How the "Bonus" in Olympic Figure Skating Helps Determine Who Will Win

Figure-skating scoring can be confusing, especially for casual viewers just tuning in to watch the Winter Olympics. One term you might hear commentators use during a broadcast is "the bonus." So, what exactly is the bonus, and how does it affect a figure skater's score? Let's break it down.

First, it's important to know that figure-skating commentators may use the word "bonus" in two different ways, but only one of those refers to the technical definition of a bonus in scoring. According to the International Skating Union (ISU) Judging System, jump elements are awarded a bonus when they're performed in the second half of a skater's program. Specifically, jumps completed in this window get their base value multiplied by 1.1, which translates to a 10-percent bonus.

This bonus is meant to reward skaters for performing strenuous jump elements in the second half of the program, when their legs are tired and jumping becomes more difficult. For short programs, the bonus kicks in at about one minute and 20 seconds; for free skates, it applies starting at the two-minute mark. In some cases, you may see figure skaters "backload" their program, performing the majority of their jump elements in the second half in order to take advantage of that bonus. It's a risky strategy that can backfire as often as it succeeds, but some skaters find it worth the risk, especially when podium placements come down to just a few points or even a fraction of a point.

Most of the time, skating broadcasts will note on screen when a program crosses over into the bonus, making it easier to see when a jump is eligible for a higher base value. On occasion, commentators may also say something about a "GOE bonus." This is a colloquial term, not an official one — GOE, or grade of execution, is a separate part of the scoring system. All elements have a base value, which then goes up or down based on how well the elements are executed (the GOE). That is totally separate from the second-half scoring bonus. It's possible, for instance, for a jump to get the 10-percent bonus but also lose points on grade of execution for a wobbly landing.

Now you know to keep an eye on a program's time when you're watching figure skating at the Olympics. Those little bonuses can mean the difference between gold, silver, and bronze — and even make or break a skater's chance of landing on the podium.