The actual problems with figure skating judging

And three days after enduring a manufactured controversy, a real one erupts.  I admit between one thing and another I haven’t seen Carolina’s skate yet, but apparently everyone except possibly the Koreans believe it was better than Yu-Na’s, and I admit in terms of performance Yu-Na really did trump Sotnikova, though the Russian girl’s technical advantage seems to be fair enough.  If any allegations and/or evidence of a fix emerges here, that might be believable, especially with two infamous judges on the panel, one with an actual infraction in his past, the other married to Valentin Piseev, the infamous czar of Russian  figure skating.

But the sad thing is, there might not have actually been a fix.  There might have been simple judicial stupidity, as the figure skating judges(including Mrs. Piseev, who might have only done what plenty a Russian judge would’ve done), do things they often do, things that sadly get ignored as people go for the more colorful but less plausible conspiracy theories.  There are multiple factors that might also explain why Sotnikova came more than close enough to Kim’s PCS numbers to beat her:

The most likely culprit was the location of the event and especially the audience.  Home-ice advantage can happen, and when everyone in the arena is screaming over a skater, well, it’s hard to even blame the judges if they get a little swayed, given how subjective the second mark can be.  It would not be the first time the audience determined a placement.

I don’t know how much of a part reputation judging, the usual culprit in a situation like this, might have played, if only because Kim and Kostner are both notorious beneficiaries of it themselves(you can bet had Kostner won, especially on her PCS, the Koreans and Russians would never stop sneering about it, and wouldn’t be the only ones, and Kim winning the same way would’ve had the Russians and some others grumbling.  Perhaps controversy was unavoidable once all three women skated the way they did).  But Sotnikova’s certainly not without reputation; back when she was the rising junior phenom it arguably got her quite a few generous results against less famous skaters, and it probably at least enabled the above mentioned home-ice factor to do the rest.

One thing that noone seems to be talking about, but has sometimes happened in the past, is judges have given too high PCS marks to skaters with high technical content, though this is something that is more known for happening in the men’s event; at one point fans even grumbled that landing a quad apparently caused a skater’s PCS score to jump up ten points.  In any case, if the top technical skater has good enough a reputation, the judges perhaps are still a little reluctant to hold him/her down.

It’s unfortunate that these things all happen, especially because they make a problem that’s harder to solve than outright fixing would be if the ISU ever really wanted to do it.  Getting rid of anonymous judging might help, and I like the suggestion being made on message boards that judges be required to publically answer questions about their marks, but much of it is in the culture of skating judging, and that’s hard to root out.  And most likely cause of this case, the cheering audience, is probably hard for any set of judges who aren’t robots to withstand.  Rearranging the system’s always a possibility, but much of this happened under 6.0 too.  If later we learn that Sotnikova’s winning was a fix, it would arguably make dealing with it easier, but will we really be that lucky?

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2 thoughts on “The actual problems with figure skating judging

  1. I actually think reputation judging was the biggest culprit, but not in the way that you state it.

    Part of the issue is that once a skater gains reputation and is in a certain “PCS Class,” the judges never move them irregardless of how well or poorly-constructed the program is. The only time the judges bump them down, is when they have a streak of inconsistency. Consistency tends to up a skater’s PCS even when the quality of the skating/performance remains constant over the course of a season. Julia Lipnitskaya should not be beating Sotnikova on SS and TR, for example, but her string of consistent performances had her raking in high PCS by the time Europeans rolled around…

    Kim’s Transitions in that SP and FS were weaker than Sotnikova’s, whose program seemed custom-tailored to exploit the IJS system. For example, Kim did 7 straight cross-overs and like 2-3 cross strokes into her into her first combination in the FS, and then crossovers and then a Mohawk and step into a huge telegraph into her second triple (that’s just the beginning of it).

    Sotnikova did 2-3 crossovers and then choreo and transitions straight into her 3-3 and Mohawk-Chocktaw-Counter into her Triple Flip. There’s a huge disparity in Transitions and even difficulty just observing those two elements, and that should be reflected in the PCS. PCS categories like Skating Skills and Transitions are actually quite technical so it seems odd that Kim is still pulling in 9s for programs that were clearly tailored to allow her to simply deliver clean jumps with easy skating in between the elements to maximize the chances of her hitting the program – because she/her coaches knew the judges would not score the PCS much lower than what she has been afforded in the past (for much superior programs).

    Kim did a ton of crossovers. The program was easier to skate than Sotnikova’s… I’m talking about the movements in between the elements. There was also a distinct lack of choreo compared to Sotnikova’s program (this is true even if you do not like Adelina’s Choreo, or found it lacking or weak).

    However, the judges will not give Kim an 8 in SS/TR and Sotnikova an 8.5-9.0, even though she was, IMO, superior there given her program structure and how it was performed… The fact that Kim has always been given this high PCS regardless of what and how she skated means that everyone expects that from her, especially the less knowledgeable viewers who may not be aware of what actually goes into scoring those PCS categories (criteria)..

    So, the judges are between a rock and a hard place when an “upstart” upstages a veteran with a program and performance like this…

    1. Do they score Kim’s PCS based on the program instead of the Reputation? Doing that will cause an outcry because Kim has always been given favorable PCS even when her programs were “easier” than other skaters and she has given relatively muted performances filled with arm gesturing and “easy” skating in between the elements… or…

    2. Do they prop up the “Upstart’s” PCS so that they can place the “better program/performance” ahead of the Veteran’s? This will cause a scandal because people will wonder how Skater B suddenly went from an 8 to a 9+ in PCS in such a short time.

    One or the other needs to be done if the judges feel the “Upstart” deserves to win. Neither one puts them in a position where they can escape scrutiny… It’s a lose-lose situation for them and cries of scandal are guaranteed…

    Additionally, I think the judges are accustomed to this type of scoring. I’m not sure if anything can be changed without a changing of the guard among the judges. Skaters are basically tiered in the PCS rankings irregardless of how some of them skate. If you are new on the scene, it does not matter if you have Patrick Chan-level skating skills. You’re going to get 7s. Hello, Jason Brown? If you’re a Junior, you may not even get that…

    You can do Loops straight out of Counters and Lutzes straight out of rockers with superb height, rotation, and landing position and your jumps will still struggle to break a +1.5 GoE average.

    That’s the biggest issue with the judging system, IMO.

    • I’m also not saying Jason Brown is on par with Patrick Chan in PCS, I’m just using him as an example of a skater who is undermarked there simply because he is new on the scene, even though his programs really should be pushing very high PCS in some of the categories (TR, CH/IN, Perf/Exec for hit programs).

      Also, Yuzuru Hanyu is an example of how reputation boosts PCS. A lot of people comment on Sotnikova’s posture and says it should hold her PCS down, when Hanyu has posture issues of his own yet his reputation allows him world-class PCS ranking against skaters like Patrick Chan who are clearly superior to him.

      There’s a pretty clear pattern to how the skaters are judged, and it’s not fair. When they deliver, there is no way for them to win without the competition coming off as suspect to the average viewer.

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