There have been a couple of prominent voices at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics which have been fervently complaining about judging at Figure Skating competition. There was prior to the start of the Olympics, there was a rumor that there was a backroom deal which would allow for Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White to win Gold for the Ice Dancing discipline while the Russians would again be at the top of the podium for figure skating.
Toronto Star sports writer Rosie DiManno spewed bile at the second place finish of Canadian skaters Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir being edged out of their repeat Gold medal in Ice Dancing by Davis and White. Dimanno went so far as to exclaim that : “If the fix is not in against Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, then I’m the Princess of Wales.” That seemed like jingoistic jive from the Great White North.
Ashley Wagner, the 22 year old American Figure Skater, placed in seventh at the Womens’ Figure Skating competition at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Yet Ashley Wagner felt “gypped” because of the judging in the individual competition. Wagner’s scrunched face in the “kiss and cry” after her performance during the Team competition showed confusion at the judging.
Wagner’s overall 193.20 point total was 7.37 points behind Yulia Lipnitskaia who placed in fifth. Lipnitskaia seemed like the darling of the Sochi Olympics when her skating lifted Russia to Gold in the Team Figure Skating competition. But during the individual Womens’ Figure Skating the 15 year old Russian falling once during the short program and once during the free skate. But Lipnitskaia had the home crowd behind her and was scored higher than Wagner
Wagner’s ire may also extend to Gold medal winner Russian Adelina Sotnikova, fellow American Gracie Gold who finished fourth as well as Japanese skater Mao Asada who placed in sixth who also fell during their performances at the Iceburg Skating Palace in Sochi.
Prima facia, Wagner’s rant sounds like it has some credibility. But several points seem to extinguish the flame of figure skating ire.
Firstly, Canadian Ice Dancer Scott Moir’s mom told her son when he was starting in the sport that it was a judging discipline which can be fickle. Wagner’s suggestion of ending anonymous judging at the Olympics might somewhat curtail nationalistic favoritism. The USFSA associates judges names with scores but it uses all of the scores, whereas international competitons drop the high and low score and have anonymous, randomly selected panels
Secondly, Ashley Wagner barely made US Figure Skating team to Sochi because of her disastrous skates at the US Nationals in Boston. The US Figure Skating Association chose fourth place finisher Wagner over the US Nationals Silver Medalist Mirai Nagasu. Some questioned the fairness of Wagner’s selection, even though the USFSA thought that Wagner had a better chance at the Olympics. A few voices thought that it was racism. That seems silly considering the prior US figure skating successes of Debbie Thomas ( Calgary 1988), Kristi Yamaguchi (Albertville 1992) and Michelle Kwan (Nagano, 1998 and Salt Lake 2002). Perhaps it was a choice based on international competition experience along with marketability, good interviews for NBC Olympics up close and personal glossy videos as well as the ability to make headlines. On the latter quality, Wagner wins a Gold.
|Mao Asada jumping|
A third compelling counter-argument to Wagner’s competitive cri-de-coeur is the change in Figure Skating judging. After a Figure Skating judging scandal at the Salt Lake Games in 2002, the scoring system for Figure Skating was revamped. No longer did judges start from perfection and deduct points, but you needed to earn points, with a full point being taken off for a fall. There is also a clock for midway through a skater’s program when extra points are awarded for jumps performed at exhausting stages of a skate.
Mao Asada seemed in the zone of Wagner’s criticisms about falling during performances. But Asada has a very challenging program and was rewarded for that, despite her flaws. Asada does all six kinds of jumps and is the only female skater to land eight triple jumps at Sochi. Wagner should not be so jumpy about figure skaters’ scoring well despite falls. Wagner won the 2013 US Nationals despite having two halls during her free skate.
|[L] Tara Lipinski [R] Johnny Weir|
As much as one is tempted to criticize Johnny Weir’s flamboyant sense of fashion when covering Figure Skating at Sochi for NBC Sports, he was spot on in predicting where Wagner fell short with her free skate and he anticipated fewer points awarded. Weir observed that Wagner changed music for her free skate from Romeo and Juliet which fell poorly in Boston to a more familiar Samson and Delilah. Weir’s commentary caught some jumps where Wagner landed on two skates and also kicked up some “snow”. So simply landing a jump might not cut it for the judges. These nuances might not be seen by casual fans, but it seems to matter to judges and competitive skaters.
It is easy to understand the disappointment of athletes who worked hard for years to compete on the international stage at the Olympics and who follow short of their potential or expectations. But short of exposing a conspiracy among judges, this is figure skating folderal.
Ashley Wagner has expressed her intention to compete for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. If that falls through, she may pursue a career in modeling. But finishing seventh on the Olympic stage in Sochi does not set her up for as many lucrative endorsement.
|[L] Russian President Vladimir Putin [R] Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovch|
|Oleg and Bohdana Matsohski, Ukrainian Olympic Skiers|
Although generally I am skeptical about athletes opining about public affairs, like the Protect Our Winters Manifesto, as the details of the policy are often beyond their ken. However, it is easy to understand that Yanukovych blessed paramilitaries attacking peaceful demonstrators and violated the idea of an Olympic truce. I am chary about politicizing the Olympics but I admire individual athletes following their consciences at great personal cost.