Judging The Judges As Pairs Figure Skating Begins

Feb 11, 2014

Pairs figure skating begins tonight at the Sochi Olympics. Will Russia’s Maxim Trankov and Tatiana Volosozhar restore the luster of the once-vaunted Russian figure skating program? They helped seal Russia’s gold in the team skating event this past weekend.

But one French newspaper is alleging that event was fixed, bringing back memories of the judging scandal at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake, when a French judge made a deal with the Russians. Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier lost the gold to the Russian pairs team.

That scandal did away with the old judging system in which a 6.0 was a perfect score. But since then, the sport’s cumulative points scoring system has been just plain hard for the average person to understand — and some say it’s just as flawed.

Chicago Tribune Olympics specialist Philip Hersh joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss the allegations.


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YOUNG: Pairs figure skating begins tonight at the Sochi Olympics. Do not call me. Will Russia's Maxim Trankov and Tatiana Volosozhar restore the luster of the once-vaunted Russian figure skating program? They helped seal Russia's gold in the team skating event over the weekend.

But a French newspaper this weekend reported that event was fixed. What? Shades of the 2002 Salt Lake Games when the French judge fixed her scores and the Canadian pairs team lost the gold to the Russians? That scandal changed the scoring system.

But is the new system, with anonymous judging, transparent enough? Well, joining us by Skype is the Chicago Tribune's figure skating expert, Phil Hersh. Sochi is his 17th Olympics. And, Phil start with that scandal. Your thoughts on the accusation.

PHILIP HERSH: Well, first of all, it was - the story was based on one anonymous coach. And I read the whole story, and it was a lot more nuanced than that. Secondly, no matter what - who judged it, even three blind mice, the Russians deserved to win as easily as they did. So results of the team competition were exactly as they should have been. I mean, yes, Evgeni Plushenko got some career achievement component marks. And yes, Julia Lipnitskaian's marks were a little bit too high. But there was no doubt who deserved to win.

And I think this may have been a one-day tempest in a teapot. It's a sexy story because of what happened in Salt Lake City. But the - the fundamental point is that this system, which was supposed to help deals be avoided, is so opaque. You don't know whose judge is giving who's score. You don't - I mean, there's no - there doesn't seem to be any accountability. And that's a big, big problem.

YOUNG: Well, let's explain, because in the past, it was thought that when it was known what the judges were doing, they could be more easily convinced to raise their scores or lower their scores. But now, you have no idea what a judge has done, so you don't know if a judge's score is inflated.

HERSH: That's correct. First of all, in the competitions here there are 13 judges. Nine of the 13 scores are randomly selected by the computer, which creates another set of mathematical circumstances that you could not select the four who all liked a particular skater. But there's so much - if these judges can figure out a way to collude with these 13,604 numbers for each skater, then they're far more brilliant than Albert Einstein.

So you've created a system so mathematically challenging that this is the time to restore the names of the judges to the scores because I don't think it'll make any - I mean seven judges from the same area could all decide they're going to give Patrick Chan all 9.0's on his component scores even if he falls seven times. That could happen. But clearly, the opaqueness hurts. And the fact that - you used to have some sort of - you know, back in the days of the Cold War, you used to say, well, the Soviet judge, you know, did us wrong. And now that's gone.

And if I might inject something, as I'm sitting here in the iceberg there are about 15 future Julia Lipnitskaians on the ice - these adorable little girls and one little guy - clearly you've got some money now back in Russia. Middle-class people can afford to get their kids what is very expensive training. And, of course, you've got these very wealthy oligarchs who are helping build rinks in a lot of the cities, which has made a huge difference. I mean, I'm watching some of these little kids, and they're pretty darn amazing.

YOUNG: Well, so that's the good news for the future of Russia. And I just - I know you feel that this - le scandal - is a bit of a tempest in a teapot, but it's just so fun.

HERSH: It's definitely fun. I mean, what would figure skating be without a whiff of something? You know, I actually have seen surprisingly few horrific decisions, but it still drives you crazy along the way. I mean, last year at the World Championships when Patrick Chan won despite two ugly falls and some other missteps, you just were thinking nothing has changed.

