Olympic skating judges did not stack the deck

Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova (background) simply did more than South Korea’s Kim Yu Na.
david gray/reuters
Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova (background) simply did more than South Korea’s Kim Yu Na.

SOCHI, Russia — The fix was in, as everyone knew it would be. Wasn’t it?

The Russians, who’d never won the Olympic women’s figure skating crown, finally claim it on their own ice. The Russian judge is married to the head of the Russian federation. The Ukrainian judge is the same guy who was banned for a year for trying to rig the ice dancing competition in Nagano.

That’s why Adelina Sotnikova outpointed Korean defending champion Kim Yu Na for the gold medal here Thursday night. Wasn’t it?


Such is the enduring fallout a dozen years later from Skategate, the Salt Lake City judging scandal that turned the sport inside-out. Any unusual result now is viewed as questionable, if not corrupt, and conspiracy theorists, which now include 50 million Koreans, dissect every mark for evidence of bias.

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What Skategate has done, without doubt, is make the sport far more byzantine and bewildering.

“People don’t want to watch a sport where you see people fall down and somehow score above someone who goes clean,” American Ashley Wagner said after that happened to her in the free skate. “It’s confusing and we need to make it clear for people.”

The new scoring system, which replaced the age-old 6.0 format, is an eye-crossing matrix of numbers — base values and GOEs and factored components and bonuses and deductions. Instead of one artistic mark, there now are 45. The system is much easier for judges to manipulate, adding or subtracting a quarter of a point here or there, and their anonymity gives them cover.

That said, for all the chatter about identifying judges (the US Figure Skating Association will push for that at the next International Skating Union congress in June), the most blatant result-rigging happened when everyone knew who was on the panel and when bloc judging was taken for granted.


When Nancy Kerrigan lost the gold medal to Ukraine’s Oksana Baiul in 1994 despite skating a decidedly tougher program cleanly, all five judges from the former socialist countries went for Baiul, as everyone assumed they would.

There may well have been collusion this time as well but it’s impossible for an outsider to tell since the high and low scores submitted by the nine judges are discarded and the remaining seven, which are listed in random order, are averaged. How did the Russian judge vote? Only the ISU’s top brass knows, and they aren’t telling.

“Corruption in skating has been there for a hundred years and still will be there,” Canadian pairs skater David Pelletier, who with partner Jamie Sale was stiffed in the Salt Lake vote-swapping scandal, said when the new system began. “We just won’t know about it.”

What we do know under the new format is why one skater receives a higher elements score than another. The jumps and spins and steps have assigned base values, like poker hands, according to difficulty, ranging from 15.0 for a quadruple axel (which has yet to be landed) to .4 for a single toe. The grades of execution (GOEs), which range from +3 to -3, are added or subtracted from the jump.

Sotnikova and Kim had essentially the same program component scores for skating skills, choreography, transitions, etc. In fact, Kim’s were nine-hundredths of a point higher in the long program. The difference was in the elements, where Sotnikova outscored Kim by nearly 6 points. She had a higher base value (61.43-57.49) and a higher element score (75.54-69.69).


Had Kim, who led slightly after the short program, simply matched Sotnikova’s triple loop, she would have gained 6.70 points and she would have won the gold medal. By skipping it and performing only six triples (everybody else among the top seven did at least seven), Kim sabotaged herself.

Anyone who saw the printed results, which televiewers around the planet likely did not, quickly figured that out. Sotnikova had a better poker hand, as Kim did four years ago when she blew away Mao Asada even though Asada landed two triple axels in the free skate.

You can argue, as some observers did, that Sotnikova was overmarked in her program components, which, now as before, are subjective. Even so, her technical gap was undeniable and Kim, while a graceful skater, wouldn’t have made up that much with her artistry.

This was Sotnikova’s night and it wasn’t the first time that a figure skater had confounded expectations on her home ice at Olympus. Sarah Hughes did it at Salt Lake City while the pairs scandal still was swirling, knocking off teammate and world champion Michelle Kwan.

No woman ever had come out of fourth place to win the gold medal, yet nobody was demanding an inquest. Hughes simply had the skate of her life when it mattered most and Kwan did not.

If a Russian woman were going to win here, everyone figured it would be Julia Lipnitskaia, the 15-year-old princess of mid-air who became the sport’s new darling after winning the European title. But Lipnitskaia didn’t stand up and Sotnikova did.

And Queen Yu Na, who had an unbeatable hand in Vancouver, was one face card shy of a royal flush this time. That’s how skating’s crying game is played these days. It’s all about counting cards.

John Powers can be reached at