Monday, March 15, 2010

Top Officials Say Judging System Seriously Flawed


“I don’t think that the components are judged fairly … [in order] to stay in that stupid corridor of average marks.” — Patrick Ibens, judge 

“The [program component] marks do not reflect the skating but rather the starting order and the reputation of the skaters.” — Sonia Bianchetti, former referee and chair of the ISU Technical Committee 


And we all turn a blind eye?!  

The discontent with the current judging system among skaters, coaches, officials, and fans alike has been spreading like widlfire in recent years. Yet even the most unhappy of us seem resiged to the new status quo. “Too late to change it,” everyone says. “Let’s try to tweak the rules here and there.” 

Tweak? How can you tweak something that is fundamentally flawed? How can you fix a system that straightjackets skaters into paint-by-numbers programs and doesn’t reward creativity and artistry? And how can you ignore dire warnings from high-level officials in the ISU that the five-year-old judging system — conceived by a speed skater — is not fit to judge figure skating?

Judges seldom if ever speak out about their jobs and their peers. So when international judge Patrick Ibens blew the lid open on major flaws in the judging system, his words sent shockwaves throughout the sport.  

The flashiest quotes from Ibens’s interview concerned dishonesty among judges. (Ibens estimated that only 10 percent of judges are “completely honest.”) But the fact that judges have their own agendas is hardly news to anyone who’s ever rolled up their eyes at a skating result. (And anyone who has not, please raise your hand.) We can’t change human nature — nor can any judging system devised by man. 

But the most serious charges leveled by Ibens (who judged last month at the Olympics) have to do with the way the system itself forces judges into poor and dishonest scoring by punishing them if they don’t mark program component scores (PCS’s) within an average “corridor.” The results are catastrophic, and that’s not inherent in the sport but specific to the International Judging System (IJS). 

The corridor or shame

“What I hate the most about this system,” Ibens says, “is that it is made to save the “not-so-good” judges, while the really good judges who are marking the way it’s meant to be (every component separately) risk the chance of being out of the corridor of average marks, and risk getting some assessments. A judge who basically does not know anything can give all the wrong marks or completely guess and their marks fall into an average! But someone who wants to have wide margins between components might be singled out for doing so. For example, when scoring the first three groups at the World Championships, you give between 5.50 and 7.00 and you are in the safe corridor. When the last groups come on the ice, give between 7.00 and 8.50 and you’re safe again!” 

This is a serious allegation — not the kind of thing you can sweep under the rug. Imagine the judges award a skater with a good reputation an extra point on each of the five component scores to make sure they fall within the magic corridor. That adds up to a whopping 10 extra points in the final mark (combined for the short and long program). With many competitions decided by as little as one point (e.g., men’s event at the Olympics) this built-in bias is certain to skew results consistently in favor of skaters with a solid reputation and against those who perform surprisingly well on a given night. 

In plain English, we have consistently wrong results! 

Skaters like Mirai Nagasu or Johnny Weir at the Olympics, for instance, could not break into the medals even with outstanding skates because their PCS’s have most likely been set based on expectations. The risk for the judges was too great to adjust each PCS. Conversely, a Patrick Chan or Stephane Lambiel can do no wrong. Sure, they’re wonderful skaters. But at the Olympics they had all the appeal of a patient walking away from a root canal. Yet the judges didn’t dare mark them down in PCS’s. 

In a friendly response to the Ibens interview, former referee and ISU official Sonia Bianchetti reinforced the general sentiments about this infamous corridor. “The PC marks do not reflect the skating but rather the starting order and the reputation of the skaters,” she said. 

Bianchetti also expanded on another big issue Ibens raised: the requirement that judges mark “absolutely,” without comparing skaters, something that defies both human nature and the nature of our sport. 

The absolute mark debacle

“The only way to be consistent through the whole event is to be thinking all the time whether the marks given now make sense compared to the marks given before,” said Bianchetti, who has served as an ISU official at the highest levels of the sport for more than four decades. 

“Under the IJS the judges are now asked to evaluate performances on an absolute point scale without comparison to any other performance. While this may  be conceivable when evaluating individual elements of a program, for the program components it is not. These are entirely different ways of thinking,” Bianchetti said. 

