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Not Again!

Yet Another Olympic Figure Skating Judging Scandal

by M.G. PIETY

Already there is controversy surrounding figure skating events in Sochi. The French sports magazine L’Equipe reported last Friday a rumor that a deal was in the works between the Russians and the Americans. The deal was that the American judges would support the Russian skaters in the newly instituted “team competition” in exchange for support from the Russian (and possibly other Eastern European) judges for the American Dance team of Meryl Davis and Charlie White in the individual dance competition. Sadly, that rumor sounds all too plausible. Despite the gold won by the Russian pairs team yesterday, for the first time in many years, Russia was not well positioned going into the Olympics to win any individual gold medals in figure skating, so a team gold would certainly be very attractive (and face saving) for them. At the same time, Davis and White, while they have been mysteriously beating their Canadian rivals and defending Olympic champions, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, for the last couple of years, are not nearly so good as the latter. It could thus be difficult for them to continue their inexplicable winning streak at an event so visible as the Olympics without some help from the Russian judges.

It takes the Olympics, apparently, for figure skating judging to come under serious scrutiny. There may indeed be a “deal” between the Russians and Americans of the sort mentioned in the L’Equipe article. The truly interesting question, however, is how Davis and White have been able to beat the clearly superior team of Virtue and Moir so consistently. As other critics have pointed out, what Davis and White really have going for them is speed. They are very fast. But speed isn’t everything.

Dance critic Arlene Croce’s observations concerning the ballerina Merrill Ashley seem apt for describing Meryl Davis: “In adagio passages,” observes Croce in Writing in the Dark, Dancing in the “New Yorker” (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005), Ashley shows “a tendency toward overswift completion of a phrase … It’s a little as if Ashley thought that her punctuality and surgically clean execution were all that keep her from being a dull dancer – as if speed and more speed could make of her angularity an object of wit” (p. 263).

Overswiftness and speed and more speed characterize practically everything Davis and White do, and neither appears to have any conception of what constitutes a dance “phrase.” Their programs are all long run-on sentences that leave the spectator breathless and confused. Their extreme speed tends to obscure what would otherwise be glaring weaknesses of form. There’s an excellent article on the proposed vote-swapping controversy on a Canadian website that lists some of these weaknesses. First, dancers are supposed to vary their speed, but Davis and White do not. They go full-tilt from beginning to end. Second, they have fewer of what are called “transitions” (i.e., changes of hold and changes of direction) than Virtue and Moir. Third, they typically have less clean lines, less extension of their free legs, more bent knees, more of what skaters call “breaking” (i.e. bending) at the waist. Davis and White are stiffer, less expressive than Virtue and Moir, their footwork is sloppier, their edges less deep. These points are well taken, even controlling for any nationalistic bias that could have influenced the article.

Yet despite these weaknesses, Davis and White have, as I said, been consistently beating Virtue and Moir to the confusion and consternation of many skating insiders who consider the latter to be so superior to the former that they are in a class by themselves. They won the 2013 World Championships, Grand Prix Final, and Four Continents Championships, to name just of few.

Virtue and Moir have been compared to Torvill and Dean, the legendary British duo whose “Bolero” program from the 1984 Olympics is still considered by many to be the single best ice-dancing program in the history of the sport. Davis and White–not so much.

Speed is mostly what Davis and White have, speed, and more speed. Speed like that can be captivating the first time one sees it, particularly when one sees it live, but it’s a gimmick. These couples are supposed to be “dancing” not racing. Speed is a poor substitute for style and sophistication of expression.

It should be no surprise that skaters are rewarded more for speed than for style. The judging of figure skating is controlled, after all, by the International Skating Union, which is itself controlled by speed skaters rather than figure skaters. Lots of skating insiders, including Sonia Bianchetti in Cracked Ice and, more recently, Dick Button in Push Dick’s Button, have lamented that fact, but those concerns appear to have fallen on deaf ears.

The judging system is not actually supposed to reward speed above all else. Unfortunately, The new system that was implemented in response to the judging scandal at the 2002 Olympics conceals the identities of the judges. The purported reason for this is to insulate individual judges from reprisal if they are pressured by their own federations to participate in vote trading, or other unfair judging practices, as was the French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne in 2002. The result, however, of this new anonymity is that collusion is now virtually impossible to detect. It’s astonishing that in an age of increasing emphasis on the importance of transparency in high-level decision-making processes, that the ISU could actually be going in the other direction.

The problems with the ISU are long standing. After the judging scandal at the 2002 Olympics, a number of skating insiders including Dick Button, attempted to start an alternative governing body, the World Skating Federation, for competitive figure skating at the international level. Unfortunately, the ISU was flush with money at that point from television contracts, so they hit the WSF with a SLAP suit. SLAP stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation.” It’s a lawsuit designed to silence critics by effectively bankrupting them with the legal fees. That’s precisely the effect it had. The suit shut down the WSF before it even started. There’s a video on YouTube of the announcement of the formation of the WSF where Dick Button launches into a kind of rant against the ISU. It’s a must-watch for fans of figure skating.

It’s sad, though, too to see such hope and promise for a better future for competitive figure skating and then to realize that things have not improved in skating since the scandal that rocked it in 2002.

On the bright side, the fact that skating’s popularity has plummeted more deeply than a female ice-dancer’s neckline in the last few years, and that contracts to televise international skating events have almost completely dried up, means that the ISU no longer has the deep pockets it had when it sued the fledgling WSF.  Perhaps there is, paradoxically, hope for the sport in these dark times.

In any case a little closer scrutiny of the ice dancing portion of this Olympics could give hope to two supremely talented skaters who have endured a string of judging injustices in the last few years.

M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs and the author of Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. Her latest book is Sequins and Scandals: Reflections on Figure Skating, Culture, and the Philosophy of Sport, She can be reached at: mgpiety@drexel.edu