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Fourth-Place Medal

How Adelina Sotnikova beat Yuna Kim

The ladies figure skating medals were awarded less than 24 hours ago, but there's already been an uproar over the results.

Russian Adelina Sotnikova didn't only defeat reigning champion Yuna Kim on home ice, she did so soundly. Kim led Sotnikova by the slimmest of margins going into Thursday's free skate – just 0.28 points – but trailed by a whopping 5.76 by the time the gold was awarded.

It's that wide margin – combined with the fact that Sotnikova had a visible error while Kim didn't – that has many figure skating fans – both casual and expert – wondering if the scoring was fair. And while the scoring system implemented after the 2002 Salt Lake City scandal was supposed to add objectivity to the judged sport, there's still a lot of opportunities for the judges to prop up their favorites.

Here's what we know objectively:

Sotnikova landed more jumps

Sotnikova completed seven triple jumps, while Kim completed six. The jump that Kim didn't attempt – the triple loop – is worth 5.3 points. So that accounts for much of the 5.76-point difference.

[Photos: Ladies' figure skating free skate]

• Overall, Sotnikova's program was more difficult

Sotnikova's layback spin and footwork were Level 4, while Kim only had Level 3. Overall, the difference in level gave Sotnikova nearly one more point in her favor.

Here's where the subjectivity enters:

• Sotnikova was generously scored.

Every element has an assigned value, i.e. the aforementioned triple loop is worth 5.3 points. Skaters can earn a negative or positive grade of execution (GOE) on each element, ranging from -3 for a fall to +3 for flawless execution. Sotnikova earned far, far more +3 GOEs on her elements than any other skater.

There's no question she deserved positive GOE on jumps – they were big and airy. But one of her jumps earned GOE ranging from -1 to +3. That's a huge spread. Let's take a look:

 

Sotnikova's first element, the triple Lutz-triple toe combination, had an incorrect entry. It should be a back outside edge, but hers wasn't (skaters call the mistake a "flutz"). The error is a mandatory -1 GOE. Looking at the protocol (score sheet), one judge gave the combination a -1. One gave her a perfect +3. Considering the maximum she could get is +2 (3 -1 for the deduction), the +3 is out of line.

On the flip side, the GOEs varied from -1 to -2 for Sotnikova's visible stumble on the triple flip-double toe-double loop (element No. 6). A step out is a minimum -2 GOE, so the judges who gave -1 may have been lenient.

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Aside from the extra triple Sotnikova peformed, she benefitted from more +3 GOE. She received 33 +3s compared to Kim's 13. Considering Kim has long been considered the golden standard, the 33 vs. 13 is very generous scoring in favor of Sotnikova.

 

The problem is, no one knows which judge gave which marks. You see, the GOEs are displayed in a completely randomized fashion. The columns don't correspond to a single judge. So no one knows which judge gave which mark. If there was some type of collusion to prop up one skater (four of the nine judges were former Eastern bloc countries), it would be impossible to prove.

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That's why Ashley Wagner is speaking out. "They need to get rid of the anonymous judging," the seventh-place finisher said. "People don't want to watch a sport where you see people fall down and somehow score above someone who goes clean. It is confusing and we need to make it clear for you."

Skaters can only protest whether an element was misidentified or there was an entry error. The judges marks therefore stand.

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