Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Shrinking Judging Panels: A Bane for Figure Skating


What sports other than figure skating can you think of in which a working judge or key official could go missing smack in the middle of a major international competition without any kind of public announcement or explanation? And that only three short months before the 2010 Olympic Games! 
Just five years ago such an incident could not have happened in our sport. With nine judges posting marks for the world to see, a substitute would have had to be summoned on the spot. But with today's judging system, in which the anonymity of the judges is sacred and the winners determined by a convoluted point system, judges can come and go as they please without anyone being the wiser for it. 
Instead of judging the men's event at Skate America two weeks ago, Ms. Florence Catry de Surmont of France was watching the competition from up in the stands. Meanwhile, the event went ahead with only eight judges instead of the planned nine. (And the French skater missed the podium by half a point.) The circumstances of the vanishing judge are unclear and ultimately irrelevant. Quite legal, the whole affair. Nine judges are not required in the new judging system, in which transparency has gone the way of the horse-drawn carriage. Eight—of which only five count towards the final score—are just as good. As long as the computer can randomly keep some of the scores, toss out others, and then spew out some sort of global score, all's hunky dory. 136.24. Wow. Crystal clear, isn't it?
But does anyone remember how this wonderously muddy new system came to be?  It was all because of a judging scandal involving another French judge, Marie-Reine Le Gougne, who admitted to an unsavory deal at the 2002 Olympics. The International Skating Union (headed by a speed skater) cooked up a controversial new system that was supposed to be less prone to the whim of judging deals and biases. 
The result: a system in which no one knows which judge from which country posts which mark — nor even which of the scores count towards the final result. No one in the audience sees any of the dozens of individual scores or points awarded that go into the magic brew — only the resulting global score which determines the winner. 
Meanwhile, the number of judges is shrinking so fast you'll have as many empty seats on the panel as you have in the stands. 
The alarming thing about the goings on at Skate America is not that the event was judged by only eight judges, but that a judge can walk away (or be sent away, whatever the case might have been) and no one seems to think it's unusual enough to report on it. Not a peep in the news. 
Nor does anyone question the accuracy of the results with so few judges on the panel, even when all nine are judging. Of these, only five scores are actually averaged to determine the outcome after two others are tossed at random by the computer and, of the remaining seven, the high and low mark are discarded. At Skate America only one judge’s score was tossed instead of two, so statistically it didn’t change the reliability of the results. But the incident is a further reminder of how perilously unreliable the results are under the new system compared to the old 6.0 system, with its solid nine-judge panel. 
A little reminder: Originally the new system required 12 judges on each panel, with a minimum of 10. That number was decreased last year as the sport's popularity went into free fall and the ISU couldn't afford to pay the expenses of sending its own judges to international events. The fact that the downturn happened in the years following the implementation of the new system doesn't seem to concern the ISU in the least. 
Since the whole point of the new system was to keep bad judging at bay, consider what happens when there are fewer judges on a panel. When the computer is done throwing this and that score out, you're left with only five scores to be averaged. Now if even one judge does not judge correctly, the impact of this misconduct on the final outcome is enormous statistically if his or her score ends up being one of only five that count. Moreover, the fewer judges on the panel, the fewer countries are represented, further increasing the chance for national bias to rear its ugly head.
So let's drop the pretense. Responsible and transparent judging was never the intent of the new system. Placating the cries for change in the aftermath of an inconvenient scandal was. The result is a system disinterested in accuracy and obsessed with protecting the anonymity of judges while leaving the audience in the dark.


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