Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Was Plushenko Defeated by an Email Controversy?


"The judges used to have one mark to monkey around with. Now they have five,” columnist E.M. Swift recently wrote in Sports Illustrated. 

Truer words have never been spoken about figure skating and its mystifying component marks. Just consider the men's competition in Vancouver and the newfound obsession with one of the elements that make up these intangible marks: transitions. 

As everyone knows by now, shortly before the Olympics got underway U.S. judge Joe Inman created a maelstrom when he sent out an email to some 60 skating insiders raising questions about how Evgeni Plushenko is being judged on transitions, a key element under the new judging system and arguably Plushenko's weakest point. The email and the ensuing controversy accomplished two things: 

  1. It went a long way towards helping defeat the 2006 Olympic champion, and may have made the difference between gold and silver.
  2. It proved once again that you can monkey around with the International Judging System every bit as much as with its predecessor. The hypocritical claim that there’s anything "absolute" about the scoring now, or that the system is somehow less prone to political shenanigans is hogwash.  

None of this is to dispute the outcome of the men’s competition. Evan Lysacek of the United States defeated Plushenko fair and square. Not only were Plushenko’s transitions weak (or non-existent), but his program was poorly constructed and front loaded with jumps. But all that’s besides the point. 

Given the razor-thin margin of victory and the way Plushenko used to be marked in previous events, it is highly unlikely that the reigning Olympic champion would have been upset under normal circumstances. But Inman threw a monkey wrench into this competition. 

Once the news was out, the controversy spread like wildfire, fueled by a media that smelled blood. Within days it became a scandal of Olympic proportions, even before the opening ceremonies got underway. What happened behind the scenes from that point on is anybody's guess. But here are some facts to ponder.  

In the two previous international events in which he competed this season, Plushenko skated the exact same programs as in Vancouver, yet he received higher transition scores than most or all his competitors — generally in the 7 to 7.5 range, slightly but not much lower than his other component marks. At Europeans only Stephan Lambiel had a higher transition score. And at the last Olympics in 2006, Plushenko won with a 7.75 for transitions — the highest score of the competition. 

Fast forward to the 2010 Games. Plushenko's transition mark in the short program was 6.8, a mark Plushenko had never seen in his life. And in the long program, ten men had higher transition scores than the reigning Olympic champion! This sort of thing just doesn't happen every day in figure skating, particularly on an element that hardly anyone ever paid any attention to before. Jumps are different. You can’t hide a botched triple axel. But a component mark? 

Are we to believe that this major change of heart among international judges is entirely accidental and unrelated to the controversy involving Inman's email? Were the judges simply swept away by the glow of the Olympic spirit and decided to mark Plushenko down for his poor transitions? If so, you must also believe that Sale & Pelletier were awarded a gold medal in 2002 out of the goodness of the IOC's heart. 

The math is simple, although the speculation will go on forever. Plushenko lost 1.85 points to Lysacek in transition scores, while the final point difference between them was less than that: 1.31 points. The scores were just. But would they have come out the same way without the Inman controversy? We’ll never know. 

But this incident demonstrates that politics continue to rule skating every bit as much as ever. Either Plushenko was marked correctly in Vancouver, in which case he was held up in previous competitions, with utter disregard to the poor quality of his transitions. Or else, if he was marked fairly before, the scandal sunk Plushenko at these Games and helped put Evan Lysacek over the top. 

Whichever scenario you prefer, this controversy shows that the new judging system is as open to bias and prejudice as the one it replaced under the pretense of cleaning house. The only thing that's changed is that under the 6.0 system we knew exactly who awarded offensive marks. Now politics as usual thrives just as much, but under the veil of secrecy and anonymity. 

Friday, February 19, 2010

Performance of the Night Buried in Politics and Component Scores


While the U.S. celebrates its first men’s figure skating gold medal in decades and the rest of the skating world engages in a war of words over the merits of the victor and the value of a quad, the real highway robbery at this Olympics is flying under the radar screen, largely ignored or shrugged off. 

Maybe it’s the fault of a moronic judging system that’s only capable of dissecting edges and splitting hairs on transitions, never taking stock of a performance as whole or the magic of the moment. If you prefer, chalk up the atrocity to the same old cancer that’s been eating at the heart of the sport’s credibility since its inception: judging bias, a wrong that no scoring system known to by man can right. 

Fact is that on the night of February 18 one competitor skated his heart out more than any other. With the skate of his life, Johnny Weir put down a performance of Olympic caliber that was technically as difficult as that of the winner — if anything, even smoother, with jumps landed like butter and artistry flowing through his every pore. Eight triples, all of them landed and finished off with graceful flow and precision. The performance didn’t seem strained, calculated, contrived to gain points at every step but exuded the joy of skating that was once the hallmark of our sport. 

