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Olympic scandal is a battle for the heart and soul of figure skating

Russian judge Alla Shekhovtsova hugs Russian Adelina Sotnikova shortly after having judged the ladies' event at the Olympics.
Russian judge Alla Shekhovtsova hugs Russian Adelina Sotnikova shortly after having judged the ladies' event at the Olympics.
Business Insider

Since last night, when the South Korean Skating Federation officially demanded an inquiry into the results of the ladies’ Olympic figure skating competition, the raging controversy over the results suddenly turned into a scandal of Olympic proportions. The dispute now appears to be the biggest Olympic skating controversy since 2002, when the International Skating Union (ISU) was forced to retroactively award a gold medal to Canadian pair skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier. In that case, a judge actually admitted to wrongdoing, something that has not happened in Sochi. But heavy circumstantial evidence points to likely corruption yet again.

The outcome of the ladies event, in which Russian teenager Adelina Sotnikova upset reigning Olympic champion Yuna Kim, met with worldwide consternation from the media, elite figure skaters, and fans worldwide. They could not understand how a technically brilliant but artistically mediocre performer could receive similar, and in some cases higher program component scores (the equivalent of the former artistic mark) than the two ladies who are arguably the most elegant and artistic figure skaters in the world today: Yuna Kim of South Korea and Italy’s Carolina Kostner.

“I am stunned by the result,” said two-time Olympic champion Katarina Witt. “I don’t understand the scoring.” Referring to Kim and Kostner, Witt said, “Those are the two performances that really gave me goosebumps.”

“That’s not fair,” protested Olympic ice dance champion Gwendal Peizerat.

“Unbelievable,” wrote Michelle Kwan in a tweet to Kim.

The outrage was also fueled by the makeup of the judging panel. Among them: Russian Alla Shekhovtsova, who is married to Valentin Piseev, the general director of the Russian Figure Skating Federation. Shekhovtsova was pictured shortly after the end of the competition giving Sotnikova a very tight hug; and Yuri Balkov of Ukraine, who was suspended by the International Skating Union for one year for being part of a result-fixing scandal in 1998. Moreover, the technical controller, who has a big say on how the jumps are to be scored, was also Russian.

But to many lovers of the sport and art of figure skating, this brouhaha is not just about a skater winning unfairly on home ground, or about cheating judges. The controversy strikes at the very heart of what many people in skating have been complaining long and hard about since the 6.0 judging system was replaced by a largely arbitrary point-based system that is so convoluted, you need a Ph.D. mathematician to sort it out.

The system was intended to make cheating less difficult, the ISU claimed. Instead, with its anonymous judging and scores that are meaningless to the audience, cheating is much easier to pull off now than ever before.

A speed skater’s concoction

But the worst offense of the new judging system may be that, unlike all others that came before, it actually changed the way skaters skate, not just the way they are judged. Dick Button, possibly the best-known expert in figure skating, minces no words when it comes to this subject.

“The [International Skating Union] is controlled by a speed skater,” Buttons said, referring to ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta. “Guess who it was that created the new judging system? It was a speed skater.”

Even worse, Cinquanta shows no appreciation for the aesthetics of figure skating and only interested in quantifying the few things in skating that can be counted: jumps. And that is precisely what Sotnikova’s victory exemplified: the triumph of youthful exuberance over quality skating, which encompasses the maturity, poise and grace that cannot be properly measured under the current system. Magic on ice has no point value.

Under the previous system, when someone skated one of those unforgettable programs rewarded with 6.0 marks, everyone knew exactly what that meant. It was short for perfection and magic. Hardly anyone today can understands how judges reach a score of 149.95, never mind what it means. It is like a card trick that happens much too fast for anyone to follow.

Worst of all, the system rewards everything but the beauty, passion and emotion of figure skating. Technical skaters who pull off a program a shade more difficult than that of their competitors, almost always come out ahead. The reason is that in most cases, the program component scores (PCS’s) tend to be very similar for all top skaters, with maybe a few points’ difference in cases of wide artistic discrepancy. By comparison, just one big jump or jump combination can add a whopping 11 points to someone’s score. Compare that to the old system, where the two marks, one technical and one artistic, counted for exactly 50 percent each (except in tie-breaking situations).

All of which is not to say that artistry should count more than jumps and other difficult elements. This is an Olympic sport, after all. But everything else being equal, or nearly so, it most definitely should. In the case of this week’s Olympic competition, three ladies skated three perfect short programs and three almost-perfect free programs, with the winner, ironically, being the only one to actually make a mistake (a turnout on a jump late in the program).

The best evidence of the judges’ shenanigans may in fact rest with Sotnikova’s PCS. At the Russian Nationals, Sotnikova earned her highest pre-Olympic PCS of 69.60. In Sochi, that score rocketed to 74.41, or a whopping 18-point higher total score in the free program.

“I was shocked,” said former world champion Kurt Browning. “What, suddenly she just became a better skater overnight? I don’t know what happened. I’m still trying to figure it out.”

Another big controversy in figure skating serves to further undermines the last shred of credibility the sport had left. On the American continent, in particular, where skating once enjoyed tremendous popularity, figure skating has been in virtual free-fall over the past decade. TV ratings have plummeted, major competitions are not covered, top shows folded, the professional scene has vanished altogether, and competitions are often held in largely empty arenas. What happened in Sochi on Thursday will not serve to reverse this trend.

Proponents of the new scoring system can rationalize the decline in figure skating’s popularity any way they want. But fact is that fans get excited by great skating and charismatic stars with staying power. And over the last decade since the new system was implemented, hardly any stars have captured people’s imagination. Yuna Kim has came close as a world celebrity, especially with her return to Olympic competition. Sotnikova’s triumph over a flawless Kim will not soon be forgotten or forgiven by fans of the sport.

And that is exactly what is at stake as this scandal plays out. Will anything other than jumps count in the artistic sport of figure skating? Will more mature skaters be able to contend for medals? Or will figure skating become merely gymnastics on ice?

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