In one way skating is easy to judge. If one skater seems to be enjoying his routine and the four-and-a-half minutes flash by, the programme is a success. If another is labouring so that every move appears to involve great effort and time drags, the routine is bad. The two skaters may be technically matched, but the first will win both the judges' marks and the audiences applause. The enjoyment factor is a definite consideration.
The two categories for which free skating is marked, technical merit and artistic impression, are equally important, except when a judge gives the same total marks. In this case the first mark, for technical merit, is used to break the tie. In theory it is possible for a skater who presents a programme lacking in difficulty to receive high marks in the second category. In practice, unfortunately, the judges rarely vary the free skating marks by more than three-tenths of a point. This has encouraged skaters to strive for technical achievement at the expense of style, and to include jumps they have not fully mastered.
Polished performances, such as John Curry gave in 1976, are all too rare. Often skaters ideas of artistry are limited to waving their arms around haphazardly. Curry, who had late but lengthy ballet training, used both inside and outside spreadeagles to great effect. His dance expertise gave him the hip turnout needed for these moves. It also nearly cost him the 1976 European Championship gold medal since he included alternate inside and outside spreadeagles as a method of getting gracefully from one end of the rink to the other during his short programme routine. The Russians, having watched him in practice, decided this was an illegal extra move and began lobbying the judges to point it out. Fortunately Currys trainer, Carlo Fassi, was well respected by the judges and one of their number explained what was happening. The spreadeagles immediately disappeared from his routine.
By contrast, Robin Cousins adopted disco steps into his routines, and would insert snazzy, jazzy footwork, which often ended with a high-kick. In this way he came to grief in the 1980 World Championship in Dortmund. The intricate footwork of his short programme was never a problem until that last competitive appearance when a second's inattention became a moment's sitting on the ice. Cousins would also highlight his programme with Russian split jumps. No one, however, could match Toller Cranston in these. A bronze medal winner in the 1976 Olympic Games, he achieved a wonderful position in the air with his legs stretched out in a straight line and his fingers clasping at the tips of his boots.
The right choice of music matters, too. Images of John Curry are immediately conjured up by skating fans when they hear Minkus Don Quixote ballet music; they groan when other skaters misuse this. In 1974 Dorothy Hamill abandoned Finiandia and the music from Limelight, which she had been practising to for six months to return to a previous selection. Although she was performing well to the new music, she felt the routine lacked that indefinable factor that moves audiences. The NSA asked Cousins to bring back the music from the film of The Railway Children, which he had used for his short programme so effectively during one season. Cousins had tired of this piece, but he recognised that it had a quality, which complimented his skating, and so he complied.
Terry Kubicka, USA, demonstrates a back flip of the kind he did in the 1976 Olympics, subsequently outlawed by the ISV