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.

1 comment:

  1. They could start by getting rid of anonymous judging right off the bat. Judges should be able and allowed to stand by their marks. I also believe that in a sport with such high monetary stakes, judges should be paid professionals, not volunteers, accountable with their livelihoods for their decisions.