Women’s figure skating recap: Did Adelina Sotnikova beat Kim Yu-Na because of “Russiaflation?”


Adelina Sotnikova (Ivan Sekretarev/Assoicated Press)

Adelina Sotnikova skated the program of her life on Thursday, landing monstrously huge triple jumps and capturing the Olympic gold medal. If only she deserved it.

Experts and skating fans were baffled to see the results, particularly after South Korea’s Kim Yu-na sailed through two difficult, effervescent programs. Queen Yu-na, as she is called,  should have locked up figure skating’s top prize. But she inexplicably ended up five points behind.

A petition on the Web site change.org calling for an investigation into the event’s judging had 1.6 million signatures as of 9 a.m. Eastern time. Officials said the petition was generating the most traffic they’d ever seen.​

Controversial decisions in skating are nothing new, but this travesty calls into question the sport’s complex judging system that was supposed to make skating more transparent.

Au contraire. Instead, the International Skating Union has created a system that cloaks judges in anonymity and hides individual ballots in a Swiss safe. Somehow this was supposed to prevent corruption. But events like Thursday’s show the current system can be just as easily manipulated as the previous 6.0 system. It also keeps judges away from any public scrutiny, making it easier to cheat and virtually impossible to hold judges accountable for stupid decisions.

The trouble has been making observers stew during Patrick Chan’s shocking domination of the men’s field over the past three years leading up to these Olympics despite flawed performances. The instances of fluffing scores were so obvious that fans started calling it “Chanflation.” Now these problems have been made apparent on the world’s biggest stage. Anonymous judging must end.

That skating finds itself in another scandal besmirches what was a great women’s competition, featuring compelling performances and contrasting styles. If the judges had done their jobs properly, this morning we’d all probably be talking about Japan’s Mao Asada and her master class in jumping technique, surging her placement from 16th to sixth. Or the sad wilting of Russian wunderkind Julia Lipnitskaia, who finished fifth. Or the marked improvement of the  United States’ Gracie Gold, who finished fourth.


Kim Yu-na (Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

Most of all we’d be talking about the Queen, the most ferocious women’s figure skater in the history of the Olympics. She put on a textbook short program, displaying a newfound sophistication and maturity on the ice. Under tremendous pressure, after five solid long programs from her nearest competitors, she returned the next day and skated almost as well.

(At this point, there are probably some readers who are saying the talk of “sophistication and maturity” is what makes the sport silly. Those readers are wrong. Those terms are tangible, exemplified in the depth of a skater’s edge —  made noticeable by a lean of the body — and the patience not to rush various movements on the ice. )

If you watch every four years, here’s a quick synopsis of how judging works: There are two marks, one for technical elements and one essentially for artistry. Every jump, spin and section of footwork is evaluated by a technical specialist who will assign a base value for the program. Judges then evaluate how well those skills are performed, on a scale of minus-three to three.

The artistic mark — known as the component score —  evaluates skating skills, transitions, execution, choreography and timing. Judges evaluate those criteria on a scale of 1 to 10. In both marks, the judges’ scores are averaged and weighed.

Analyzing the scores, Kim’s marks were generally on point. But the judging was most questionable for Sotnikova. Her short program featured tremendous power and speed, but it was the easiest of all the top short programs.

Her component marks were as high as Kim’s, but the idea that Sotnikova is anywhere as close to an artist as Kim is laughable. They are both good, yes, but there are levels of good. One is good in the way you call your grandmother a good dancer because she does the cha-cha slide at the family reunion. The other is a prima ballerina.

In Thursday’s long program, Kim sailed across the ice, landing jumps with the same speed with which she entered them. She had one wonky landing on her hardest jump, the triple Lutz. She emoted in ways we had never seen her do before. She was a true woman on the ice.

Compared to the intricate transitions that came with Kim’s program, Sotnikova’s might have struck people as seeming a little junior. How right they were — Sotnikova skated this program at the junior level. And with it, she won the Olympics. In the long program, again, inexplicably, her presentation marks were  inflated to be just as good as Kim’s.

Were we seeing “Russiaflation” in this women’s event? In my mind, absolutely. No peace was found, then, reading a description of judges in the New York Times: one was suspended on the suspicion that he was fixing results in the 1998 Olympics; another is the wife of the head of Russia’s skating federation.

The mind doesn’t have to stray very far to conjure up controversies that could have led to this result. But even worse, the anonymous judging system provides no absolution or chance for judges to mount a defense.

Credit needs to go to Sotnikova, the most unaccomplished women’s champion in the history of the Olympics. She is a protoypical Russian female figure skater, with an emphasis on powerful strokes across the ice and explosive jumps. She completed seven triple jumps; Kim completed six. But there is a reason that Russians have never won the Olympics in women’s figure skating — because the sport has always been more than jumps.

On Thursday, a 17-year-old Russian skater with no medal in any world championships had a great moment in her life. It would have been an accomplishment for her to receive a medal of any color. But we can no longer see Sotnikova in that context. Now her moment has been tarnished by a flawed judging system and the politics of her crazy, dramatic, addictive sport.

 

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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