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Thursday, February 18, 2010
Figure-skating: Still fixed, still not a sport

If it is a Winter Olympic year, then everyone must care, once again, about figure skating. And no discussion of figure skating is complete without a discussion of corrupt judges.

Following the controversy in pairs skating in 2002, when judges from five countries traded votes to ensure a Gold for the Russian team, skating moved to a system of anonymous judging. The theory was that if no one could know how anyone else voted, there was less likelihood that someone would bribe a judge or trade votes, since there was no way to ensure the other side held up their end of the bargain. But a new study by Dartmouth economist Eric Zitzewitz finds that anonymous scoring has had the opposite effect: Home-country bias is about 20 percent higher than under the old full disclosure system. Although backroom-dealmaking is riskier (and thus less likely), the loss of public and media accountability makes it easier for individual judges to bias for home skaters (or skaters from "friendly" nations).

Jon Siegel discusses a proposal from his GW colleague Michael Abramowicz. His solution is to evaluate judges based on how close their individual scores are to the average of all the scores for a skater (with the average reflecting, to some degree, the "right" score). After compiling each judge's scores over time, rewards such as compensation and choice assignments (which competitions, which events) could be determined by how close a judge is to the average over all each competitions.

Interesting idea. But I disagree with Jon that this could "solve the problem of subjectivity in figure skating judging." Nothing can solve that problem, because the judging is inherently subjective and nothing is going to change that. But that just goes to my bugaboo of why it is not a sport.

Let me leave on two questions. First, why don't we have similar problems in other judged Olymic events (similarly, not sport), such as moguls skiing (I watched this and still have no idea how the winner was determined) or half-pipe snowboarding (or whatever it is that Shaun White keeps winning)? Second, were we actually better off in the days of the hallowed-yet-infamous East German Judge, when we recognized that the thing was rigged along Cold War politics and just dealt with it?


Howard - I enjoyed your post, and I am sure that you have been following the resulting controversy over American Evan Lysacek's narrow victory over Russian Evgeni Plushenko in the men's competition. Plushenko was bitter about the defeat and the new system of scoring. Plushenko argued that Lysacek should not have won because he did not do a quad in his free skating routine.

One law school activity that this reminds me of is the scoring of moot court competition arguments. Often, the judges are presented with a lengthy list of scoring options (e.g. answers to questions, structure of the argument, attitude toward the judges, use of authority). Often the judges decide who they thought was the best advocate and make the numbers fit the desired result.

Canadian Patrick Chan, who finished fifth, has been quoted as siding with Lysacek. Now many other veterans of the skating scene are offering their opinions on where the new system has taken the sport.

Blogger Ed Edmonds -- 2/20/2010 10:58 AM  

My guess about why we don't have the controversies about moguls and halfpipe is twofold: First, these are new, um..., activities. They postdate the era of the East German judge, so we tend not to think of them this way. Second, Americans consistently do well in these activities. From the American perspective, it ain't broke.

What I find more interesting about these "is it a sport" discussions is the huge linguistic revisionism implicit in the discussion, almost certainly unintentional. There have been weekly sporting journals in the U.S. since the early 19th century. Look at an issue from, say, 1850 and you will find what they consider sport: horse racing (both thoroughbred and harness). A "sportsman" bred horses and bet on races. Another sense of "sportsman" from that era was someone who hunted and fished recreationally. Teddy Roosevelt (to pick an example from a bit later) was a sportsman.

Organized team sports began their rise in the 1850s: first cricket, then baseball. These were included among "sports", as were early appearances of track and field (called "athletics" back then) and rowing and a whole host of others.

What I see nowadays in these "what is a sport" discussion is an attempt not merely to exclude johnny-come-lately stuff like synchronized swimming and ice dancing, but also stuff that has always been classified as sport. Give it your best shot, but say that hunting isn't a "sport" and the hunters have a pretty darned good argument that you are just making stuff up. (They also are armed, so be extra careful!)

Anonymous Richard Hershberger -- 2/20/2010 5:18 PM  

Hmmm . . . I had not thought of how hunting fits here, because we don't really do it competitively (at least not anymore), which has become part of our modern definitions. I would put biathlon (the one with shooting) as sport, I think . . .

I actually don't believe my argument necessarily excludes johnny-come-lately stuff, if that stuff involves large motor skills and objective scoring. So, for example, "Snowboard Cross," a new event that the Americans do well in, would unquestionably qualify as sport. In fact, that is an event I particularly enjoyed watching this year.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 2/20/2010 11:26 PM  

Interesting! Thats pretty cool! I love to blog but only on good subjects.Like this one for instance! Can’t wait till you post something else.

Anonymous sachin -- 2/26/2010 11:04 AM  

Don't forget the comparable situations in the Summer Olympics--gymnastics (both) and synchronized swimming, like figure skating, has had problems with judging in its past, but other sports (namely diving) have not had nearly the problems.

So, why would the IOC--for example --want to include things like ballroom dancing and (yes, believe this one) pole dancing (?!?!?), thereby causing more headaches?
( I know--someone might use weightlifting as the counter, but there the problem has been use of drugs as opposed to judging whether a lift is good or not.)

Short-track speed skating seems to have it's problems with judging as well; name another sport where the head referee in a final is from the same country as any of the finalists...? (And, before there are any complaints: Yes, the call on Ohno was correct!)

Anonymous Anonymous -- 2/27/2010 8:59 AM  

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