Monday, February 17, 2014

Another Olympics, Another Scandal

So Canada is the alleged victim in another Olympic figure skating scandal, this time in ice dance. There are the usual calls for ending all judged sports at the Olympics, as if questions about fairness arise only in judged sports. (I guess these people haven’t heard about questionable calls by referees in team sports.) Every sport is plagued by allegations of unfairness, and there is rarely much recourse: the decisions of officials are almost always final.

In this case, rumors of dirty dealing started early. During the team event at the beginning of the Games, Canadian skaters were apparently subjected to drug tests that seemed aimed to disrupt their performances: some were awakened in the middle of the night; one was disturbed during her pre-performance nap. (Drug tests are typically held after a performance, not before.)

Next up, a magazine in France called L’Equipe reported an anonymous source saying that US and Russian judges had entered a deal to give the team event gold to Russia and the ice dance gold to the US. I suspect that this “anonymous source” was a con to mess with Canadian skaters: provoke a reaction, cause an anti-Canada backlash, and throw the skaters off their game. In 2002, there was collusion between the Russian and French judges, but this allegation involves Americans, who have a lot more credibility.

The team event involves all four figure skating disciplines, each of which has its own judges. Rigging it would be a heck of a big conspiracy. In the end, Russia won gold by a landslide, with 75 overall points to Canada’s second place finish of 65. There were the usual questions about the judging (such as Evgeny Plushenko beating Kevin Reynolds), but there were no signs of egregious judging. Russia medaled in every leg of the competition, and won gold in most of them.

Then we had the short program in ice dance, which Davis/White won, 2.5 points ahead of Virtue/Moir. The main reason for DW's win was the difficulty level given to the Finnstep portion: VM were awarded a difficulty level of 3, while DW got a 4. Finnish ice dance legend Petri Kokko (who invented the Finnstep) stirred things up with two tweets yesterday: "I don’t understand the judging in #icedancing. @Virtue_Moir should be leading in my honest opinion." and "Hope @Virtue_Moir wins. Americans timing off in the #finnstep and restrained even otherwise."

The Globe is critical of the judging, but admits that "the most tangible difference between their two performances appeared to be a small bobble by Virtue and Moir in their Finnstep segment." A small bobble could make the difference between a 3 and a 4. (In fact, that had already happened to VM twice this season.)

According to our own CBC commentators during the Davis/White performance, Davis/White have not been defeated since the World Championships in 2012, and they have set six world records with their short dance - this performance is just the latest time they've broken their own record.

The history is this: DW and VM are close friends; they train together and share a coach; White and Moir have been friends since childhood. For the last five or six years they have been the top two teams in the world. For the first several years of that period, VM consistently topped the podium, and then DW got the edge.

Their scores tend to be extremely close, but they’re very different skaters. As the Washington Post wrote yesterday, “Virtue and Moir are fighting to solidify their legitimacy as the best ice dancing team since Great Britain’s Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. They are a team of exquisite detail – pointed toes, extension body lines – and have tremendous chemistry on the ice. Davis and White are different. They are rugged and powerful and fast.” To my eye, White looks a little rough around the edges: in particular, his leg extensions are poor, he doesn't have great artistic interpretation, and he's sort of heavy on the ice - the opposite of light and elegant.

Sports is full of questionable acts, and figure skating has an atrocious history of skating scandals: judges caught on camera colluding; a brave Canadian judge who gathered evidence of cheating but was suspended by the ISU for doing it; decades of dominance by Russian skaters that seemed dubious at best. Within the Russian competitions, scandals have been even bigger: skaters’ cars getting blown up the day before a competition, a skater’s fiancĂ© being kidnapped.

But after the 2002 Salt Lake City fiasco, the ISU cleaned itself up. Scores are based on well-defined criteria now; judges’ scores are anonymous (so it’s more difficult to pay them off); high and low scores are kicked out. Insiders say that the sport is a lot fairer now. One big piece of evidence for the success of the new rules is this: the Russians no longer dominate ice dance.

I'm no judge, but I'm not bothered about the outcome of the Olympic ice dance contest, for a number of reasons.
  • Both teams skated beautifully, along with the rest of the field, so the event was a treat to watch.
  • I do not believe that American judges would get messed up in a cheating scandal with the Russians.
  • Even if the Americans were unscrupulous, there was no need to fix this fight: Davis and White have been besting Virtue and Moir all season.
  • Virtue and Moir are already Olympic champions, from 2010.

Virtue and Moir's influence will resonate for a long time for their hard work, athleticism, artistry, fine lines, ability to put down their finest performances in the highest stakes competitions, and their ability to simultaneously be tough-as-nails competitors and friendly collaborators.

Winning in figure skating is about adding up points on elements, and Davis/White got the most points today. I firmly believe that Virtue and Moir are the greatest ice dancers in the world, and their silver medal does not diminish that. The Canadian commentators even said today that after attaining Olympic gold in 2010, VM made a conscious effort to do things in their programs that advanced the sport, rather than single-mindedly going after points.

I can't wait to see what they do next.


Tom said...

Hi Ruth. We just watched the long program and I think you have it right. I don't understand the judging, but it looks like it could have gone either way. Both pairs skated amazingly, and it's time we stopped whining about unfairness.

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