It’s unfortunate that the story about the women’s event wasn’t just about Adelina Sotnikova barrelling out of nowhere to prove a point: that she counted, that she should be noticed, that the Russian federation had taken her too lightly by not having her skate in the team event, with all the hype surrounding the 15-year-old wonderkid, Julia Lipnitskaia. Russia put all of its eggs in that wonderful little basket, but you know how bandwagons work.
That alone would have been a fabulous story of triumph for the forgotten Sotnikova, but the suspect judging in Sochi took that away from her, probably forever. Now, somehow, she’s made to answer to what those judges may have done, by all sorts of nastiness on her Facebook page. It will trail her for a long time. And it won’t be fun. And it won’t be her fault.
There has been so much chatter over the past couple of days and so many misunderstandings about what happened in the women’s event. There is no mistaking the fact that a Russian, Alexander Lakernik, was in charge of the technical panel and as controller, could overrule any of the decisions made by the specialists in awarding levels of difficulty – and those levels make a big difference in the point system. (Olga Baranova, the assistant technical specialist from Finland, is by all accounts, quite good at her job.)
Who in their right mind in the ISU thought it a good idea to put a Russian in such control of an event, at an event in Russia? Intriguing things often happen at skating events in Russia, where the scores don’t always match what happens on the ice. Back in 1978, the International Skating Union suspended all judges from the Soviet Union for one year, because any attempt to suspend one at a time for nationalistic judging just didn’t seem to have any effect at stopping it.
And there’s no mistaking the fact that Ukrainian Yuri Balkov found his way onto a panel after the disgrace of the 1998 Olympics, where he was recorded listing the order of finish of the dance event to another judge. These sorts of people should never judge again, if the International Skating Union doesn’t want to embarrass itself, no less at a major event like the Olympics. You don’t see judges suspended any more. You see judges with marks against their names be demoted to a lower level, but they can work their way back up again. After all, Irina Nechkina, an Ajerbaijan judge who lives in Moscow, was taken off the dance panel at the Turin Olympics for some bad judging calls, but was back on it for Vancouver and Sochi in the dance event.
And there’s no mistaking the fact that Alla Shekhovtseva, married to the Russian federation president Valentin Piseev, somehow found her way onto that women’s panel. The name Alla, alone, sparks controversy. She’s always played an active role in judging circles and has always been very vocal about her opinions. And I’ll never forget the sight of her on a TV camera, embracing Sotnikova in the bowels of the rink after the kid won the gold medal. The optics are terrible.
At the Vancouver Olympics, Alla judged ice dancing, not the other events. She’d been a dance judge for years. And she played a huge role in Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin dancing to an aboriginal theme that sparked such controversy and drew condemnation from aboriginal groups around the world. Alla pushed for that routine, thought it marvellous, while other dance coaches in Russia, according to one, rolled their eyes and knew that was a program that could never win. Yet, Alla’s voice is strong and things got to the point that it was too late to change it.
Alla doesn’t judge dance any more because of an interesting turn of events in Russia, following the country’s embarrassment at the Vancouver Olympics, having won no gold medals at all in figure skating. High-ranking Russian politicians wanted heads to roll. Many Russians were hoping that Piseev would abdicate his post as president, feeling that he had neglected to develop skating at a time of tough economic change. Incredibly, Piseev announced that he was stepping down as president. Other notable Russians lined up to win the position, including Anton Sikharulidze, the Russian who won Olympic gold in Salt Lake City. Alexander Gorshkov (1976 Olympic champion in dance) stepped down from his long-time role as chairman of the ISU’s ice dance technical committee to take a run at the post as well.
But then everything changed at the last minute. Before the election, Piseev created a new position for himself in the federation, called something like director general. Gorshkov won the vote for president, but he also lost power. No longer did he sit with the ISU, but now he had to work under Piseev, who is still all-powerful in the Russian federation. When Sikharulidze heard about Piseev’s new position, he dropped out of the race for president, feeling that he would have to dance to Piseev’s tune.
