Friday, May 3, 2013

Petition Asks that Denis Ten Be Awarded Retroactive Gold Medal

Impossible? It happened once, when the whole world was up in arms 12 years ago at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Why not again now?
Corruption and political bias may be as old as figure skating itself, but sometimes the judges push their luck to the point where the world cannot accept the outrage any longer. As a result of worldwide protests, as well as a confession of corruption from a French judge, the International Skating Union (ISU) made an unprecedented decision at the 2002 Games: to award a second Olympic gold medal to the Canadian pairs team of Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, who viewers and experts alike believed should have won the gold in the first place.
Now a petition asks that the same type of action be taken to redress a terrible wrong done less than two weeks ago at this year’s World Figure Skating Championship by awarding a gold medal in the men’s competition to the man who most deserved it: Kazakhstan’s Denis Ten. The petition is addressed to Ottavio Cinquanta, the president of the International Skating Union (ISU), and Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
The perennial overmarking of World Champion Patrick Chan of Canada, who gave a performance so flawed that even he apologized for it, robbed a very talented young skater of the gold medal he clearly earned. Ten — the first skater from Kazakhstan to ever break into the ranks of elite skaters — delivered the program of his life on March 15, 2013. His program was not just technically difficult and flawless, but artistically exquisite as well. His scores were high and he won the long program, but by a margin so small that it allowed Patrick Chan to squeeze by him and win the gold yet again. That, in spite of the fact that Chan’s program was marred by four major mistakes, including two falls.
Any other skater but Chan would not have even been within striking distance of the podium with such a skate. Yet the judges deemed Chan't disastrous skate to be almost as good as Ten’s perfect performance. And based on the combined short and long program score, they awarded him the gold medal.
It is true that Chan’s short program was flawless, but so was Denis Ten’s, who was second to Chan in that phase of the competition. Yet the difference in the long (and far more important) program between the two skaters was far smaller than difference between them in the short, where they both skated clean programs. How can that be defended?
Most of the press covering the event was up in arms. Here is a sample of headlines and quotes from the press and skaters:

It is in part because of this kind of judging that the sport of figure skating has seen a rapid and catastrophic decline in recent years. Shows fold, pro competitions are history, skaters compete in half-empty arenas or worse, and TV networks do not even bother to cover the premier event of the year—the World Championships (other than airing a highlight show weeks later). Little wonder that people are giving up on a sport in which audiences believe that what they watch and what the judges judge are completely different competitions. Fans become alienated, refusing to travel to events and patronize a corrupt sport that is losing its last shred of credibility.

Very sadly, Ten is not the only victim of this kind of judging. Last year Patrick Chan similarly skated a flawed program, yet defeated Daisuke Takahashi of Japan. The crowd booed not just the scores, but even the award ceremony. The only reason the judges walked out of the arena alive and well this year was that the event was held on Chan’s home ice in London, Ontario, Canada. Moreover, other deserving skaters are overlooked by the scandal caused by such corrupt judging. Javier Fernandez, for instance, was the first skater to medal at the World Figure Skating Championship. He, too, skated a program superior to Chan's, yet his accomplishment was completely overshadowed by the scandal involving the gold medal.
The judges’ propensity to score Chan dozens of points higher than anyone expects has resulted in the coining of a new word commonly used in skating: Chanflation. What makes Chanflation and other such blatant judging bias possible is the very judging system implemented by the ISU after the 2002 Olympic scandal—presumably to make political judging less likely to happen. Instead, it accomplished the exact opposite. The judging is now anonymous, with no one knowing which judge awards which mark to which skater. Moreover, the arbitrary program component scores (PCSs), meant to replace the artistic mark, are entirely subjective.
Chan is constantly awarded PCSs high enough to make up for his technical flaws. (In other words, the bigger the flaws, the higher the PCS's must be to save his skin.) Under the previous, 6.0 judging system, it would have been inconceivable for a skater who made so many errors in a program to get a perfect 6.0 mark for artistic impression. The flaws and falls distract from the artistic value of the performance. Yet Chan received higher scores for program execution than Ten, who was flawless — including an incredible mark of 9.5! He also got a 9.75 for transitions. What would the judges have awarded Chan had he actually skated a clean program?
The petition asking that Ten be awarded a gold medal retroactively for his performance is unlikely to succeed now that the sport is not in the world limelight the way it was back in 2002. But if enough people sign, at the very least it could draw attention to the endemic corruption in the sport and its governing body, the International Skating Union — whose president is kept in office even against the ISU’s own constitution. (See article on June 29.)