ISU Congress to Decide Big Changes for Pairs

Rule makers hope to boost creativity with new elements

Minerva Fabienne Hase and Nikita Volodin of Germany perform during the Gala during the ISU World Figure Skating Championships (Photo by Jurij Kodrun/International Skating Union)

Read more in our series, The Future of Pairs, Part I and Part II

When the International Skating Union members hold their biennial Congress in June, they will consider substantial changes to the content of the singles and pairs free skates. These changes, including removing a jump and adding new choreographic elements, are intended to increase creativity and artistry in the sport.

Proposing such significant technical changes partway through an Olympic cycle is unusual. For pairs, especially, the new elements could have a significant impact on preparations for the next season. The Technical Committee for Singles and Pairs held meetings about the proposals at the European and World championships, and many coaches spoke afterward about their mixed excitement and trepidation.

According to the chair of the Technical Committee for Singles and Pairs, these proposals may be the first step toward even more significant changes, including the awarding of separate medals for technical and artistic programs. For now, though, those ambitious proposals are on hold, as the committee wants to see the impact of the new choreographic elements.

Proposals for Pairs in the 2024/2025 season

The official proposals can be seen here in the agenda for the Congress 

Short Program:

  • Alternating the side-by-side spin and the pair combination spin every other year

Free Skate:

  • Eliminating the Pair Combination Spin
  • Adding a Choreographic Pair Spin
  • Eliminating one leveled lift
  • Adding Choreographic Lift
  • Eliminating Choreographic Sequence
  • Allowing only two jumps, not three, in the combination

According to Fabio Bianchetti, chair of the ISU Technical Committee for Singles and Pairs, the goal is to allow more creativity.

“We have to go in the direction that brings more public back, especially young people. So we are hoping that by giving more freedom to the skaters, they have more time to express their originality and their ideas and have a better program in terms of the choreography.”

The choreographic elements will have very few restrictions. The choreo lift must be overhead, to differentiate it from a dance lift. “So it should be an overhead lift, but just for one revolution, and after that, they can do whatever they like. The requirements are very little and all holds are possible. The number of revolutions of the man is also free…the only requirement is that they use a normal hold to do the lifting part, then one revolution, and then you do whatever you like. We are open to seeing interesting things.”

For the choreographic spin, the only requirement is a minimum of three revolutions. “After three revolutions, it is okay, it will be confirmed by the technical panel, and then everything else is free so they can do what they want. They can lift the partner, they can change the rotation, they can do whatever they like, and the GOE will be evaluated by the whole element, not only the three revolutions.”

Bianchetti noted that the grades of execution for the choreographic elements will increase or decrease more than for the other elements. “The quality becomes the most important thing. Because the element can be confirmed or not; when it is confirmed, for everybody it is worth the same, and the quality can make the difference in the points that you get. So if you get plus four plus five or you get minus one or minus two, there is much more difference than in the normal elements.”

Reactions from pairs skaters and coaches

Annika Hocke and Robert Kunkel of Germany perform during the ISU World Figure Skating Championships (Photo by Jurij Kodrun/International Skating Union)

The response from pairs skaters and coaches has, for the most part, been cautiously positive. Many have been looking for opportunities to increase creativity and artistry in the discipline and welcome the Technical Committee moving in that direction. The caution comes from the lack of detail revealed so far, as well as the timing of the changes.

“I think it’s exciting that they want to take pairs skating into a more creative realm,” said Allison Purkiss, who coaches Canadians Lia Pereira and Trennt Michaud. “That’s always something that we strive for – it is a performance sport, we want it to be exciting for the audience, and if people are feeling like that’s not the case, we definitely want to do something about that.” 

Drew Meekins, who coaches American pair Ellie Kam and Danny O’Shea, agreed. “I definitely am excited about the idea of adding something new to pair skating. There’s that need for progress, it’s important in this discipline, and in figure skating in general, in terms of audience appeal and just keeping it fresh.” 

Ondrej Hotarek works with many pairs at the IceLab training center in Bergamo, including Annika Hocke and Robert Kunkel of Germany. He is looking forward to the choreographic lift.  “Hopefully it will encourage everyone to make those elements more interesting. The idea is to give more freedom in holds during choreo lift, which I like. I already experimented with some ideas and we could really see a lot of different approaches to these new elements. I believe it’s the right move for the sport, its creativity and diversity.”

