The judging and scoring process for some Olympic sports is fundamentally simple. In skeleton, for example, whoever makes it down the track fastest, wins.
Figure skating is not one of those sports. The figure skating scoring system can seem downright baffling, especially if you're the type of person who only tunes in to watch once every four years during the Winter Games. And this year's events in PyeongChang include another layer of mystery in the form of tiny boxes in the upper lefthand corner of your screen that change either green, red, or yellow as each competitors goes through their routine.
However, these boxes are your friends. They're there to help you better understand how well a skater is doing in real time, and lend some more transparency to the sport's Byzantine scoring system. Here's what you need to know.
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They represent the athlete's Technical Elements Score
Without getting too complicated, figure skating routine scores are judged in two categories: the technical elements involved and the artistry of the overall program. The technical score is determined by a panel of judges gauging how well things like spins, jumps, footwork, transitions, and other elements are executed in real time. Each element is worth a certain "base" score (the more difficult the move, the higher its base score), and essentially, judges assign an overall technical score by adding up the scores of all successfully completed maneuvers (more on that in a minute).
So, how do judges know what maneuvers to look out for? And how do commentators know when a skater has screwed up or missed something? Well, each competitor has to submit the plans for their skate -- sequentially -- ahead of time. Accordingly, each gray box you see before an athlete starts their program represents a technical element they intend to execute.
The different colors indicate how well they pulled off a specific technical component
Since the eagle-eyed technical judges know what moves to look out for, they can fairly quickly assess how well a move was pulled off. If the skater has successfully completed a move, the box will turn green. If the skater didn't successfully pull it off, it'll turn red. A yellow box indicates that the judges aren't quite sure and will need to review it (if you notice, as you keep watching yellow boxes eventually turn either red or green).
The actual awarding of technical scores is slightly more complex
While the color coded tiny box system can help you better understand how well a skater is generally doing from a technical perspective, the number of points they're actually receiving for each technical skill they attempt gets a bit complicated.
For example, every technical move they go for -- whether performed successfully or unsuccessfully -- will receive a "grade of execution," or GOE, between negative 3 points or positive 3 points. If you see a green box, it means the skater got a positive GOE for a particular move, and will either receive the full number of "base" points the move is worth, slightly less (if the judges think something subtle went wrong or was lacking), or more (if it was practically perfect). If you see a red box, the skater did something wrong and received a negative GOE. The judges take the base value of each element and add (or subtract) the GOE they gave them to come up with the final Technical Elements Score.
Those same judges will then also assign a Program Component Score based on the artistry of the overall program, though that gets even more complicated and isn't reflected at all in the colored boxes.
Ultimately, the Technical Elements Score is combined with the Program Component Score (PCS) to determine the skater's Total Segment Score (TSS) for the event. Does your head hurt yet?
Just remember, don't let having a grasp of what the tiny box colors mean convince you that you're at all versed in the exceeding complexities involved in figure skating scoring. Trying to understand everything about it is enough to make you dizzy. However, if you feel like trying, this primer should help set you straight.
Check back during the games for all of Thrillist’s continuing Olympics coverage. Think of us like an all-knowing friend watching along with you to answer all the important questions, like how heavy are Olympic medals. We'll explain everything from curling rules and figure skating scoring to what OAR means, why winning athletes are receiving stuffed animals and much, much more.
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