Olympic Figure Skating Controversy: Judging System Is Most to Blame for Uproar

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Olympic Figure Skating Controversy: Judging System Is Most to Blame for Uproar
Associated Press
Adelina Sotnikova was happy with gold and Carolina Kostner (right) with bronze, but many observers were mystified that Kim Yuna won only silver.

Figure skating’s latest controversy—a debate over whether Russian Adelina Sotnikova truly deserved to win gold over South Korea's Kim Yuna—proves one thing: The sport has learned little from the mother of all scoring scandals at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Sotnikova, 17, won Olympic gold over defending champion Kim, 23, on Thursday. Italy’s Carolina Kostner took bronze. Kim led entering the free skate with less than a point separating the three. The trio skated at a high level, virtually clean, yet Sotnikova’s margin of victory was a remarkable 5.5 points (224.59 to 219.11). Costner scored 216.73.

Experts, including figure skaters still closely connected with the sport, are divided on who should have won and if there were improprieties.

Some admit they can’t explain the marks at all, which leaves little hope for the rest of us. 

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
Ashley Wagner was happier with her performance than with her final placement.

"I just couldn’t see how Yuna and Sotnikova were so close in the components," former gold medalist and current broadcaster Kurt Browning said in Sochi, according to Juliet Macur of the New York Times, who also provided a chart explaining how the scoring might have worked. "I was shocked. What, suddenly, she just became a better skater overnight? I don’t know what happened. I’m still trying to figure it out."

U.S. skater Ashley Wagner finished seventh, behind Russian phenom Julia Lipnitskaia, who fell twice while Wagner kept her feet. Speaking about the judging system to reporters in Sochi, Wagner said, "It’s confusing and we need to make it clear for people. I’m speechless. This sport needs to be held accountable if it wants more people to believe in it."

A petition that was started on the Change.org website calling for an investigation into the controversy had already registered 1.6 million signatures by Friday afternoon, one of the biggest petitions the site has ever seen. 

Many are likely from South Korea, no stranger to Olympic protests.

In 2002, South Korean fans crashed the U.S. Olympic Committee server following Apolo Ohno’s short-track gold medal in the men’s 1,500-meter, when South Korean Kim Dong-Sung crossed the finish line first but was disqualified.

When “Queen Kim,” one of Korea’s biggest celebrities, was only given silver in Sochi, the lead headline on The Korea Times front page read, “This is really, really unfair!”

A spokesman for the International Olympic Committee said the organization would not take action because no formal protest had been filed.

In the wake of Salt Lake, judging and judges are still suspect. The new scoring system, which was supposed prevent judging shenanigans, has, in one way, made cheating easier.

DOUG MILLS/Associated Press/Associated Press
Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada (left) at first won silver in Salt Lake City, but later were awarded gold.

And the same guy who was in charge for Salt Lake City, Italy’s Ottavio Cinquanta, is still in charge of the international skating federation, which oversees figure skating and speedskating.

Two changes that need to be made: Skating must, 1. Get rid of anonymous judging; 2. Require that their judges not have a conflict of interest with the skaters they are marking.

Obvious, right? Well, not to skating.

We know this because, along with a new scoring system that replaced the old 6.0 system, skating actually installed anonymous judging after Salt Lake. The 2002 Olympic scandal involved a French federation judge who said that she was pressured into trading votes with the Russians to ensure a Russian victory in the pairs, allegedly in exchange for a French vote in the ice dance.

Officials said anonymity would protect judges from retribution from their own federations for not favoring a home skater at a competition, or not agreeing to swap votes with another country.

Each nation’s federation certifies and hires its own judges, then has the power to assign him or her to events of various importance. The Olympics, as you can imagine, is the most prestigious assignment.

The furor over Thursday’s results, where some believe Sotnikova was given inflated marks by Russian or former Soviet-bloc judges in her upset victory over Kim, was partly fueled by the fact it’s difficult to figure who scored how, since it’s anonymous.

That’s a problem. Figure skating’s credibility suffers when its judges are not held accountable for the marks they hand out.

The sport’s credibility also suffers with real or perceived conflicts of interest. In a development that further fuels the controversy, reports revealed one of the judges, Alla Shekhovtseva, is the wife of Valentin Pissev, the Russian Skating Federation general director.

Not only that, but the Ukrainian judge, Yuri Balkov, was suspended a year for his involvement in a results-fixing incident in 1998.

Cinquanta’s response to both issues, from the Chicago Tribune’s Phil Hersh:

“Would you rather have an idiot acting as a judge than a good one who is a relative of the manager of a federation?” Cinquanta said.  “It is far more important to have a good judge than a possible conflict of interest.

“I can’t suspend a person for life for a minor violation. (Balkov) is a matter for the Ukraine federation, because they chose to send him.”

Vadim Ghirda/Associated Press
Despite her falls, Julia Lipnitskaia of Russia finished ahead of American Ashley Wagner, much to Wagner's wonderment.

Who is in charge of the sport here: the international federation or the national (Russian) federation?

On the wife-husband conflict: hard to believe that skating federations can’t find knowledgable judges who aren’t related to federation officials. What about retired skaters or retired coaches? Is it really that difficult?

It is if you can’t even see the problem. That’s been the knock on the international skating federation for years, that leadership is either too arrogant or too clueless to understand how their sport is perceived.

Cinquanta, whose background is in speedskating, was named ISU president in 1994 and seems to be part of the problem. This is the guy who, as the Salt Lake scandal was engulfing his sport, famously told a packed room full of media: “I don’t know figure skating so well.”

After the Sochi Games, turns out, neither do we.

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