Bruno Marcotte, who coaches the Japanese team Riku Miura and Ryuchi Kihara, commented, “I definitely like the system in place, but sometimes it does have the effect of seeing a lot of the same elements or the same features. Hopefully, all those changes make our discipline more creative, more unique, and more spectacular. I believe a lot of fans miss the days of skaters performing their own signature moves. It is crucial that teams have the time and the space to be able to create those moves.”

However, many of the details of the choreographic elements have yet to be defined.

“There are still some fundamental points to be clarified, like scales of value for these choreo elements, and their GOE markups,” said Hotarek, noting that he has concerns about how the elements will be judged. “There will be a lot of free interpretation, there might be many different opinions and judgments, making it hard to figure out what the skaters are supposed to be executing.”

Annika Hocke noted that she and Robert are excited about working on choreo elements, but “on the other hand, they are so hard to judge because it will get more subjective. Because if you don’t have a level and the judges can just say plus five GOE, one judge can just say ‘yeah, for me, it’s plus five’ but on the other hand another judge will say ‘yeah, I don’t like it, so for me, it’s zero or even minuses.’”

“It’s so hard to know,” said Meekins, “because even [which teams will be more affected] will depend on how the elements are evaluated and what the guidelines are for GOE and what the restrictions are for the elements, there are so many layers to it. But I’m optimistic that it can be done in a way that brings something positive.”

Choreographer, and former pairs skater, Sandra Bezic also thinks the changes are a step in the right direction, and hopes that the choreo elements will not be too restrictively defined.

“I sort of feel like the whole program should be a choreo element,” said Bezic. “The more you break things down into little compartments, the more transactional and the less emotional and artistic it is. And that’s where my issue is… I think the analysis paralysis is what makes everybody seize up and then it becomes boring because it all looks the same. So be careful not to put these choreo elements into their little box, which is designed to get a bunch of the same damn thing. Just do something really great, and we’ll know if it’s great or not.”

2018 Olympic Champion Bruno Massot was perhaps the most critical of the idea of a choreographic lift replacing a standard lift – although he also would like to see more artistry in the sport. 

“What is impressive in pair skating,” he noted, “is the lift, twist, and throw –  and you want a choreo lift instead of a normal lift. We have the choreo sequence already for that. I think that what they want is something like the adagio lift, but then, they can make this allowed in the choreo sequence and keep the normal lifts, which are very, very impressive for the public.”

Program Length and Jump Values to Remain the Same

Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara of Japan perform during the ISU World Figure Skating Championships (Photo by Jurij Kodrun/International Skating Union)

Massot wants to increase artistry in pairs but would prefer a different approach. “The programs are short…there is not enough time to create choreography, to play, to interpret. So if I have to change something, I would like to make the program a little bit longer.” 

Others, including Bruno Marcotte and Annika Hocke, agreed that they’d like to see longer programs that would allow more time for artistry. However, Bianchetti said this idea is not under consideration at the moment. 

“The problem is connected with the organization of the events,” he explained. “We are criticized that our events are too long. Four minutes [for the free skate], plus three minutes of judging or entering the skater and calling the skater, with all this it is nearly seven minutes for each athlete. It is absolutely too long, and the request is to shorten the time to have more active events and shorter events. Because after two hours, two hours and a half, it becomes problematic. Our events, even the best ones are longer than four hours. So the fact is that we don’t want to shorten the time [of the programs]. Theoretically, we can shorten the time between the skaters. But this seems to be also a problem for television, television likes to have some kind of interval between the skaters. To go longer, probably it would be not so easy.”

Congress voted to reduce the value of quadruple throws and twists after the 2018 Olympic cycle, and some athletes raised the idea of increasing points for quads. “It could make the sport more interesting,” said Annika Hocke. “Again, I know there’s mixed reviews about it, but it could make a pair stand out and be more special. I don’t know that it’s more dangerous than the quadruple jump that the boys do.”

Bianchetti responded that the change keeps skaters safe, and the Committee is not reconsidering it at this point. “I understand that some skaters would like to have this back, more value. Many skaters, from the other end, are happy about the situation like it is because they aren’t too pressed to try to do this difficult element and risk being injured. So there are always pros and cons when you do these kinds of things.”

