Here we go again. Even before the Olympics begin, questions of bias in figure skating judging have started. This time they've been brought up by one of the sport's towering figures, Russian Evgeni Plushenko.
After last month's European championships, Plushenko pointed out that despite the changes in the judging system, the judges could still manipulate the final standings of the skaters in whatever position they wanted by judging on such hard-to-define moves as "transitions":
If the judges want someone to place high, they can arrange it. Like in Tallinn [in Estonia at the European championships last month], Brian Joubert got more points for his transitions than me, although we did exactly the same transitions on the ice. In fact, we don't have any transitions, because we focus on our jumps.
The latest version of judging gives numerical values to specific technical elements like jumps, spins, and footwork. Plushenko is saying that he and Joubert were given unequal scores for technical elements that neither he nor Joubert – one of his chief competitors for gold in Vancouver – performed.
Responding to Plushenko's remarks, veteran skating judge Joe Inman emailed many of the sport's top judges, reminding them to really consider their marks before putting them down. Seems innocent enough, but The Globe and Mail reports that the European press has taken his email to mean that there is an anti-European bias.
The French sports magazine L'Équipe picked up on the e-mails and wrote a story with the headline: "The hostilities begin." The article goes on to say the North Americans are launching an offensive against European skaters, aiming specifically at Mr. Plushenko and Mr. Joubert. "It just proves that the North American lobby is on its way," Didier Gailhaguet, president of the French skating federation, told L'Équipe. Tuesday, Mr. Gailhaguet told The Globe that he was surprised by Mr. Inman's e-mail. "Why at this particular moment of the season such comments become so important?" he said.
Maybe because it's just before the Olympics, figure skating's biggest stage, and Inman, who is not judging at these Olympics but has given several seminars on how to judge ice skating moves, wants to avoid the scandals that have plagued the sport.
Someone who has been affected by the judging scandals, Jamie Sale, doesn't buy Plushenko's argument. Sale is one half of the Canadian pair that was originally given a silver medal, though she and her partner (and now husband) David Pelletier skated a superior routine.
Sale says that Plushenko has been given high marks on routines even when he didn't earn them:
"I'm like, 'no, I'm not buying it'. That's not skating. There's no edges. There's nothing to his programme. All he does is quad (jump), then skates around in a circle, then a triple Axel and then skated down the ice and did a triple Lutz and his programme was done.
Since Plushenko benefited from the past system and judges' ability to arbitrarily rank skaters, it's hypocritical for him to get angry now about the problems in judging. They've always existed. More than that, the current scoring system will help Plushenko, who is a strong jumper, win over a skater like Johnny Weir, whose strong suit is artistry.
What's sad about this is that instead of focusing on Plushenko's skating and his return to the ice after retiring from competition in 2006, we will now question every mark given. If Plushenko wins gold, we will wonder if it was in response to his criticisms, and if he loses, we will wonder if he was right all along.