It's competition season! Get ready for bling, hardware, and take a deep breath. Your admission to Harvard is not at stake.
One of the most confusing things about competition, especially ISI competition, can be "why didn't the best skater win." So I've created a sample scoring sheet to explain how this might happen.
Please note that I have "rigged" this sheet-- it is not based on any real skater, I made it up, sitting at my desk, to illustrate various points. Randy Winship, Director of Skating Programs at the Ice Skating Institute, who reviewed this for me, strongly recommends that you read the competition manual for judges (someone let me know if you can open this; it may be allowing me in because of my professional membership) which is available as a free pdf download on the ISI site (search "Judging Essentials").
ISI competitions use a panel consisting of 3 judges, one of whom must be Gold tested, and a referee, who I believe must be Gold tested, all through the ISI judges certification system. Each judge has their own sheet like the one below (I've consolidated all three onto a single form for ease of discussion). They mark only their own set of columns. Judges do not discuss marks except in certain instances. It is impossible for a single judge to rig an outcome.
PLEASE NOTE THIS IS AN EXAMPLE ONLY AND NOT IN ANY WAY CONNECTED TO ANY ACTUAL EVENT!
So who wins this event, and who was the best skater? Looking at the individual skills marks, looks like Skater 3 is the best skater, so how come she came in fourth? The worst skater- Skater 1, pulls off a third.
ISI gives the judges a statutory range, based on the number of skaters in a flight, which is not supposed to go over 5. (For scheduling and other reasons, competitions may stretch this to 6 or even 7; the largest ISI flight I've ever seen was 9.) You'll see at the left top of the sheet "7.0-7.8" which is the statutory marks range for a flight of 5. Judges must stay within this range, except in certain prescribed instances, and must use the entire range for each skill. Judges grade ONLY the skills and qualities listed on their sheet. They do not see, or discuss, what the other judges are doing, unless there is a dispute or a question.
Looking over the sheet, you see everything within the marks range, except in the Back O-I Pivot and Duration columns (Judge 1), and the Change Foot column (Judge 2).
A correct duration gets 10 points (the referee has a stopwatch), but if you go over time (more than 10 seconds from start of movement to end of movement) there are prescribed penalty marks. Skater 4 went between 10 and 15 seconds over her time limit, so she loses 2 points. The referee notes this on her sheet, and initials the judge's sheet. Some coaches will mess around with the time limit; knowing that you've really got 10 extra seconds, they'll cut a 90 second program for 99 seconds. If the equipment plays that music a little slow (this happens less with digital recordings than it used to with audio tapes), or if she skates slow and finishes after the music ends, that skater is risking a penalty.
Silly skater 3 didn't do a pivot, so she gets a goose egg for the skill. This is not a bad pivot or an incomplete pivot, but a missing pivot. When this happens, the judge who is marking this skill will ask "Was there a pivot?" If all the judges and ref agree there was no pivot, it goes down on the judge's sheet and the ref's sheet as a zero, and the ref must initial the judge's sheet.
Skater 5 messed up her change foot spin. She might have had insufficient rotation, or left off the second forward spin. A recognizable attempt at a skill that is not completed gets a penalty mark of 5. This is NOT the same thing as a fall, or a badly executed skill. A fall on a completed skill will just put you at the bottom of the marks range (assuming someone else isn't even worse) and will cost you placement under "correctness" and "general overall"; falls on completed skills in ISI are not specifically penalized unless it prevents the skater from completing the skill. When there is any question at all, every panel I've ever been on will put a disputed skill at the bottom of the marks rather than giving a penalty mark. ISI judges try their hardest not to give penalty marks.
Again, all penalties must be agreed upon by the entire panel, and initialed by the ref. Some rinks also complete "penalty sheets" to back up any penalty calls in case of disputes.
And this is how it happens: Skater 3 had the highest marks across the board, and didn't do a pivot. Maybe she just forgot it. Maybe her coach is an idiot and didn't choreograph it. Notice that this error also cost her on Correctness and General Overall.
Skater 1 loaded her program with tons of extra content and apparently had great choreography, because her Pattern mark is also high, knocking her to the top of the heap with all her extras. That's a smart coach, and a good choreographer, focusing on this skater's strength.
Skater 5, also a good skater, needs to fix her pivot. But she's feeling pretty good right now, because she doesn't usually beat Skater 3.
Skater 3's parents are standing at the Skating Director's door, screaming at her. After she shows them the video, demonstrating that their kid missed an element, they're going to scream at poor Skater 3 all the way home for forgetting her pivot, and then fire the coach, even if it wasn't her fault.
Skater 1, who always comes in last, even against the book, as well as her parents and her coach, having no idea that all this is going on, now believe that she has a shot at the Olympics.