Judging adds controversy, confusion
SOCHI, Russia -- So how should the winner of an athletic competition be determined? By a panel of subjective figure skating judges who are always suspected of favoring one skater over another? Or by suddenly overhauling the rules with a sudden-death overtime in which you remove players from the ice or send them into a contrived shootout?
None of those systems is a wonderful method -- I prefer extra innings -- but I'll say this for the judging system. It definitely adds intrigue. This was certainly the case in the finals of the women's figure skating competition Thursday.
Entering Thursday's long program, less than a point separated reigning Olympic and world champion Kim Yu-na of Korea (74.93) and Russia's Adelina Sotnikova (74.64). The two both skated wonderfully. And when the judges' scores flashed on the board following Kim's routine, they showed that Sotnikova had won by 5.48 points -- 224.59 to 219.11.
Some people were outraged, peppering skaters in the mixed zone with questions about the scores and whether they were fair. Other than Ashley Wagner, the skaters weren't much help in this regard, partly because they hadn't seen each other's routines, partly because they didn't want to come off as whiny and partly because they are familiar with how their sport works.
Some analysts said it was another case of corrupt judges given that there was a corrupt judge on the panel (a Ukrainian judge who was part of a scandal at the 1998 Olympics). Many others, however, said it was a fair score, that Sotnikova's winning margin essentially came down to the five technical points she received for having one more triple jump than Kim.
This is both the positive and negative of figure skating. The positive is the subjective scoring adds layers upon layers of controversy and politics. The negative is the subjective scoring adds layers upon layers of controversy and politics.
"This sport needs people to want to watch it and people don't want to watch a sport where they see someone skate like that and they can't depend on that person to be the one who pulls through," Wagner said. "People don't want to watch a sport where you fall down and somehow score above someone who goes clean. It's confusing and we need to make it clear."
Wagner wasn't complaining that she had been cheated out of a medal. She hadn't. She finished seventh and was well off the podium. But she brought up a good point. Figure skating is a wonderful sport that mixes incredible athleticism with music, choreography and theater -- and there is no way to score it other than by judges.
The scoring system, however, needs to be changed. The current system was brought in as a result of the 2002 Olympics scandal and in some ways it has made the scoring fairer and made cheating much more difficult. But it also has hurt the sport.
Casual fans don't understand it (heck, even some participants don't fully understand it). For one thing, how can a skater who falls once (or twice) still get a higher score than a competitor who skates a clean program? The answer is simple. Skaters get points for attempting jumps whether they land them or not.
And that's not the way it should be.
"Where is it in hockey that you're going to get points just for shots on goal?" Elvis Stojko complained at U.S. nationals last month. " ... Now you can still make a mistake. You can fall down and get up and you got points for falling down? That's like getting a medal for being in 10th place."
He's right. There should be no reward for a jump you don't land, just as there is no point for a shot you miss.
The judges also must be identified with their scores as they were in the past. This not only provides accountability, it adds old-fashioned geopolitical intrigue.
The point system must also be modified so that there is a top score people can readily recognize, like the old 6.0. Whether it is 6.0 or 60.0 or 600.0 doesn't matter, just so there is a top possible score people instantly know.
Was Thursday's scoring fair? Yeah, probably. Kim was excellent but not at her absolute best -- she said she was just relieved to have the Olympic pressure over -- and Sotnikova was very good. Did Sotnikova also benefit from skating in Russia? Sure. But there is a home-field advantage in every sport. LeBron doesn't get called for traveling in Miami. Clayton Kershaw gets a bigger strike zone at Dodger Stadium. It's just the nature of sport.
There is always controversy in every sport, and there certainly always will be in a subjective one like figure skating. But the key is to have a better scoring system so that the controversy makes people want to watch the sport rather than throw up their hands in confusion.