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. 


  1. Politics rules skating. This is so true. We can avoid arguing if Lysacek deserved his medal, but let's take a look at underestimated Johnny Weir and a way overestimated Patrick Chan. I am sure, he wouldn't get his 160 points, if he wasn't a Canadian citizen. How can this be? Chan fell down twice!

  2. Plushenko lost the gold on arrogance. All he needed to do was move ONE jump into the bonus section after the halfway mark, and the low transition score wouldn't have mattered. If anything, the Plushenko-Lysacek tie on PCS, although everyone agrees that Lysacek is the stronger artistic skater, indicated that the judges were trying to nudge it to Plushenko, who was expected to outcompete Lysacek on technical. I'm betting there were a lot of judges who were shocked by that outcome.

    One mark, or one jump, does not matter in this scoring system. What matters is putting together a program that gathers up the most points, and minimizes the places where the skater can slip up and give them away. You don't win the prize if you don't play the game.

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  4. Xan, I totally agree with you about the gold, but you missed the point of the article. What I was saying is that the judges' behavior changed as a result of an outside force. They changed how they marked Plushenko. Either they were right before or they are right now. If it's the former, then the Olympics were influenced by an email. That's bad! If it's the latter, they marked Plushenko too high in all other competitions and hoped no one will notice the transitions. Either way, the new system is not more objective than it was before, which is the only reason for its existence.

  5. There's a huge discrepancy between what Mr. Plushenko produced in both of his Olympic performances and how he was judged by a narrow group of people. NAMES MEAN LITTLE HERE. I’m NOT A FAN OF ANYONE. I JUST ADVOCATE FAIRNESS IN THIS SPORT. I HAVE SPENT 30 YEARS IN FIGURE. The whole argument is the score manipulation that allowed one to score higher on the merit of one level of one step sequence and one level of a spin in the men's event - not ice dance. Had Mr.Plushenko not landed his quad or botched some other of his elements, the argument would not have even started. The whole issue is there's one man in the entire competition skating a flawless and most difficult SP and getting low marks for the dubious transitions and thus not getting the lead he deserved in the SP.
    Evgeny Plushenko cleanly landed 2 quadruple-triple toe loop combinations during the two days of competition, his step sequences were of high level, and his spins were fast enough. He presented the image of a macho trying to do a tango in his way and was great at it. If somebody did not catch the idea, it doesn't mean it was not artistic enough He had ONLY one minor problem - the exit of his triple Axel in the LP. JUST THAT! (And moreover, to say that Evgeny Plushenko's footwork is sloppy means that the person saying it has no idea what figure skating is about.) The judges, on the other hand, preferred to give higher GOE for simpler jumps executed by Lysacek. The difference that decided the gold medal was Level 3 for Plushenko's step sequence while Lysacek got level 4, and the same for one of the spins. CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT IN A MEN’s EVENT A ONE-LEVEL DIFFERENCE ON A SPIN AND A STEP SEQUENCE PUSHES THE COMPETITOR WHO CLEANLY LANDED TWO 4-3 DOWN TO THE SILVER MEDAL POSITION? IT’s A JOKE THAT IN MEN’s SKATING THE SIMPLEST MOVES DECIDE THE OLYMPIC GOLD.

  6. Danielle continue

    I also want to add ABOUT TRANSITIONS : In the SP the judges gave Evgeny a lower Program Component score on the controversial "transitions" which he definitely had fewer because he was doing men's skating, and that means – LONGER ENTRY INTO A QUAD AS TECHNIQUE REQUIRED WITH CROSS CUTS AS WELL AS FOR A TRIPLE AXEL. You can't change jumping technique for those jumps. So if somebody says Evgeny needed more transitions they are covering up the fact that TRANSITIONS ARE NEEDED TO FILL IN THE SPACE WHERE JUMPS SHOULD BE FOR THOSE WHO CAN SHOW ATHLETICISM AND HOLD THEIR NERVE IN COMPETITION. Evgeny's programme had all the elements the modern system requires. Evgeny would have led by at least 3 points had the judges scored fairly in the SP and not lower the marks for the dubious at best transitions which cannot be many in the SP ( if you understand at least minimally in figure skating) PARTICULARY IF A SKATER GOES FOR A QUAD IN COMBINATION AND A TRIPLE AXEL AFTERWARDS. By deliberately putting low marks for Evgeny for these meaningless transitions in the SP the judges gave him a narrow lead.
    CONCLUSION: The problem is the gold went to the man who has quite a few of his jumps underrotated particularly the triple Axel and has very average artistry on top of that. Still find it quite unbelievable in the negative light. It was the major disappointment of the Olympic figure skating competition.