remotely fair.
So how do we fix it?
As I wrote earlier, simply getting rid of that rule would bring about chaos. If countries aren’t limited to the number of skaters who qualify, then who gets to go to Worlds (or Europeans and Four Continents, for that matter)? Worlds can’t be a free-for-all where anyone can compete, it’s just not possible.
Two new developments with Worlds this season is the elimination of the qualifying round and the institution of fairly high minimum scores that skaters have to attain to be eligible for Worlds. It’s a way to ensure that Worlds hosts aren’t hemorrhaging money booking expensive venues for qualifying rounds that could have low ticket sales. At the same time, the minimum scores set a certain expectation of quality from the competitors, who, of course, are supposed to be the best in the world.
I’d say let’s take it a step further – keep the country limitation rule, but add another set of minimum scores that determine “wildcard” entries. If a skater/pair/team has attained a certain (very high) score at an international competition during the season, making him/her/them potentially competitive with the best in the world, then he/she/they get an automatic entry to Worlds. This could ensure that, say, a skater who could be fourth at Worlds while his three teammates sweep the podium still get the (deserved) honor of competing at Worlds. And since it’s rare that a country has talent that is that deep, these wildcard entries would, theoretically, not be given out that often.
Obviously, this rule isn’t perfect – for example, if a skating federation knows that one or more skaters have already gotten the automatic bid, it could potential play games such that more skaters get berths to Worlds than actually deserved. This is especially a slippery slope since not all countries determine their Worlds entries directly via their national championships.
The point is, this is another rule that needs to be revisited. Few would argue that the six Japanese men I mentioned earlier aren’t among the best in the world this season. But because of that limitation rule, only three of them will get to go to Worlds, the ultimate competition in every non-Olympic season.
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