A question of timing

Coach Dmitri Savin with Minerva Fabienne Hase and Nikita Volodin of Germany as they react to their win at the Grand Prix in Finland (Photo by Jurij Kodrun/International Skating Union)

Many athletes and coaches were critical of the changes coming in the middle of an Olympic cycle, even if they supported the proposal.

Dmitri Savin coaches Minerva Fabienne Hase and Nikita Volodin of Germany, as well as the Hungarian, Dutch, and Polish pairs who competed at Worlds. Savin does not fully agree with the Committee’s approach and shared that the lack of detail makes preparing for the season difficult.  “The main problem is that they don’t have any definition of what [the choreo elements] are going to be. I have previous relationships with shows, and we know what we can do, but still, without definitions, we don’t know how we need to work, or how we need to build a program. For it to be decided only in June, it’s a short time. Because everyone is building programs now, so what do we need to do?”

“We are basically one and half seasons away from Olympic Games,” said Hotarek, “and I’m afraid there is not enough time to really get the grasp on every level – skaters – coaches – judges. It complicates our job right now because the final decision of Congress will come in June, but we simply can’t wait that long to build programs and elements for next season. But I like the challenge and our coaching team and skaters will get ready for every option, after we know the final decision we will assess the situation.”

Bianchetti understands the criticism but hopes that these changes will make the programs easier for pairs.

“If it were the reverse, that from a choreographic element, we passed to elements with features, it would become much more problematic. For the lift, for the spins, to get every element level four you have to connect all the features in a certain way. It is not so easy when you cannot repeat the feature. But if we take out one element with the features, even for the other two [lifts] it is easier to connect the features to achieve the levels. So we are thinking that we are making the program, from a technical point of view, a little bit easier. So it can be possible.”

Meekins noted that at least all the pairs are in the same position. “I think, as a coach, there is always a strategy that goes into how you train, not just for this season, but through the Olympic quadrennial. If there were any changes that disrupted that strategy, that would be unfortunate, but everyone would be in the same boat, so it would be an equal playing field.”

Purkiss tried to put a positive spin on the uncertainty. “[The timing] makes all of us a little leary as to whether they will actually pass all of this in June, but it’s definitely something for us to take home and think about when we are building next season’s spins and lifts and jumping passes so that at least we have a little bit of a head start on it, either way.”

Dutch pair skater Michel Tsiba was blunt. “I think change is always good, but it should be after the Olympic cycle. They didn’t make so many changes [after the last Olympics], so change it two years ago. But then again, whatever happens, happens. We have to adjust.”

Congress could approve the proposals, but delay implementation until the 2026/2027 season. Bianchetti is reluctant to wait two more years for the changes to take effect. “The fact is that we thought that some important changes had to be done and for other reasons, it was not done before the last Congress. So it was anyway delayed, these changes. “Logically, we understand [the timing]can create some problems because the Congress is too late for the preparation of the athletes.” 

“Bureaucratically, it is very complicated,” he continued, “because we have to propose everything one year before the Congress, and we have to organize the idea one year before the proposal. If we implement everything two years after the Congress that means that every new idea has to be implemented nearly four years after it was thought of. When it is implemented, it is already old.”

“If Congress decides that this has to be delayed for two seasons, we have to accept, and it’ll be okay.”

Increasing Opportunities for Athlete and Coach Feedback 

Daria Danilova and Michel Tsiba of the Netherlands perform during the ISU World Figure Skating Championships(Photo by Jurij Kodrun/International Skating Union)

The first discussion of the proposals took place at the European Championships, with pairs and singles coaches meeting with the Technical Committee. The Committee also held two meetings at the World Championships, and athletes also discussed the changes during their meeting with ISU President Kim Jae-Youl.

While the Ice Dance Technical Committee has routinely held these types of discussions with coaches, the practice is a new development for singles and pairs. “It’s very exciting,” said coach Alison Purkiss, “We feel like dance coaches now, because we were invited to a coaches’ meeting!”

The Technical Committee also held a pairs meeting at Junior Worlds last year, mainly to discuss the age limit. Drew Meekins was at that meeting. “I liked that format where the top coaches can be together with the ISU and go back and forth with our thoughts. I thought it was great and I’m glad they did it here…We’re all on the same team, in a sense, we all want what’s best for the sport, and I think we can achieve that better when we all work together.”

