Five-ring Circus

That Was … Curious

Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova beat Yuna Kim to win figure skating gold. But did she really deserve to win?

Gold medalist Adelina Sotnikova, right, and Youna Kim pose during the flower ceremony after Thursday's free skate at the Sochi Games.
Gold medalist Adelina Sotnikova, right, and Yuna Kim pose during the flower ceremony after Thursday’s free skate at the Sochi Games.

Photo by Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

For all that it did to destabilize the world, the Cold War really heightened the comedy potential of subjectively evaluated Olympic sports. Take, for example, the old 6.0 scoring system for figure skating. If you saw, say, East German skater Katarina Witt receive a ludicrously low 5.5 score for technical merit from the American judge and 5.7s and 5.8s from the rest of the panel, at least you knew exactly what was going on.

But now, after watching the women’s free skate in Sochi, I confess that I have no idea what is going on. Specifically, it’s hard to know how to feel about Russian Adelina Sotnikova’s upset victory over reigning Olympic champion Yuna Kim of South Korea. We do know that Sotnikova’s fellow Russian, the battle-scarred sentimental favorite Evgeni Plushenko, also received strikingly generous scores on his way to winning the team gold. We know that the judges’ panel for the women’s free skate did not include a Korean judge (or an American one) but did include four from Eastern Europe: Russia, Ukraine, Estonia, and Slovakia. We know that the Russian judge, Alla Shekhovtseva, is married to the general director and past president of the Figure Skating Federation of Russia, which the International Skating Union (ISU) somehow does not view as a conflict of interest. And we know that the judge from Ukraine, Yury Balkov, received a yearlong suspension from the ISU after the 1998 Nagano games, when a Canadian judge recorded Balkov proposing a vote-trading deal. Balkov was back in action in time to serve as a judge during the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, site of the judging scandal that helped lead to a total revamp of the scoring system for figure skating.

Only in figure skating would a judging system be revamped to make it more opaque. That opacity is the reason why we may never know who was Team Kim, who was Team Sotnikova, and whether or not those allegiances broke down along country lines in Sochi.

In contrast to the relatively crude 6.0 system, the post-2005 model is designed for maximum empiricism and incorruptibility. Each technical element—jumps, spins, footwork—is assigned a base value; in turn, a panel of judges assigns each a grade of execution while also evaluating the skater in areas such as choreography, interpretation, and timing. (Former skater Chloe Katz recently wrote an excellent explainer-cum-critique of the system.)

The supposed empiricism here is undermined by the fact that the scores are anonymous. This anonymity ostensibly takes the pressure off judges to vote in a nationalistic spirit, but it also erases any notion of public accountability. What’s more, two of the nine overall scores are discarded at random, and of the seven remaining, the high and low are also tossed out. Again, this sorting mechanism is double-edged: It may dilute the odds of bloc voting, but it also intensifies the odds of a skater being randomly boosted or penalized by the luck of the draw.

Sotnikova’s victory over Kim has stirred Christine Brennan of USA Today and others to suggest strongly that a fix is in. American skater Ashley Wagner, whose displeasure with her scores during the team event became Sochi’s first Internet meme, said she felt cheated by the judging system. “People don’t want to watch a sport where you see people fall down and somehow score above someone who goes clean,” said Wagner, referring pointedly to her being judged more harshly than fellow American Gracie Gold and Russia’s Yulia Lipnitskaya, both of whom fell during the free skate. “People need to be held accountable. They need to get rid of the anonymous judging.”

But if Olympic watchers have a thirst for a good scandal, this competition isn’t juicy enough to slake it. Kim’s skate was clean and elegant, but also a bit wooden and cautious. Sotnikova’s relationship to her music seemed at times incidental, a couple of her jumps were messy in the air, and she stepped out of one landing, but Kim had one fewer triple jump and received lower marks on both her jumps and her layback, just as Dick Button predicted. Kim turned inward and Sotnikova reached outward, beckoning and waving to the crowd and working her home-field advantage. Kim had an excess of poise and maturity, and Sotnikova had an excess of energy. Kim left the ice looking like she’d completed an assignment and Sotnikova left as if the bodies of her competitors were strewn all over it, a tableau of bloodstained tulle and broken feathers.

When the marks were toted up—at least, the ones that weren’t thrown out randomly—Sotnikova outscored Kim on execution and trailed on components (performance, interpretation, and the like). If the competition really were rigged, it seems as though the judges would have graded Sotnikova more enthusiastically on the subjective stuff. Or maybe they were just super-subtle about it: The Associated Press recap suggested that Kim’s component marks should have been radically higher than Sotnikova’s, instead of just slightly so. Still, Kim, who announced her retirement after the competition, delivered a notably un-Wagner-like assessment of how she’d ended up with silver. “At that time I could die for gold in the Olympics,” she said, speaking of the Vancouver Games. “But that desire, that strong wish, was not as present. The motivation was a problem, I think.”

Maybe the outcome would have been different if this were 2018, when the Russian wouldn’t be skating for a Russian crowd and the South Korean would be skating for a South Korean crowd at the Pyeongchang Games. And maybe the ISU could further refine and mathematize the scoring system to edit out ultra-subjective and intangible components like “poise” and “energy” and “waving pluckily to the crowd while skating backward” altogether. (Maybe they could even accede to Ashley Wagner’s wishes: So long as you don’t fall down, you get a medal!) But if the ISU wants to be that literal-minded, it might as well bring back compulsories. Just like Wagner, all I want is a little public accountability, like in the days when an American judge would dock a skater two-tenths of a point just for landing on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. Back then, at least we knew where we stood.