JUDGING THE JUDGES
“The judging’s fucked,” said Markku Koski, who is neither a Canadian nor a figure skater. And in fact, the Finnish snowboarder was actually arguing that he was graded too high in last week’s men’s halfpipe finals at the Winter Olympics. “I slam and still get better than Risto [Mattila] and [Mike] Michalchuk?” he said after his first qualification run. His was not a minority opinion. Despite a near unprecedented U.S. sweep, the judges at the halfpipe were booed lustily by the crowd. “When an entire stadium full of spectators, only a small percentage of whom actually snowboard, boo the judging, something’s wrong,” reported Jennifer Sherowski on Transworld Snowboarding Online. “I’d be lying if I didn’t report how completely strange the day’s scoring was, and how a number of people got totally robbed in the worst possible way.” Takaharu Nakai of Japan, American Tommy Czeschin, and Italian Giacomo Kratter all put down podium-worthy runs. Gold medalist Ross Powers and bronze medalist Jarret Thomas played to the judges, emphasizing amplitude—the easily recognized height out of the halfpipe—while other riders, including silver medalist Danny Kass, did tricks that were far more technically difficult. Rules geeks will note that the format changed from considering the composite of two runs in Nagano to the best of two runs this year. Under the old rules, Kass would have won and Powers would have missed the podium altogether.
And then there was the men’s mogul competition. Defending gold medalist Jonny Moseley, you will remember, stuck the landing on his all-but-inverted dinner-roll jump, not once but twice, then dived into the crowd amid chants of “Mose-ley! Mose-ley!” “This trick is so over-the-top compared to what everyone else did,” he said later. “After landing it, I should have been able to ski backward to the finish line to win. It’s a no-brainer.” In a logical universe, perhaps. But the jump, spectacular as it was, accounted for 12.5 percent of his score, his death-defying move taking a backseat to minutiae like the visible gap between his knee pads. Yes, those were boos when three skiers topped Moseley’s score and bumped him out of the medals.
Then there’s SkateGate. The only mystery is why anyone is surprised. There was more than the appearance of impropriety in the ice-dancing judging in Nagano, in which the Russian pair Pasha Grishuk and Evgeny Platov actually fell but still won the gold. A Canadian judge, Jean Senft, taped a conversation in which Ukrainian judge Yuri Balkov casually rattled off the order of finish—before the competition. The outcome? Senft was suspended, while Balkov is back working the Salt Lake City games. And in the 1999 World Championships, two pairs-competition judges were suspended after they were caught on videotape conferring before the marks were announced. We won’t even mention Tonya Harding, who knew enough about the politics of judging to realize that her only chance of beating Nancy Kerrigan was to do so literally.
The very technicality that caused this year’s controversy—Yelena Berezhnaya/Anton Sikharulidze and David Pelletier/Jamie Salé were tied on two judges’ scorecards, and the presentation marks automatically became the tiebreaker—was the result of another judging controversy. In 1988, Brian Boitano and Brian Orser of Canada were similarly tied, and the judges were allowed to choose which mark served as the tiebreaker. Both judges chose the technical mark, essentially handing the gold medal to Boitano. That loophole was closed, but in the process a bigger one was created. The technical mark at least has some objective basis—you fall, you get a deduction (unless, of course, you’re Russian). The presentation mark is really nothing more than a beauty contest score. The Canadian pair might have lost before they ever started their program by wearing costumes that made them look like low-level crew from the starship Enterprise (as opposed to the escapee-from-the-Las Vegas-thrift-shop aesthetic that dominates figure skating).
The gutless “two-gold” compromise illustrates why the sport has only slightly less credibility than professional wrestling. If evidence is compelling enough to award a gold to the Canadians, then it should also be enough to strip the Russians of their gold. And in that same spirit, we can only wonder how long before the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals get their World Series rings, the Oakland Raiders get to hoist the Lombardi Trophy, and Al Gore gets to sit in the Oval Office on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.
The long-term solution to cleaning up skate judging is simple. Right now skating judges, like the boxing judges handpicked by Don King, are there at the whim of their national federations, who, not coincidentally, pay them and their expenses. It’s as if the Rams and the Patriots brought their own officials to the Super Bowl. The simple solution is for the IOC to take control of the judging. It needs to select a group of recruits from non-competitor nations—say, Chile or Morocco or New Zealand—put them on salary, and train them in time for Torino. It’ll cost money, but since figure skating is the cash cow in an Olympics package worth almost $4 billion to NBC, the expense is not only justified but practically mandatory. And if you’re willing to give up your U.S. passport, it could give a whole new meaning to the phrase “YOU be the judge.”
Contributor: Allen St. John Sports Editor: Ward Harkavy