More changes happened. Now there was a vacancy on the ISU dance technical committee. And Alla decided to run for it. She could not have run for it if Gorshkov was still on the ISU committee. With him out of the way, she got a seat on the technical committee. It meant she could no longer judge ice dancing.
But it does mean she can judge the other disciplines. And there she was, in Sochi, judging the women’s event.
Much is being made of two things: that France was on that dance panel, too, and after all, wasn’t a French judge conspiring with Russians at the scandal of the Salt Lake City Olympics? However, just because France did it once, doesn’t mean they did it again. Apparently they had something to gain at Salt Lake City: a gold medal in ice dancing. In Sochi, France did not have a medal contender in the women’s event. And it doesn’t mean that all French judges work the way that Marie La Gougne did in 2002. There are lots of good, honest judges in France.
And the old eastern block thing? That wasn’t always a given. One former Russian competitor once told me that judges from the Soviet Union and its satellites used to make agreements on placements, but the block didn’t always sit in solidarity. The Soviet powers always tried to negotiate, he said, and it didn’t always work. People are different. Some are strong. Some are weak to suggestion. “Some of them could be frightened into doing it,” he said.
And the old block theory? That was necessary under the old system, when the winner was decided on a majority of votes. Now it’s not so necessary. Although the more the merrier, one judge can affect the results. Two can certainly make a difference. And hey, look at those wicked GOE marks that came from two judges for almost all of Sotnikova’s elements. All of those +3s helps to bump up the marks. And witness the low GOE that Yuna Kim got from one judge in particular for almost all of her elements. A string of +1s helps put distance between the two skaters, point by point. And those points all add up, particularly if you lose levels of difficulty, too. Just like in the short program, Kim was awarded only level three on the same two elements: layback spin and footwork sequence. No, Kim didn’t do as many jump elements as Sotnikova, but she should have been able to maximize what she did through GOE because of her quality. They don’t call her Queen Yuna for nothing. Even two-time Olympic champion Katarina Witt was nonplussed about the results. She was in the rink and thought the winner should have been Kim.
Much is also being made of the fact that Sotnikova stumbled out of the last double jump of a three-jump combination. Geez, say some, she shouldn’t have won because of that, while Kim made no such stumbles. The current judging system doesn’t work that way. You get points for what you do accomplish and it all adds up. A stumble will take away some GOE points, but you can make up for it with other elements.
The real wild cards in the scoring system are the GOE, the levels of diffciulty and the program components of the presentation marks that include skating skills, transition and linking footwork and movement; performance and execution, choreography and composition, and interpretation. For one thing, I don’t think Sotnikova interpreted her music with the subtlety shown by Kim, Carolina Kostner and Mao Asada. Asada got some tough performance marks too. For a skilled artist, it’s hard to believe she got a mark as low as 7.50 from one judge, the same judge who didn’t give her more than 8.50.
Yes, it’s the program component marks that bother me the most, putting Sotnikova only fractions of a point behind Kim and a couple of points ahead of Kostner. Those marks just don`t make sense. Are we supposed to be impressed by a skater waving at a crowd, to get them stirred up, as Sotnikova did? It’s fun, and a nice moment, but does “Habanera” warrant it? Did we see a touch of “Habanara” in her movement? What we saw was an exciting display of athleticism.
It doesn`t seem like the International Skating Union or the International Olympic Committee is listening. They watch and don`t understand the more ethereal parts of artistry and beauty of the blade and body movement. IOC spokesman Mark Adams thinks all the hubbub about Sotnikova’s marks is “hypothetical” at this point and “my personal point of view would be to congratulate a fantastic performance,” he said. He admits he doesn’t know much about skating.
Behind the scenes, Kim was in tears, bewildered about what had just happened. The South Koreans have started a world-wide online petition, asking not for a gold medal for Kim, because the medal isn’t important to her. They are only asking for fairness and an investigation into what happened. It doesn’t seem to be too much to ask. People want transparency. They don’t want to walk away from the Olympics with doubt in their minds, like they did at Salt Lake City.