For that, it didn’t go unrewarded. The audience jumped to its feet as one. It was the kind of moment the Olympics are supposed to be all about. But the magic went straight over the judges’ math-filled heads, and Weir got buried in sixth place. The judges found the program lacking — in what, heavens only knows. They rationalize it, to be sure, in mathematically indisputable ways. After all, art is simply a mathematical equation under the International Judging System. You can slice it every which way, score umpteenth components and spew up a global score that only computers can understand. 

Problem is, none of the rationalization holds water. Everyone with a good pair of eyes or glasses knows Johnny Weir laid down a medal-winning performance and the judges were too blind and prejudiced to score in the moment. Their decision was made months in advance. Whether they didn’t like Weir’s tassel, his fur controversy, his poor placements over the past few years, his reality show, or his pink mats in the Olympic village, it’s all besides the point. At the Olympics they did not judge what they saw on the ice. 

Could this have happened under the 6.0 system? Sure, but probably not in this case. The old system was every bit as corrupt as the one that replaced it (under the laughable pretense that it would eliminate human bias). But at least it was transparent. The audience could see every mark from every judge right up there on the screen. Had Johnny Weir — who received perfect 6.0’s under that system — received a string of 5.2 last night, the booing alone would have made headlines. Instead, he got a global score of 156.77, which means nothing to anyone. So the booing stopped quickly, muted by utter incomprehension. 

Few people care what happens to skaters who don’t medal, but predetermined judging is just as wrong regardless of whether it happens to the gold medalist or the sixth place finisher. Or the 25th. Skaters who stumbled out of jumps on Thursday night, who sat on the ice, and who otherwise couldn’t move the audience to more than a polite applause got higher scores than those who skated cleanly. 

Patrick Chan and especially Stephane Lambiel are quality skaters who on a good night of competition deserve every mark that’s handed so lavishly to them. But neither of them had that kind of night at this Olympics. They fell or stumbled. Lambiel was uninspired and uninspiring, something that rarely happens to him. Even the jumps he did land were so close to a sitting position that most of the credit he received must have been for his uncanny ability to save them. Patrick Chan stumbled both in the short and the long, sitting on the ice on the second triple axel. Yet both of them placed higher than Weir, who didn’t miss a beat. 

Changing the judging system clearly can’t change human nature. But what it did do is create a system that cannot see the forest for the trees. The judging is so mired in technicalities and math it completely loses track of the performance as a whole — the spark, the connection to the audience, and the intangible magic that defined our sport for more than a century.  

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Remembering the Champions: Olympic and Otherwise


As the Olympic torch completes its journey to Vancouver, we are increasingly reminded of the glory of past Olympic champions and the indelible mark so many of them left on the sport of figure skating. There are many of them indeed, and it's on their shoulders that new champions rise to greatness. 

But by focusing so narrowly on Olympic gold medalists to the exclusion of all others, we do a disservice to the sport. This is true for all sports, considering that the difference between gold and also-ran is sometimes measured in milliseconds. But it is even more so for figure skating, a judged sport in which the Olympic title is not always decided by objective measures but by intangibles, such as reputation or the whim/taste/politics of the judges. Until the last couple of decades, champions were often crowned on the basis of compulsory figures, not performance abilities. And with the new scoring system, in close competitions even random luck  could make the difference, as the computer throws out some of the judges’ marks at random. 

So this is a good time to remember that the difference between gold and silver is not necessarily as deep and wide as history books and endorsement contracts would lead us to believe. 

Many skating champions who lack the most coveted of titles have often had as big an impact on the sport as the greatest gold medalists at the Games. In fact, some of them have won more medals and dominated the sport for a longer time than some Olympic champions whose star at times faded quickly after a moment of brilliance. How many people in middle America would be able to identify Sarah Hughes, Alexei Urmanov, or even Shizuka Arakawa, in spite of their well-deserved victories? Chances are a lot more casual Olympic viewers would recognize the names of Michelle Kwan, Brian Orser, Sasha Cohen, Paul Wylie, Kurt Browning, Irina Slutskaya, Todd Eldredge, or Toller Cranston, depending on how far back their skating memories reach. 

The path these skaters carved was not blazed on one night, but over long years of competing at the highest levels of the sport. Stardom and longevity go hand in hand in a sport focused on personality as much as figure skating. Remember the media circus around Sasha Cohen’s attempted comeback at the U.S. Nationals just last month? Cohen doesn't even have a world title to her credit, let alone an Olympic one. Yet she has something more highly coveted and rarely seen these days: star quality. She captivates, and the cameras follow her every step, indifferent to accolades. 

