With colorful characters, beautiful clothes, juicy rivalries and whispers of behind-the-scenes shadiness, figure skating was the original reality show, commanding attention well after the Olympic flame was extinguished, and turning skaters into millionaires.
Then came the French judge, swathed in fur and instructed to vote “in a certain way.”
Ten years after the pairs judging scandal rocked the Salt Lake City Olympics, some say figure skating has yet to recover. Interest in skating in the United States has faded, and critics say a judging system adopted to prevent cheating has not only failed but has stripped the beauty from the sport.
“I really don’t think it was that worth it, all the hubbub after Salt Lake City,” Johnny Weir said.
Judging shenanigans have always been skating’s dirty little secret. But it was one thing to look at scores and try to guess what countries were conniving and which judges were swapping marks, quite another to have it confirmed as it was in Salt Lake.
Russia’s Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze initially won the pairs gold over Canada’s Jamie Sale and David Pelletier by the slightest of margins, despite Sikharulidze stepping out of a double axel. But judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne tearfully told her fellow judges afterward that she had been pressured by French federation president Didier Gailhaguet to put the Russians first.
“It’s surreal that it happened to us. I never thought anything like that — big stories happen to others, I’ve never been involved in such a thing,” Pelletier said. “We were just puppets in a show. I never took it personal. We just happened to be in the wrong place at the right time. Or the right place at the wrong time, I don’t know.”
Le Gougne later recanted, but the damage was done. Scott Hamilton’s howl of protest on the NBC broadcast could be heard clear across the country, Canadian Olympic officials demanded an investigation and everyone from politicians to previously wronged athletes weighed in on what should be done. As the scandal threatened to overshadow the rest of the games, new IOC president Jacques Rogge told the International Skating Union something had to be done.
On Feb. 15, four days after the pairs final, the Canadians were awarded duplicate gold medals. Three days after that, ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta unveiled a proposal to replace the century-old 6.0 mark with a system that would assign a point value to every technical element.
Figure skating will always be a subjective sport because there is no clock to race, no finish line to cross ahead of an opponent. But skating had to find a way to bring more objectivity — more transparency — to its judging, Cinquanta said.
“The question was, is this a sport or is that a show? If it’s just a show or exhibition, you do not need judges. You do not need to measure the performance,” he said. “But sport is another story. You need rules and you cannot leave it to judges to say, ‘This is the best.'”
The ISU adopted its new judging system in June 2002, and began using it at Grand Prix events a year later. Skaters still receive two scores, one for technical elements and another for components, but everything is now quantified. Jumps, spins, lifts, skating skills, choreography — there are now specific criteria for judging every part of a program, and a point value to go along with it.
“You cannot keep this subjective decision of the judges,” Cinquanta said.
Skaters say they like being able to look at the judges’ marks and see where, exactly, they need to improve. And the judging system has revolutionized ice dancing, once so corrupt medals may as well have been handed out before the event started. North American ice dancers, who once had little hope of doing more than cracking the top 10, now dominate the sport. Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are the reigning Olympic champions, while Meryl Davis and Charlie White last year became the first Americans to win a world dance title.
“Tessa and Scott, they were superb (in Vancouver) and I thought this was exactly what this system does: It rewards people who are able to be the most seamless and most technically proficient,” said Sarah Hughes, the 2002 Olympic champion. “And I think that’s the goal of any kind of scoring system.”
But critics say the current system has flaws, as well.
There is room to manipulate marks or prop skaters up through the component scores, largely still a matter of personal opinion even with established criteria to judge the individual components. A judge with a music background, for example, may view a skater’s interpretation of “Tosca” very differently than someone without, and it’s hard to challenge their interpretations.
Another criticism is that the points system doesn’t penalize mistakes enough. Reigning world champion Patrick Chan had to put both hands down on a quadruple toe loop in the short program at Four Continents last Thursday, but it wasn’t counted as a fall so he didn’t receive a one-point deduction off his total score. He did get the maximum negative execution scores for the element, but the 7.30 points he received for the quad were still a point higher than Ross Miner got for a clean triple flip.
“To get more points, the skaters execute elements beyond their capabilities. As a consequence, the programs are filled with errors and falls which, of course, damage the general presentation,” Sonia Bianchetti, a former Olympic-level judge and the first woman elected to an ISU office, said in an email. “Is it better to see a beautiful program, with a good choreography, skated to the music with good speed and flow and maybe an easier jump or jump combination, less-intricate footwork or more simple spins? Or rather programs with two or three falls on quads or triple-triple combinations, with travelled, slow and ugly spins or step sequences?
“To make the sport too difficult and demanding means that in a field of 30 skaters, let’s say, maybe only a couple can do a decent program. The rest of the event is a falling contest,” she added. “Is this good for our sport?”
Fans also have struggled to grasp what are good scores and what are not. Under the old system, even the most casual of fans knew that the closer a skater was to 6.0, the better the program was. Now, even the die-hards don’t always know what to make of a 200 — a near-record for the women or pairs, not even good enough for a man to crack the top 10.
That complexity, in a sport once known for its simple beauty, coupled with the lack of a female American star, has been blamed by many for the drop in interest in skating in the U.S.
Ten years after “Champions On Ice” alone had a schedule of 90-plus shows, “Stars on Ice” is the only U.S. tour left and has just 10 dates, beginning Saturday in Salt Lake City. Stars also will do 12 shows in Canada.
At last month’s U.S. championships, there were empty seats for most of the sessions, even with portions of the arena curtained off. NBC’s prime-time coverage of the women’s final Saturday drew a 2.4 rating and 3.7 million viewers. The men’s final on Sunday afternoon had a 1.8 rating and 2.8 million viewers.
“The perception of skating, it changed a lot,” Pelletier said. “It had such a bad rap and I think it was well-deserved, the bad rap. I think it could have been avoided.
“But at the same time, skating was never as bad as what people made it seem. Every sport has its problems,” Pelletier added, pointing to concussions in hockey and football and an entire era of baseball tainted by performance-enhancing drugs. “The ISU did the best they could to clean whatever they thought the mess did. It’s not my place to say if they did it the right way.”