At the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer, American figure skater Nancy Kerrigan wore a plain white Vera Wang skating dress when she narrowly lost a gold medal to Ukraine’s Oksana Baiul—whose feathery pink dress resembled glamorous, half-plucked poultry. That night, because four judges placed Kerrigan first, four placed Baiul first, and one judge tied the two, gold and silver were decided by the tie-breaker: the Artistic Merit score.
The judge who’d tied the two skaters, Jan Hoffman, ranked Baiul higher in Artistic Merit, and she won Olympic gold. Kerrigan’s dress was, to many people, more beautiful. However, watching the two performances, the relationship between Baiul’s flashy flamingo-pink getup and her Broadway medley music is far clearer than that between Kerrigan’s shimmery white dress and the Neil Diamond music of her long program.
Did Hoffman rank Baiul higher artistically because her costuming signified a more pointed relationship to her music? Perhaps not. Baiul is, after all, one of the most remarkable performers ever to take the ice.
But we may never know for sure.
And that’s the problem. Figure skating combines artistry and athleticism, elegance and punishing physical feats. Skaters bravely launch themselves off of ice with sharp metal objects affixed to their feet, and are expected to do so with musicality. This hybrid nature is one reason the sport is so alluring. But in figure skating competitions, costumes can be an unfair influence on judges as they evaluate some of the more abstract criteria on their score sheets. Aspects like “Expression of the music's style, character and rhythm” are already difficult enough to reflect numerically. When a judge attempts to measure a quality as subjective as style, how can the costume not affect his or her opinion? How can a judge know whether Skater A is artistically evocative than Skater B, when Skater A is wearing a simple white dress and Skater B looks like she’s wearing a sparkly avian fetus?
One answer to the call for objectivity is that it’s time for the Olympics and the world governing bodies of skating to try something new—like a standardized dress code.
Currently, according to International Skating Union (ISU) Rule 500,
the clothing of the Competitors must be modest, dignified and appropriate for athletic competition—not garish or theatrical in design. Clothing may, however, reflect the character of the music chosen.
The ISU elaborates on the issue of modesty, explaining, “The clothing must not give the effect of excessive nudity for athletic sport.” That’s a befuddling qualification when one considers that the preferred attire of female skaters is essentially a pair of panties with a tiny, non-functional miniskirt attached. Ironically, male skaters are not allowed to wear shorts. What’s perhaps more troubling, though, is the confused language that prohibits theatricality but condones reflecting a character. Is a dirndl-style dress theatrical if the athlete is skating to Volksmusik, or is that simply portraying the character of the music? If the dirndl is blue and white lozenge patterned, is it garish or just interpreting the Bavarian flag?
It might surprise spectators who find skating apparel both garish and theatrical that costume infractions can cost the skater 1.0 point, a significant penalty for a sport that measures to the hundredth of a point. For a small piece of plastic, the sequin can make a big difference.
Jan Longmire, a California-based designer of skating dresses, says she knows by instinct what is acceptable. Her intricate beadwork and fluttery skirts have attracted an elite clientele including two-time national champion Ashley Wagner, an American contender at the Sochi Games.
Of course, the instinct of Longmire, a 30-year veteran, is not the instinct of every would-be costumer. More importantly, tastefulness is registered quite differently across class and cultures. “I may say the Russians sometimes don’t quite adhere to [Rule 500],” Longmire said carefully. “But it’s kind of a subjective thing, because to [one person] garish is not really that bad and to someone else you would have to come out like Oscar the Grouch or something to be considered garish.”
Robin Wagner, who coached Olympic champion Sarah Hughes, agrees that the subjectivity makes costuming difficult to navigate. “I think it’s sometimes difficult with cultural differences. What appears very chic and exciting and exquisite for an eastern European skater may not appeal to an American audience and vice versa,” she said.
“Just as music has different style and appeals to different audiences and judges, I think the same is true of costume choices. So I think the first hurdle is, How does one skater come up with something that is appealing more universally?”
The difference, then, between becoming an Olympic champion—that is, a life of endorsements, skating tours, and lucrative television commentary gigs—and becoming someone who once was a very good athlete could, hypothetically, come down to whether you’ve successfully deciphered which textile transcends national borders, or correctly guessed how orange spangles translate to an international panel of judges.
Costume penalties are rare, however. Judging figure skating has never made anyone rich, and those who become skating officials generally do so because they love figure skating; most don’t want to ruin a life over an audacious neckline. The greatest problem that costumes pose isn’t that they might exact a penalty but that they make it more difficult to equitably judge the Components score, which measures a skater’s artistic merit and overall caliber of skating. And of late, judging has already become a painstaking act of critical calculus.
Until 2004, the skating federation used an opaque 6.0 judging system in which judges could give skaters any mark between 0 and 6 (to the tenth of a point) for technical merit and artistic merit, except in the case of a few mandatory deductions. Though there had been criteria, accountability was limited, and the system was vulnerable to abuse. Then a judging scandal at the Salt Lake City Games resulted in the 6.0 system getting replaced with a new Scale of Values scoring system. In the new system, each of a skater’s moves, or “elements,” is awarded a base value of points in order to function with greater transparency. When a triple Lutz has a precise value of 6.0 points, the argument goes, there isn’t room for numbers to be fudged.
Yet figure skating is not soccer. A triple Salchow is not a simple goal, or three-point shot, or home run. A triple Salchow can be landed, not landed, barely landed, very subtly cheated, done well, done superbly, done poorly, and everything in between. (For 20 years, skating fans have argued over whether the awkward double toe loop Oksana Baiul completed at the end of her Olympic long program should have resulted in a greater penalty on her technical merit mark or whether it ought to have been a boon, one extra jump to make her program that much more difficult.) Which is why the new scoring system allots base values for each element but allows for points to be to be added or deducted based on Grade of Execution.
The scoring only becomes more complicated once you consider the “second mark”—the half of the judging criteria reserved for Program Components, or Presentation, which the ISU defines as “Skating Skills, Transitions/Linking Footwork and Movement, Performance/Execution, Choreography/Composition, Interpretation of the music.” The 26 (or in pairs skating, 33) criteria for these Components ranges from the concrete “Balance, rhythmic knee action and precision of foot placement” to utterly abstract qualities like “Purpose (idea, concept, vision, mood)” and “Use of finesse to reflect the nuances of the music.”