Unlike stopwatch sports with finish lines -- speed skating, downhill skiing, etc. -- figure skating is scored subjectively. A panel of judges evaluates each skater's technical and artistic performance. The skater with the highest overall score wins.
Choosing a winner is subjective, but at least one thing about the scoring system is not. The rules award a skater a 10 percent bonus for any jumps completed in the final two minutes of a performance. (The idea is that later in the program the skaters are more tired, so they deserve more credit for pulling off those jumps.)
That makes sense -- and even if it doesn't, that's the rule.
So along comes Alina Zagitova, a 15-year-old skater from Russia. For the first two minutes and 15 seconds of her approximately four-minute program, she never jumped. She twirled and spun and performed cool steps and showed off her grace and artistic flair, but she never jumped.
She waited. And conserved energy.
Then, with two minutes to go, she started jumping. Triple lutz, triple loop combo. Double axel, triple toe loop combo. Triple flip, double toe loop, double loop combo. Triple lutz. Triple salchow. Triple flip. Double axel.
She did seven jump combinations in less than 90 seconds, added a cool spin at the end.
And even though her score was the same as that of Evgenia Medvedeva, since Zagitova came into the finals with a higher score in her short program, she won the gold. (Here's a link to her performance.)
Now, imagine she had skated the same basic program but spaced her jumps out more equally. Simple math (my favorite kind) says she could not have received as high a score; even moving a couple of jumps into the beginning half of the program would have taken points away from her overall score.
Granted, she did risk losing points on her artistic score. Most skaters space their jumps relatively evenly throughout their programs, partly to create small rest breaks between jumps but also for artistic reasons.
Theoretically, the judges could have thought, "Hmm ... the first couple of minutes were kinda dull. I'm going to deduct points for that."
But they didn't.
Was her approach fair? Absolutely. She played within the rules. Was it controversial? In some quarters, possibly so.
Zigatova doesn't care. (Nor should she.)
"My program is very harmonious, I think," she said. "In the beginning, I skate to slow music. And in the end, it speeds up and this is where I put my jumps. It captivated the audience. People look forward to my jumps. I think it is a well-choreographed routine."
And here's the thing. Any of the other skaters could have crafted a similar program. But they didn't. The other top skaters had an average of almost three jumps in their programs before the last two minutes, automatically giving up the 10 percent bonus.
Zagitova didn't create the system -- but she did understand the system.
I can picture her thinking, "OK, here's how this works. So what can I do to maximize my results?" She found an edge. A small one, one that a lack of talent would have made irrelevant, but one that made an incremental -- and therefore meaningful -- difference in such a close competition.
Isn't that what we should all try to do?
Whatever our pursuits or interests, we should always play fair -- but we should always try to maximize our results, too.