Skating? Figure it out

Sotnikova's win over Kim has put the judging system under scanner

Skating? Figure it out

Many expected a Russian to win a gold medal in women’s figure skating at the Sochi Games, but hardly anyone expected that it would be Adelina Sotnikova.

Overlooked by her country earlier at the Olympic team event, Sotnikova, 17, waited patiently for the singles competition and delivered a sophisticated and aggressive performance on Thursday to score a major upset over the 2010 champion, Yuna Kim of South Korea.

In the subjective world of figure skating, which is governed by an opaque judging system and a complicated scoring system not easily understood by casual fans, the outcome fostered immediate debate.

Sotnikova landed seven triple jumps to six for Kim and won the long programme with 149.95 points. She finished with 224.59 overall points and became the first Russian or Soviet woman to win an individual gold medal.

Even with her grace, maturity, composure and soaring jumping ability, Kim led by less than a point after Wednesday’s short programme. On Thursday, she skated a poised and flowing tango routine and finished with 144.19 points in the long programme.

Still, her routine was not the most athletically challenging. Sotnikova scored higher on the technical merit of her programme. For instance, Kim did not attempt a triple loop or a double axel, triple toe loop combination, as Sotnikova did.

Also, Kim did not receive the highest level for her step sequence or her layback spin. She took the silver medal with 219.11 collective points.

“It was totally fair,” said Elvis Stojko, a two-time Olympic silver medalist from Canada. “Adelina was ready. Kim didn’t have enough technical ammunition.”

Sotnikova’s skating appears tailor made for the current scoring system, a kind of scavenger hunt for accumulated points that, some experts have complained, favors mathematics at the expense of artistry.

The former 6.0 system was replaced after a vote trading-scandal by judges discredited the pairs and ice-dancing competitions at the 2002 Winter games in Salt Lake City.

In the current scoring system, each jump and spin and footwork sequence is assigned a numerical value, like a cholesterol count. Artistic marks such as performance, choreography and musical interpretation are also given a numerical value in an attempt to make the sport more objective.

The difference in Thursday’s long programme was more than 5.5 points - about four points in the base numerical value of Sotnikova’s technical elements and about two points in the quality of how they were performed.

While Sotnikova’s skating is not as aesthetically pleasing as Kim’s, her athletic style “checks off every box” and “does everything the judges are looking for,” said Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic champion.

“I have to look at it and respect it,” Hamilton said of Thursday’s result.

Not everyone agreed. Ashley Wagner of the US, who finished seventh, criticised the judging system in which scores are given anonymously, saying she was left “speechless” by the outcome.

A number of international skaters, coaches and officials have said the anonymity of the judges undermines the sport’s transparency and credibility. Judges, who are appointed by their national skating federations, lack independence. Scandal is commonplace, as are apparent conflicts of interest.

One of the judges in the women’s competition, Yuri Balkov of Ukraine, was at the center of an ice-dancing scandal at the 1998 Winter games in Nagano, Japan, when he was reportedly recorded by a Canadian judge trying to predetermine the outcome.

Another judge, Alla Shekhovtsova of Russia, is the wife of Valentin Piseev, who was formerly president of the Russian figure skating federation and is now its general director.
Because the high and low marks are tossed out for each skater, it is impossible to know which judges’ marks counted toward the final score in the women’s competition.

No referee or judge involved in Thursday’s decision was immediately made available to explain the outcome.

Dick Button, a two-time Olympic champion, said in a telephone interview that it was “flagrant hypocrisy” to have a judge like Balkov still judging figure skating.

The basic problem with the judging system, Button said, is that “anyone can cheat. All the time. These kids work until they’re blue in the face and you think they would be given an honest and straightforward response.”

Kim, who was the last competitor of the night, did not see the others perform. She was attempting to join only Sonja Henie of Norway (1928, 1932, 1936) and Katarina Witt of the former East Germany (1984, 1988) as successive women’s champions.

“The scores are given by the judges,” said Kim, who repeated that this would be her final Olympics. “I’m not in the right position to comment on it. There is nothing that will change with my words. The most important thing was to participate in these games.”

Kim did admit, though, that she was less driven to win a second gold medal than she had been to win her first, saying she had “no obvious goal.”

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