Or consider Brian Orser, first known for landing the first clean triple axel in competition and then for combining his athleticism with artistry to dominate men's figure skating throughout the 1980s. He missed his first chance at gold in 1984 because of compulsory figures, even though he defeated Scott Hamilton to win both the short and the long program. Soon thereafter, he and Brian Boitano captivated world attention with their epic "Battle of the Brians" rivalry, which culminated at  the 1988 Games with one of the closest results ever. 

A decade later, Michelle Kwan won nine U.S. titles, five world championships, and two Olympic medals.  But as fate would have it, neither of the Olympic ones were gold. Does it matter so very much? Obviously so. But should it? Do the accomplishments of a Brian Orser or a Michelle Kwan add up to a whole lot less than those of the skaters who edged past them on a fateful night of competition? 

How about Paul Wylie, one of the most beloved artists in skating history? He didn't even need a national title to be a fan favorite throughout much of the 1980s and early 1990s. His surprise silver medal performance at the 1992 Games was one of those unforgettable moments in Olympic history, arguably overshadowing Viktor Petrenko's gold medal win. 

Then there's Toller Cranston, who along with John Curry in the 1970s made artistry in men's figure skating a new standard of excellence for decades to come. Curry deserves the lion’s share of the credit, both for leveraging his talent into Olympic gold and for his extraordinary musical sensitivity and style. But the era of men's artistic skating was heralded by his competition with Cranston, an artist whose expressive style and dazzling costumes — much like Johnny Weir’s today — made it possible for male figure skaters to express themselves in ways never before seen in the sport. 

Many others who “failed” in their attempt at Olympic glory deserve credit as well for pushing their rivals — and thereby the entire sport — to greater heights. Debi Thomas pushed Katarina Witt to become a better jumper. Midori Ito’s superhuman leaps, including her triple axel, served notice that ladies skating was on a par with the men’s. Irina Slutskya kept challenging Kwan, who in turn pushed their younger rivals, who eventually leaped ahead of them both. 

Evgeni Plushenko didn't win his gold medal till 2006, but his rivalry with Alexei Yagudin in 2002 made them both better skaters and may have paved the way for Plushenko's own success, which he now carrys into yet a third Olympics. Kurt Browning never won as much as an Olympic medal, let alone a gold, yet he became one of the most popular entertainers on the pro circuit, a legacy that many Olympic champions would envy.  

None of this is to take away from the many Olympic champions whose legacy in the sport is unquestionable and everlasting: Dick Button, Peggy Fleming, John Curry, Dorothy Hamill, Robin Cousins, Scott Hamilton, Katarina Witt, Torvill  and Dean, Gordeeva and Grinkov and so many more. They have changed our sport for the better, but not because of a lucky night of competition. They had lasting power, rose to the occasion when it counted, and had an impact on the sport in the years following their competitive victories as well. 

The Olympics is a time to trumpet their accomplishments. Yet it takes nothing away from their glory to remember and honor many of those who are not part of the most exclusive club of gold medalists but who have nonetheless enriched our sport just as much. Many of the silver and bronze medalists in Vancouver will no doubt do the same.

Olympic Podium Predictions

Since everyone's playing the game, here are my not-so-daring medal predictions for Vancouver. All my attempts at anticipating the Big Surprise are eluding me, but I can feel it in my bones that it's just around the corner.

I'll only comment briefly on the most hotly-contested men's event ever. With at least eight amazing athletes in serious contention — not just for medals but for the Olympic title! —picking three is tantamount to reaching into the bag and picking three names at random. Then again, the computers will throw judges' marks out at random as well, so it's all statistics and math. Go figure.

That said, I'm going with Plushenko, given his status as reigning Olympic champ and his consistency on quad combinations that are so richly rewarded by this judging system. I have Patrick Chan on the podium because the judges love him — and are sure to love him even better in front of a home crowd. But any of these eight men have almost the same odds of landing on that podium: Plushenko, Abbott, Chan, Lambiel, Lysacek, Oda, Takahashi, and Joubert. And who knows? Johnny Weir is all fired up. If he skates the program of his life he could throw a monkey wrench into everyone's predictions.

The other events are too self-explanatory to comment — except to note that I'd have placed White & Davis first had the Olympics been held in any other country. Or in an alternate universe in which politics and ice dance didn't cross paths. 


1. Evgeni Plushenko
2. Jeremy Abbott
3. Patrick Chan
4. Stephane Lambiel


1. Shen/Zhao
2. Savchenko/Szokolwy
3. Mukhortova/Trankov
4. Pang/Tong


1. Yu-Na Kim
2. Mao Asada
3. Miki Ando
4. Joanne Rochette


1. Vitue/Moir
2  Davis/White
3. Domnina/Shabalin
4. Belbin/Agosto