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On Thin Ice

By Christina H. Gao

Remember when figure skating was popular—even events that weren’t the Olympics? The days of Michelle Kwan in all of her glory? What happened? Good question. The recent Olympics—specifically, the contested results of Women’s Figure Skating (“Yuna should have won!”)—brought to light some of the major problems currently plaguing the sport.

Before 2002, judges gave marks on a scale from 1.0 to 6.0, 6.0 being the perfect score. At the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, there were reports of some behind-the-scenes work on the judges’ panel, resulting in skewed judging and a complete overhaul of the 6.0 system. The International Skating Union instead implemented a system in which each of the jump and spin elements were worth a certain number of points. The judges have the power to add or subtract points from a given element, as well as full control over the artistic score.

A full understanding of the judging system requires a lot of time and experience with the sport. The ISU believed the new system would make it impossible for judges to swing scores in the favor of any particular skater. And, for the first few years after its implementation, it was probably somewhat successful. Over the course of the past few years, however, it’s become more and more obvious that competitions have been rigged. To the figure skating community—and beyond, given the uproar from fans and news sources—Sochi was simply a firm affirmation that something needs to change.

What’s wrong? Judging has evolved to the point where bias is palpable: Big mistakes seem not to matter and the audience has no clue how the rankings are decided. We saw this in March 2013 at the World Championships in London, Ontario, Canada: The skating community expressed outrage when Canadian skater Patrick Chan, who fell twice, nonetheless beat out Denis Ten of Kazakhstan who didn’t make a single mistake.

You probably didn’t hear about this instance—after all, it wasn’t the Olympics, and Yuna Kim wasn’t involved. The uproar over Sochi, at least, meant the public has become concerned as well. Admittedly, it’s a tough call to say who really should have won. Adelina Sotnikova, the Russian who won gold, skated well; her technical elements were harder than silver medalist Yuna’s. That being said, the Korean skater’s artistic ability is arguably miles beyond Adelina’s. And though the scores of Italian bronze medalist Carolina Kostner weren’t as high, her abilities rival those of Adelina and Yuna.

But it’s interesting to consider a hypothetical scenario—what if the Olympics had been held in Japan? Would Nagoya native Mao Asada, who placed sixth in Sochi, have medaled? She had a stellar free skate, but dropped like a rock in the standings after the short program–would sympathetic judges have been more forgiving? What about the 15-year-old Russian girl, Julia Lipnitskaia who placed ahead of America’s Ashley Wagner? The young girl fell a few times yet Ashley remained on her feet. The final rankings are all contingent on differences in a few points here and there, leading to placements that the audience doesn’t understand.

There are many things the ISU could do to try to reduce the bias in judging. The organization could make it so that judging is not anonymous, meaning skaters and the public could hold judges accountable for their decisions. Or it could change the way the artistic score is calculated. Humans aren’t perfect, and judging will always be somewhat subjective. But figure skating is currently in a dire state; unless the judging system is revamped, I worry that many—competitors and fans—will give up on the sport entirely.

Yuna is definitely one of the best skaters in the world. But she took time off after winning the 2010 Olympics, and only returned to competition in 2013. She is in fact technically weaker than she was four years ago. Adelina and Carolina, on the other hand, both improved dramatically over the course of the past few years. So while I don’t think the final results were fair, I’d hesitate to confirm that Yuna definitely should have come out on top. It all comes down to this: No matter how shiny that gold medal is, it will always be tarnished by judging that was questionable at best if not downright unfair.

Christina H. Gao ’17 lives in Leverett House. She has competed internationally for Team USA for five years, earned the 2012 Skate America silver medal, and contended for the 2014 U.S Figure Skating Olympic team.

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