Michel Tsiba would like to see pairs consulted more about the changes that affect them, noting that the coaches’ meetings at Europeans were held at times before the pairs competed, making it difficult for any athletes to attend. “When you make small changes, fine. But in the Olympic qualification season, to make such big changes, I think the ISU should consult with the pairs.”

Annika Hocke shared that at the athletes’ meeting with the ISU president, the late-night timing meant that it was mostly pairs (who had already competed) who were in attendance. They communicated many of their opinions directly to the highest leadership, including that “we wanted the rules changes to be published earlier, and the meetings be earlier, because June is so late, for everybody, even for the judges to get used to the rules, it’s just too late in the season. And if you build the choreo earlier, and then you have to change it again, it just doesn’t make any sense. So it would be best if they do it right after Worlds.”

Bianchetti recognized that the coaches and athletes are eager for opportunities to give feedback, and the technical committee plans to continue with these meetings in the future. 

“The purpose of our meeting is clearly to explain why we want to go in some direction, but especially to have feedback from the coaches. And this is extremely important for us. So before we had it, but one by one, and it was not so constitutive as it was in these last two seasons.”

“Logically the coaches are always explaining or asking mainly based on the athletes that they have,” noted Bianchetti. “If they have a very technical athlete, they would like to have more technical points for jumps and if you have a very artistic athlete, you like to have the artistic part more evaluated. So the coaches are a little bit biased, but this is logical. But for us, it is important to have these ideas and feedback. And we are summarizing all things and this will help us in the progression for the future.”

Bianchetti also noted that Patrick Meier and Cong Han, the coach and athlete members of the Committee, also have an important role to play. “It’s more personal and they get the feedback and opinion of the people that they know. For example, Cong was going to many athletes at Worlds to ask their opinions about the changes, about the ideas, about possible ideas for the future, and coming back with this talk that he had with the skaters. Logically, to have a real universal consensus is very difficult. But it is important for us to have somebody very close [to the athletes] so they can share their opinions.” 

A first step to even bigger changes? 

Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Maxime Deschamps of Canada perform during the Gala at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships (Photo by Jurij Kodrun/International Skating Union)

Bianchetti shared that the Technical Committee has been exploring potential and more substantial changes to differentiate the short and free programs. One idea, which has been in discussion since the 2018 Congress, is to introduce technical and artistic programs. The current proposals, by adding a choreographic element and removing a jump from the singles free skate, are an attempt to move in that direction.

“The main thing is, in our opinion, to have two programs that are more different than today. Because today, in reality, in the two programs, the only difference is the length of the program. Okay, [also] some requirements, but mostly the length of the program. This does not help skaters that have different characteristics. If we have one more artistic program and one more technical, we can help the technical [skater] in one, the artistic [skater] in the other one, and the sum of the two can be the total champion.”

The result would be three world champions in the same year; one for the technical program, one for the artistic program, and one overall. “This will help a lot for the Olympic Games, what [achievements] skaters can take with them when they do the shows, and having more medals increases the value of the sport.”

While the programs would be strongly differentiated, there would still be a need for artistry in the technical program, and for jumps and technical content in the artistic program.

“We do not want to have the idea that it is a show. It is still a sport, it is just more focused and we can give more points inside the program to the artistic part…it is just the balance between the two parts, artistic and technical, that can be modified. We don’t want to have something where there are no technical things or something where there are no artistic things and it becomes just a jumping contest.”

Bianchetti emphasized that the idea for separate medals would need approval from the ISU Governing Council and many stakeholders. “At the moment, we are just discussing this possibility, but we have not found a total agreement. So we have to go in connection with the Council, and with the political way the ISU would like to act. At the moment, we say okay, if we are not going to have two different totally different programs, we will try to differentiate a little bit, and after we can go forward, maybe after the Olympic Games of 2030 or something like that, or to stay like it is if [these changes] work well enough.”

The ISU Congress will decide on the current set of proposals at their meeting in Las Vegas June 10-14, 2024. Each ISU member state has one vote. 

More information about the ISU Congress is available on the ISU website.

Read more in our series, The Future of Pairs, Part I and Part II

One Reply to “ISU Congress to Decide Big Changes for Pairs”

  1. If they want three programs they are better off bringing the Compulsory figures back. That is why it is called Figure Skating in the first place.

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