Primer: What Skating Judges Look For

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The controversy surrounding the victory of Russian figure skaters Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze over Canadian pair Jamie Sale and David Pelletier has focused razor-sharp attention on the notoriously tight-knit world of Olympic figure skating judges. It has also left many of us wondering what it takes to become a judge at this level, and what it's like to preside at competitions where the stakes are so high. Some answers:

What are the judges looking for?

At a typical pairs freeskating competition, judges look for very specific components, including three distinct lifts (but no more than four), one throw but not more than two, one jump sequence, one solo spin and one pair spin combination. The pair that pulls all this off without bobbling, or shaking, on a landing, or falling during a jump, or otherwise marring their performance receives the highest technical marks. Teams also receive points for presentation (a more subjective rating that is essentially the judges' overall impression of each team), and the combination of the two scores to determines who wins.

The road to the top (of the judges' table)

Becoming a world-class figure skating judge can be just as cutthroat as becoming a top skater. Judges generally scrabble up the ranks for years, overseeing hundreds of contests in dank, cold regional venues before they ever glimpse the grandeur of national competitions.

According to the U.S. Figure Skating Association, prospective judges should have at least the following three attributes: "A sincere desire to be of service to the sport," "The proper temperament" and "Knowledge of the sport."

Would-be judges go through a lengthy and difficult process that involves passing a USFSA Judges Exam and attending specific Judges' Schools and (in the best-case scenario) culminates in being appointed an Olympic judge — which, much like appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court, generally ends only when the judge is approaching death.

The second prerequisite is open to the most interpretation. The USFSA describes the "proper temperament" as "the most important requirement," adding "it means the judge is objective in their judging; that they are not influenced by persons or personalities, either on or off the ice. They must appraise the skater's accomplishments for what they do in the test or competition, mark them accurately and clearly and without fear or favor."