In other words, art is more than the sum of its parts and doesn’t lend itself to being quantified in points. As human beings we intuitively judge by comparing. We can look at a piece of paper and guess very accurately where the middle point is simply by comparing the two halves. But if we had to guess how many inches across the paper is, we’d not do nearly as well. Why are judges expected to do just that?

These issues are only two of many serious flaws afflicting the new judging system. Skaters and coaches have complained about being too constrained by the system. Fans don’t enjoy performances any longer. Skating is hurting financially as audiences are turning off their TVs. And much has been written about the controversial new judging system in the mainstream media  (as well as in this blog, such as here and here). And yet most people are so afraid that the IJS has become entrenched by now that taking action seems unthinkable.   

But the stakes are too high. Both the quality and integrity of figure skating have been seriously compromised under IJS. Why is it that a few people were able to throw into the trash bin of history the familiar 6.0 judging system, which has served our sport for more than a century, but only five short years after this experimental new system was launched, everyone thinks change is already impossible? It is only if you believe it to be so. 


Join the Facebook group “Bring Back the 6.0 System in Figure Skating.” 

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Let the Complaining Begin!

When Evgeni Plushnko vented his anger over his Olympic defeat he quickly became the laughing stock of the skating public on this continent. Granted, he fueled the flames of ridicule by awarding himself a platinum medal. The surreal atmosphere was only compounded by the Russian propaganda machine which amplified his complaints. Even Vladimir Putin chimed in with outrage. Plushenko quickly became a caricature figure in North America. But back home, most likely he's a hero. Perspective is everything sometimes.

After all, since when is outrage at judging decisions cause for derision in figure skating? Many of the same people who told Plushenko to give back his medal if he didn't like it complained with the same (and rightful) vengeance about Johnny Weir's low placement. And surely we didn't forget about the firestorm of indignation over Sale & Pelletier's loss in 2002. True, the awarding of a second gold medal was made possible by the French judge's confession, not by our collective boos. But long before Marie-Reine Le Gougne became a household name in the skating world, much of the skatedom was up in arms, especially on this continent. 

In other words, when our favorites appear to be scorned, we have just cause to cry bloody murder. When we're happy with the results, the unhappy party is whining. Is this a reasonable standard by which complaints should be judged?  Why is it ok for us to complain but not for others whom we don't like so well? 

The problem with a subjective sport like figure skating is not that there's too much complaining, but that there's no formal mechanism within the sport to challenge a controversial result. If some kind of appeal process were in place it would channel frustration into a formal, orderly process, rather than allow bottled up anger to fester forever with no recourse. 

The new point-based judging system claims to be more objective, but in fact grants judges as much leeway as ever to do as they please. Jumps and spins do indeed have point values that are more measurable than in the past; but the five component marks — which the audience never sees — give judges plenty of room to manipulate results. To hold up someone, all the judges have to do is award the skater one extra little point in each component mark in the short and long program. That's an extra 10 points for the skater's total score, and most events are decided by far less. (To look no further, the men's competition at the Olympic was won by 1.3 points.) 

So let's drop the pretense of objectivity and face up to the fact that our inherently political sport is as prone as ever to injustice and discontent. Any process that encourages accountability can only help. Granted, we'd have mayhem if every skater who felt scorned were to file a formal appeal with the ISU. But at the very least a federation should be able to do so in extreme cases.  

The one major downside of such an appeal process would be that the complaint could well turn out to be heard by a kangaroo court. With the ISU in charge of both the initial judging and the appeal, it's highly unlikely that many if any results would ever be overturned. But at the very least it would make judging more accountable by putting the judges under the spotlight. 

Right now judges avoid all scrutiny by the public or media. The entire process is veiled in secrecy as none of the individual marks that make up the scores are posted at the end of a performance. The audience and often much of the media have no clue how the judges arrived at their decision until the judges are safely out of the building.  

Imagine, however, that judges would be forced to face a press conference to explain their scores once a complaint is filed. If their scores are justified, they would have nothing to fear. If they're not, it may make the judges think twice about playing politics with athletes’ lives again. Even if no action is taken, at the very least the system would be more transparent, allowing people to listen to all arguments and understand what happened a little better. And who knows? Maybe once in a blue moon, a wrong could actually be righted even without a French judge in the eye of the storm.