Skip to main content

A shocker from figure skating judges?

By Amy Bass
updated 9:38 AM EST, Sat February 22, 2014
Gold medalist Adelina Sotnikova of Russia, right, and silver medalist Yuna Kim of South Korea take part in the flower ceremony after the women's free skating program in Sochi, Russia, on Thursday, February 20. Some are questioning the scores given to the skaters since Kim seemingly had a better overall performance. Gold medalist Adelina Sotnikova of Russia, right, and silver medalist Yuna Kim of South Korea take part in the flower ceremony after the women's free skating program in Sochi, Russia, on Thursday, February 20. Some are questioning the scores given to the skaters since Kim seemingly had a better overall performance.
HIDE CAPTION
Controversy on ice
Controversy on ice
Controversy on ice
Controversy on ice
Controversy on ice
Controversy on ice
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Amy Bass: Questions over fairness of figure skating judging at Sochi likely unfounded
  • Bass: Controversy surrounds the event due to odd scoring and a history of shenanigans
  • The judging lineup this time also is questionable, Bass says
  • Bass: If skating wants a credible scoring system, it should use credible judges

Editor's note: Amy Bass, a professor of history at the College of New Rochelle, has written widely on the cultural history of sports, including the book "Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete." She is a veteran of eight Olympics as the supervisor of NBC's Research Room, for which she won an Emmy in 2012. Follow her on Twitter @bassab1.

(CNN) -- Oh, figure skating. Not again. Didn't anyone tell you? The Cold War is over. You are supposed to be reformed.

At the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, on Thursday, South Korea's Yuna Kim, a 2010 Olympic gold medalist, skated an ethereally beautiful and outwardly perfect long program in the ladies free skating competition. She then lost gold to Russia's Adelina Sotnikova. Few saw that coming.

Amy Bass
Amy Bass

On paper, Sotnikova had one more triple jump than Kim, including the triple loop, which Kim does not do. Although Sotnikova had an awkward moment on her own double loop, her spins were faster, her jumps higher, and unlike Kim, who looked exhausted at the end of her gorgeous skate, Sotnikova flew across the ice with great speed and then looked like she could do it all again.

It should have been a great moment in Olympic sports: champion dethroned by a rising star, an upset, a shocker. Instead, it was controversial water cooler fodder the next day because the results raised so many questions: Did the youngster, a bit rough around the edges, deserve such high marks? Was she really better in just about every element, including her components mark, which was an astonishing 4.81 points higher than at the European championships last month?

Surprising skating win spurs controversy
2002: Infamous Olympics scoring scandal
Boitano: Wagner's scores were fair

Setting aside her extreme margin of victory, there are reasons to think the judges got the podium right. Three-time world champion Elvis Stojko, for example, who had always accentuated an aggressive style over artistry, praised the marks, pleased that the judges rewarded Sotnikova's athleticism and degrees of difficulty over Kim's elegance. Figure skating is, after all, a sport.

But if it wants to be treated like one, it has to act like one.

There is a long history of controversy and scandal that continues to hang over the International Skating Federation, particularly as Russia's first individual female gold medalist (and on home ice, no less) brings familiar echoes of the Cold War. And during the team competition, there were murmurs, to be sure, over Evgeni Plushenko's high marks. It appeared to some that the judges bolstered his score based on his dynamic presence and the sentimental drama of the legendary champion's return to the ice to lead the home team to gold, rather than the difficulty of his program and his execution of it.

Further, the sport had changed its scoring system to avoid this very situation. After the controversy that went down in Salt Lake in 2002 over the pairs competition, in which French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne tearfully confessed she had voted for the Russian pair in order to gain an advantage for the French ice dancers, the ISU revamped its scoring system. Gone were the days of the perfect six.

With the new system, too, judges are now anonymous, in hopes of relieving the sport of its former biases. Back in 1994, for example, when Oksana Baiul took gold over Nancy Kerrigan, the scores broke down along familiar lines: Judges from Ukraine, China, eastern Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic went for Baiul. Canada, Japan, the United States and Great Britain put Kerrigan first. Although she skated cleanly, Kerrigan had doubled a triple jump; Baiul, considered the superior artist, did a two-footed landing, and performed no triple-triple combination.

Four years later, while an East-West split wasn't apparent in the battle between Tara Lipinski's triple loop-triple loop combination and Michelle Kwan's ability to make judges weep, it remained unclear who favored technique and who performed artistry.

While few can say they actually comprehend today's scoring system, it was designed to yield more balanced results supported by more intricate math. But the ISU needs to back these efforts with ethical and responsible judges.

For the ladies free program, the panel included Russian Alla Shekhovtseva, who is married to the general director of the Russian skating federation, and Ukrainian Yuri Balkov, who had been suspended for attempting to fix the ice dancing competition in Nagano in 1998. And this after rumors had dogged the ice dancing competition, with accusations that the Russians and the Americans (maybe the Cold War is over!) had colluded to shut out Canada.

There is likely little truth to the ice dancing gossip, but the ISU has done nothing to make us think otherwise. If the governing body wants us to talk about figure skating as a sport, it needs to ensure that it behaves like one, with credibility and transparency. Because while the ladies podium may have been right, with scoring this complex and judges this questionable, why on earth would we believe it?

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Amy Bass.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 8:12 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT