Russia got its signature moment of the Sochi Olympics on Thursday when Adelina Sotnikova, just 17 years old and not seen as a medal contender heading into competition, won the gold medal in women's singles figure skating. In beating out heavily favored 2010 gold medalist Yuna Kim of South Korea (the silver medalist), Carolina Kostner of Italy (the bronze medalist), and even upstart teammate Julia Lipnitskaia (who finished fifth), Sotnikova grabbed the most coveted prize in the sport and became likely the most celebrated star of an Olympics on home soil. It was a huge moment for the country and athlete.
Unfortunately, like many big moments in figure skating, the result is now mired in controversy. As noted by Christine Brennan of USA Today, two of the judges have shady pasts and connections that would suggest potential favoritism of Russian skaters. And many knowledgeable skating analysts and observers aren't happy about the results:
"It's sad that I just presumed Sotnikova was going to get a boost (in points) because this was in Russia," former U.S. Olympic figure skating coach Audrey Weisiger said in a phone interview. "Isn't it sad that I automatically thought that? Not one person in skating I've talked to said that's the way it should have gone." [...]
"That's not fair to see Carolina and Yuna, who have great skating skills and had great skating tonight -- good jumps, nice presence on the ice, maturity, expression -- could be six points behind somebody who has tremendous skill but is just coming out of juniors," said Gwendal Peizerat, the 2002 ice dancing gold medalist from France, who is a television commentator here.
"Compared to Carolina, compared to Yuna, something has happened."
The nine judges for the short and long programs are chosen by draw from a pool of 13, with eight of the judges only working one event or the other. Judges from the United States, South Korea, Great Britain and Sweden were not chosen to work the women's long program after being on the women's short program panel the night before. [...]
Two of their replacements were Ukrainian Yuri Balkov, who was kicked out of judging for a year after being tape-recorded by a Canadian judge trying to fix the Nagano [1998 Olympics] ice dancing competition, and Alla Shekhovtseva, a Russian judge who is married to Russian federation president Valentin Pissev. The two other new long program judges were from Estonia and France, which was the country that conspired with Russia to try to fix the pairs and ice dancing competition at the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.
Yes, a man who tried to fix a major competition on the sport's biggest stage went back to the top of the judging world just a year later. Figure skating really does have totally different standards of corruption.
It's important to note that all evidence of a fix in Sochi is circumstantial. While Balkov and Shekhovtseva don't exactly inspire much confidence in their impartiality, there is no proof that they did anything untoward in Sochi. Plus, Yahoo's own Dan Wetzel wrote that awarding Sotnikova the gold was "exceedingly reasonable" in the wake of her win, which is about as definitive an agreement as one can have in a sport reliant on subjective judging.
Nevertheless, it's easy to see that the circumstances of the circumstantial evidence do the International Skating Union no favors. In addition to the cases of the two iffy judges, it's worth noting that four of the 13 free skate judges hail from former Soviet republics — Russia, Estonia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan. Several informed participants, if also biased in their own ways, in this Reddit thread have identified peculiar marks on several jumps from Kim, and there's a broad consensus within that Sotnikova's margin of victory was too large.
Figuring out the extent and specifics of alleged scoring irregularities might be easier if the ISU didn't make all scores anonymous. After Thursday's free skate, U.S. skater Ashley Wagner heavily criticized the anonymous judging system, implied that she should have finished ahead of Lipnitskaia, and argued that judging practices are harming the sport's popularity. While the various points of Wagner's critique are open to debate, it's pretty clear that anonymous scores turn any attempt to sort out results into a faulty quest, because there's no way even know what score a judge offered as a basis for informed criticism. As currently organized, any argument about a skating result can't graduate from the realm of speculation without proof of a bribe or traded vote.
What we have, then, is a controversy about the results in Sochi in which any side can claim that the other is hopelessly biased. Those who agree with Sotnikova's win can point to her free skate including one more triple jump than that of Kim, those who support Kim can say that Sotnikova wobbled on some of her landings or that judging should focus less on jump difficulty, everyone can suggest partial judging decisions, etc. ad infinitum. Frankly, it sometimes seems as if the ISU wants to ensure that these arguments cannot end. What other explanation is there for Balkov maintaining his spot in the judging hierarchy? Or to have Shekhotseva, the wife of the man essentially responsible for the gold medalist's career, involved in this event at all?
All we know, really, is that it gets people talking about figure skating. Contrary to Wagner's claims, it's possible that all this talk actually improves the sport's popularity, giving casual viewers something to talk about in a way that skiing and biathlon can't offer. Figure skating might not seem fair, but it offers a certain spectacle. Whether such a situation respects the athletes who make the sport their life is another question altogether.
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