YOUNG: And Phil, do we read that the French figure skating official who was in the middle of that 2002 vote trading scandal who actually did do something wrong might become the next president of the International Skating Union?

HERSH: Isn't that just wonderful? Doesn't that say all you need to know about figure skating? Yes, I mean that is rumored. It's rather unbelievable. You know, it's like you appoint the embezzler president of the bank. So yeah, there you go. That's figure skating.

YOUNG: Yeah. So this is why there are questions about the sport. We're talking to the Chicago Tribune's figure skating expert, Phil Hersh. You're listening to HERE AND NOW.

But as to the current skaters, you had American figure skater Ashley Wagner, who did not do well in the preliminaries but was still added to the team event. And she had that sort of ecstatic to shocked reaction when she went to the kiss and cry where they wait for her - their scores in the team event Saturday. She did skate beautifully, seemed to redeem herself, but her score was kind of low. And she had this sort of shocked look at her face, which is now an Internet meme, but...

HERSH: I think that that redemption narrative got a little bit carried away. It was certainly mentioned but also countered in my story. I called it, I think, a rather unremarkable performance. You know, it was a nice redemption narrative. She stood up. I mean...

YOUNG: I was just going to say, this is because, Phil Hersh, you know what you're talking about. And for the rest of us, it was just so great that she didn't fall.

HERSH: You know, I think that she did well. But as soon as you saw the details of the scores, you saw where her score was lowered.

YOUNG: Yeah. And Phil, you report today that Evgeni Plushenko will compete on Thursday in the men's singles. Was that in doubt?

HERSH: Well, yeah. I mean, you know, we thought all along that he might just decide to do the team events because, you know, if you saw the way he skated in the team event, particularly in the short program, he skated for a minute and preened for two and a half minutes. And he did a lot of that in the free skate, which - and the crowd loved it, and it was great for skating that he was here. I can't emphasize enough how great for the sport it was that he was here and doing so well. You may not like his style of skating or not, but four Olympic medals in four different Olympics kind of speak for itself.

We were debating last night over dinner whether he might be the greatest male skater of all time, and I think he's certainly in that conversation now. So - but we thought that - you know, he complained about a back problem after the free skate on Sunday, and it seemed like he was setting it up to withdraw, but apparently not. I mean I think that the reception he got from the crowd, you know, was such a lift that right now he could do no wrong. If he goes out and does anything, the crowd is going to love it. And I think I cannot imagine a more wonderful way to finish your competitive career than - if you skate well, if you don't skate well - skating in front of these people to whom you are beloved.

YOUNG: Yeah. What else should we look for? We got the pairs coming up. I mean, again, most of us just get entranced. It's a very impressionistic thing. We don't really know what we're looking at, but we know if it's - if we like it. But what would you have us look for?

HERSH: You know, there's a famous Russian proverb told by the great pairs coach Tamara Moskvina, some like the preacher, some like the preacher's daughter, and some like the preacher's wife. I mean figure skating is a very, very subjective sport, and things that blow you away might not be technically that difficult or executed that well. It's when you see both.

When you see Yuna Kim in - the way she skated in Vancouver, when you see Brian Boitano the way he skated in 1988, and Ekaterina Gordeeva and her late husband, Sergei Grinkov, the way they skated in 1988, you know you've seen something that moves - should move you the same way that Baryshnikov would have moved you. People look at the pretty stuff and don't realize how difficult this is. In what other sport are you alone in front of 15 or 20 thousand people doing unbelievably difficult stuff on a quarter-inch blade on a slippery surface? And I don't think enough people appreciate the difficulty.

Interesting enough, hockey players do. And many hockey players take power skating lessons from figure skaters, because figure skaters know how to use the edges of their blades infinitely better than hockey players do. So - and the same way that that I get captivated listening to Yo-Yo Ma or I get captivated watching the Alvin Ailey or I get captivated watching Anna Netrebko sing at the opening ceremony, sing at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, this sport captivates me when it is at its best, when it - it is something very, very special.

YOUNG: Phil Hersh, Olympic specialist for the Chicago Tribune, thank you so much.

HERSH: Thank you.


YOUNG: And Jeremy, as I said, do not call me during figure skating. I am busy.


From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.

YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.