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Inside the Rings: Figure skating, uh, what?

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Why the fuss? Figure skating's much-maligned scoring system is, in fact, easy to understand: The Chinese got marked up for being married — husbands and wives who stay together after hurling each other across the ice deserve 10 extra points — and Ukraine's pair was docked for teeth-grindingly yucky Flash Gordon costumes.

Oh, sorry, have I got that wrong? Rats. It's too confusing.

From a scoring system fans could no longer trust, to one they can't understand.

It's more honest, but more incomprehensible than it used to be. And that's frustrating.

Fair and understandable should not be too much to ask.

The women skaters' see-through suits are more transparent than the complex charts, computers and mathematical formulas judges are using at the Vancouver Olympics to differentiate one triple axel from another. In revamping its scoring system to make it less prone to fixing by crooked judges, skating is leaving befuddled spectators out in the cold.

Don't just take my word for it.

Here's Terry Dinsmore, picked at random from the crowd that packed Vancouver's Pacific Coliseum for the Olympic pairs competition. She was lost, so much so that by mid-point through the evening she was wondering why she was there. The fact that her pair of $420 tickets were a gift from a business contact offered some consolation.

"I just get really frustrated when the scores come up because they have no context for me," she complained. "It takes away from the excitement."

That the sport is doing such a wretched job of explaining its grand-sounding International Judging System to confused souls like Dinsmore is truly unfortunate. Because, actually, the scoring now is far better and fairer than under the old method that was ditched after the judging scandal that blackened skating's name at the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002.

That, for those who've preferred to forget this fiasco, was when the International Olympic Committee ended up having to award two golds in pairs after a French judge 'fessed up that she'd been pressured to favor the Russians.

So farewell to the old system where 6.0 was perfect and the crowd could have a little fun hissing when the judges — are you blind, stupid or what? — only awarded 5.2s or 5.3s for a performance that clearly deserved nothing less than a string of 5.9s and teddy bears thrown onto the ice, to boot.

Trouble was, it wasn't very scientific.

Those who skated first were at an immediate disadvantage because judges, keeping their powder dry for those later in the show, weren't going to award them perfect marks no matter how well they executed their toe loops, twizzles, salchows or death spirals. And that wasn't fair.

In Vancouver, husband-and-wife pair Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo skated first in Sunday's short program, but still got the highest score of the night. That would have been almost unheard of in the old days.

Reputation isn't so important, now, either.

Previously, star skaters had an undeniable advantage, equivalent to Tiger Woods being allowed to tee-off yards closer to the pin than everyone else. Judges were less likely to squander their 6.0s on unknown skaters if big names were coming up later in the night. That meant the champions were harder to dethrone than they are now which, again, wasn't very fair.

As relative unknowns, the American pair of Mark Ladwig and Amanda Evora would have, under the old system, struggled to place better than 15th. Going into Monday's free skate, they were delighted to rank 10th — a feat due in no small part to the fact that their skating, like everyone's, is now judged on its merits not on how famous skaters are.

So far, so good.

What skating needs to do now is ditch the elitist attitude. That means not treating spectators like idiots who could never understand the system even if they tried.

Scores on Sunday were announced without explanation — 76.66 for Shen and Zhao, 75.96 for second-placed pair Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, 57.86 for Evora and Ladwig, etc.

It could have been the weigh-in of a gardening club's giant marrow contest. As it turned out, Shen and Zhao's score set a world record, so at least spectators could guess that they'd done OK. But was 65.36 for Canada's Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison good or bad? More importantly, was it what they deserved? How can the uninitiated know? They can't.

Not surprisingly, the crowd response was often subdued. Not much of an ambiance. You could sense that people didn't feel as if they were being involved. And that, at an Olympics or anywhere, can't be good for a sport.

The answer is not bringing back the old system. Fairness for the athletes trumps spectator comfort any day.

But tweaks would be nice, so the scoring works not just for skaters but for the people who watch them, too.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org.