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Debacle on Ice

What Happened With the Ladies in Sochi?

by M.G. PIETY

The controversy surrounding the results in what NBC repeatedly referred to as “the marquee event” of the Sochi Olympics, ladies figure skating, began immediately after the winner was announced. NBC has a video on its website that includes side by side comparisons of the free programs of the gold and silver medalists Adelina Sotnikova and Yuna Kim. The video identifies each move and its point value and includes a running total for each program. This lends a certain air of objectivity to the result. Unfortunately, what is not explained in the video is the number just below the “base value” for each move. This “execution” number represents how well the technical controller thinks the move was performed and why. More importantly, what is not explained are the marks the skaters were given for their artistry.

Ashley Wagner, who skated well in the free program portion of the competition, but still finished 7th, was one of the first people to speak out publicly about what was felt by many to be biased judging. “I came into this event knowing pretty well that that was how it was going to go,” she is quoted as saying in a Yahoo news story. Unfortunately, that’s often the case. The results of figure skating competitions are often predetermined and the structure of the sport is such that there is really nothing athletes can do about this. That’s undoubtedly the reason Wagner later backpedaled on her earlier criticism of the judging, in an NBC interview of the three American ladies who competed in Sochi.

The real controversy, however, was not about Wagner’s placement, but about whether nationalism on the part of the judging panel pushed the Russian Sotnikova’s scores above those of reigning Olympic champion Korean skater Yuna Kim. No one disputes that Sotnikova skated well, but questions remain concerning her program component scores. The program component scores are designed, among other things, to measure artistry, and in the eyes of at least some, the 17-year old Sotnikova did not have the artistry of 24-year old Kim. Kurt Browning, according to a story in the Chicago Tribune, said he understood why Sotnikova’s technical marks were higher than Kim’s, but was puzzled by how high were her program component scores. Those scores were nearly nine points higher than Sotnikova had been averaging in competitions leading up to the Olympics.

“You don’t learn to skate that much better that fast,” Browning explained.

Skating insiders are divided on the issue of whether the outcome of the competition was fair. Some, such as three-time world champion and two-time Olympic silver medalist Elvis Stoiko, think it was. Others, such as world and Olympic champion Jamie Salé, think it wasn’t. In addition to the mystery of the component scores, Sotnikova did not skate flawlessly. She didn’t fall, but she had a very awkward two-footed landing on one of her jumps that had to have hurt both aspects of her scores.

My point here, however, is not to argue that Sotnikova should not have won. She had a technically very demanding program and she skated beautifully, despite the one poor landing. Sotnikova’s free program sparkled in a way that Kim’s, despite that it was flawless, did not. Part of the reason for that, however, was the support of the Russian crowd.

Russia supports its skaters. It really supports them. This has been an issue throughout the games. Russian fans would reportedly leave the Iceberg arena immediately after Russians had skated. They were also reported to applaud when other skaters missed elements (and not, as is sometimes the case, by way of encouragement). Skaters often speak of how the support of a crowd can spur them on to skate better than they might have otherwise done. Only Russian skaters got that kind of support at this Olympics, though.

The real issue behind the controversy over the results of the ladies event, however, concerns not how well or poorly individuals skated, but the fact that the judging of figure skating has lost all credibility. The rules governing the judging were changed after the scandal that rocked the 2002 Olympics where a French judge was pressured by the French Figure Skating Federation to boost the scores of the Russian pairs team in exchange for similar favoritism on the part of the Russian judge for the French ice-dancing team. Unfortunately, the new rules are worse, not better, than the old. The ISU decided that a good way to insulate individual judges from reprisals from their respective national federations when they failed to boost their own skaters scores would be to make the judging anonymous.

In an age where increasing emphasis is placed on the importance of “transparency” in assuring accountability, the ISU opted for opacity. The result has been worse judging, not better. The judging of figure skating has actually become more corrupt after the 2002 scandal. But don’t just take my word for it. Eric Zitzewitz, an economics professor at Dartmouth, has detailed what has happened to the judging of figure skating since the new rules were put in place in a scholarly paper that is available for free on the web. Nationalistic bias in judging, Zitzewitz shows, has increased.

The problem is that now there is no way to hold individual judges accountable for their scores. There is no way even to secure an explanation for them because no one knows which judge gave which marks.

There is certainly reason to want to hold individual judges accountable for their marks. One of the judges of the ladies free skate, Alla Shekhovtseva, had a clear conflict of interest in that she is married to the former president of the Russian Figure Skating Federation. Worse, another judge, Yuri Blakov, was suspended for a year because of his involvement in a scheme to fix the results of a figure skating competition in 1998. Many in the skating community, including Dick Button, believe that judges who’ve been exposed as corrupt ought to be banned for life. Unfortunately, Ottavio Cinquanta, the president of the International Skating Union, disagrees. In fact, on his view, trying to fix the results of a competition is a “minor violation” of ISU rules.

The clearly corrupt judging system is bad news for Sotnikova because it means that, independently of how well she skated, there will always be a question surrounding her win.

Scott Hamilton is reported to have said that he thinks the controversy surrounding the judging of figure skating at this Olympics will actually be good for skating because it has gotten people talking about the sport again. He’s wrong. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga argues in Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture that a competition, in order to be interesting to the public, must be perceived as fair. It is arguably the wide-spread perception that the judging of skating is not fair that is part of the reason for it’s decline in popularity in recent years.

There are lots of questions surrounding the figure skating in these Olympics. Another one that I raised earlier but that I have yet to see raised by anyone else, is why the U.S. didn’t elect to send  the 20-year old U.S. bronze medalist Mirai Nagasu to the Olympics instead of the 15-year old-silver medalist Polina Edmunds. I understand the decision to send Ahsley Wagner, who was sent because of her record in international competition despite the fact that she failed to medal at all at Nationals. But if a medalist had to be bumped for the U.S. to be able to send Wagner, it should have been Edmunds not Nagasu. Nagasu finished 4th in the 2010 Olympics. She’s had an uneven competitive career since then but skated beautifully in the U.S. National Championships. Still, the U.S. elected to send an inexperienced 15-year old instead of an experienced 20-year old, a decision that now looks pretty bad in that not only was it unfair to Nagasu, but Nagasu would likely have placed higher than Edmunds’ 9th-place finish, and so the decision not to send her turned out to have been bad for the U.S. as well.

Perhaps U.S. Figure Skating had hoped that the bias of Russians toward their own might actually help Edmunds given that her mother is Russian. If they thought that, however, they were wrong.

That’s the problem when you start making things other than skill important in athletic events: You never know whether you’ve emphasized the right things. It’s better to keep the emphasis on what is essential to the sport. The problem is, no one knows what’s essential to skating anymore. That’s how corrupt it has become.

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