Skating on Thin Ice: Figure Skating Must Shape Up or Ship out

Skating on Thin Ice: Figure Skating Must Shape Up or Ship out

Friday’s decision to award Jamie Sale and David Pelletier gold medals was nothing more than an attempt by the IOC to appease the public and deflect attention away from deeper problems that plague a number of judged sports. While there seems to be little question that Sale and Pelletier were marked unfairly, it is unclear whether this means that the couple automatically deserve gold.

The reasoning of the IOC is as follows: The French judge admitted giving higher marks to the Russian skaters, Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, due to coercion from the Eastern Block judges and the head of the French skating union. In return, she was promised that the colluding judges would vote to award gold to the French Ice Dancing team. The Sale/Pelletier correction, then, was made by simply discarding the marks of the French judge, which left the Canadians and the Russians tied for first place.

This solution is inadequate, at best, and at worst, may be more unfair than the original decision. Implicit in the decision of the IOC and the International Skating Union is an understanding that several European judges were involved in the unfair judging, and that the French judge was simply the most reluctant participant. Given this, any decision that takes into account the marks of the dishonest judges cannot be fair. Perhaps Sale/Pelletier did deserve gold, but what of the other skaters? If there was collusion between the judges designed to give the gold medal to the Russian team, it is very likely that many other teams were marked low to ensure that the Russians could prevail.

What of the bronze medallists, Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo of China? The same unscrupulous panel judged them, so how do we know that they did not deserve silver? Certainly the Sale/Pelletier decision was not the only questionable one in the competition. I know little about figure skating, but to my eye, the American team was better than some of the medallists, and yet they scored quite low.

The point is if the judges were unfair, how can any of the results be taken seriously? If the IOC allows medals to be presented in events where judging has been unfair, the value of an Olympic medal is undermined. Once it was assumed that if you had a medal, you were the best in your sport. Now it is known that there are many ways that an inferior performance can be awarded a medal. For those athletes who truly excel in their sport, the value of the award is greatly reduced.

The problem seems to grow every year. Boxing fans have long complained that their sport is subject to unfair judging, and Saturday’s short track is another example of how the medallist may not be the best. In this event, the Chinese skater was disqualified for pushing and tripping another, but his actions resulted in the three other race leaders falling on the ice. The Australian skater won gold only because he so far back from the pack he was well clear of the collision. His was awarded, essentially, for being the slowest skater. Seconds before the finish, he was yards behind the leaders and well out of the race.

The felled skaters, through no fault of their own, were reduced to flinging their bodies over the line in order to finish. The Korean skater was in second place before the crash, but finished out of the medals because he fell and slid away from the finish line while the other skaters fell forward, closer to the line. The only way this match could have been fair would have been to re-run it after the Chinese skater was disqualified, but instead the results have been allowed to stand. Dumb luck decided this match. By this reasoning, a near-novice skater could have been awarded gold. Clearly the medal is no indication of skill. By the same token, the only fair way to decide last Monday’s figure skating event, would have been to have independent judges re-evaluate all of the skaters, and not just one pair.

If the contest had been re-evaluated, and our skaters were determined by a new panel to have deserved gold, I’d be proud. As it stands, I am uncomfortable with the decision. Mostly, I’m sorry for the Russian team, who have been more or less branded cheaters through no fault of their own. Their gold medal will stand, but they are disgraced. Accordingly, it is unlikely that this team will be able to secure the endorsements and sponsorships that most gold-medal teams do.

In contrast, “Sale and Pelletier … have become the darlings of the 2002 Games and the most wanted among advertisers, marketers, and big-brand companies.” Where is the public outcry in support of the Russians, who leave these games in disgrace despite putting in a solid performance and who have been more than gracious during the trying last few days? The blame for the Russian’s calamity rests squarely on the shoulders of the judges whose machinations were supposed to result in Russian glory, but because the IOC has refused to dig deeper into the issue and banish all of the dishonest panel, the success of the Russian team will always be tarnished. That the same judges have been allowed to remain and judge the Ice Dancing and the Men’s and Women’s individual events shows that neither the IOC nor the International Skating Union have any intention of cleaning this sport up. Given this, the only reasonable response is to remove figure skating from the Olympics, before the Olympic medal is devalued beyond salvation.