2004 Skate America Wrap-up

Final impressions from Skate America


Tatiana Totmianina is one lucky woman.  Fortunately for her, she partly landed on her left shoulder which absorbed much of the force in her fall.  Even so, the limited blow to the head was still enough to knock her unconscious and result in a concussion that will keep her off the ice for a couple of weeks.  Had she fallen directly on her head she probably would have sustained a career ending injury, or worse.  This accident raises two important questions.  Should helmets be reconsidered for use in pairs, and is the current direction of skating putting the skaters at unnecessary risk for life threatening injury.

Helmets were last discussed following the severe head injury that ended the career or J. Paul Binnebose, and nearly killed him.  There was talk at the time that the sports medicine experts in USFSA and the ISU would study the feasibility of requiring helmets in pairs.  Nothing ever came of that, and here we are again, with a skater barely dodging a bullet.  Will someone have to die before the safety of the skaters is given the importance it deserves?

The skaters really don't want helmets and accept the risk of injury as part of the sport.  But the skaters are highly driven, motivated competitors who would jump naked over razor wire if the scoring system gave them points to do it.  And we are not talking about any injury here.  This is about the risk of crippling, life threatening injury -- a risk the skaters accept, it seems, because it is thought a pair skating an artistic, romantic routine in some form of head-gear would look stupid.

In the new scoring system the ISU has set the bar for the level three elements much higher than current skating standards.  The message is clear.  The ISU wants the skaters to attempt ever more difficult and dangerous elements.  The level three requirements for pair lifts push the skaters in the direction of more difficult and complex lifts with more changes of positions, with more risk to the skaters, primarily the lady.  As the number and severity of injuries increases over time, it is the ISU that must accept responsibility for this, for it is the ISU (and particularly its president) that feels that the direction of skating should not be greater quality and skill in skating, but ever more difficult acrobatic stunts.

Conflicts of Interest

In the dance event, Technical Specialist Sergei Ponomarenko set off a controversy by taking an extra element deduction on the British dance couple of Sinead & John Kerr.  Ponomarenko scored some footwork early in the routine as one of the permitted step sequences even though the actual step sequence was listed as the tenth element in their program.  Since the early footwork was of lesser difficulty, the couple lost points for the deduction and points for the reduced level of difficulty.  The Technical Controller, Ludmila Mikhailovskaya, concurred in Ponomarenko's decision.  However, two or three officials can agree and still be wrong.  Three gymnastics officials who have the same role as skating's Technical Specialists, for example, made a serious error this summer at the Olympics. Said John Kerr after the event, "There was no way the other steps could be classified as the element. They were not corner to corner."  It is also interesting to note there is no deduction for extra elements in singles and pairs.  Only in dance.

The more serious problem here is that Ponomarenko is the coach of the Kerr's main rivals in Britain, Pamela O’Connor & Jonathan O’Dougherty, who the Kerrs dethroned in December 2002.  Leading up to the adoption of the new judging system, the question was asked, who will insure the accuracy and accountability of the Technical Specialists?  A satisfactory answer was never obtained, and is still not available.  

The couple and their coach, Joan Slater, support the new system but Slater said, "This is not only a disagreement about whether the other steps constituted the element, but there is also a conflict of interest here.  There is a problem with having Technical Specialists who coach. I have been trained as a Technical Specialist but I would never mark my pupils’ main rivals. I would excuse myself."

Only Ponomarenko knows if his decision was influenced by outside factors, but from this situation it appears the ISU has still not learned the lesson that not only conflicts of interest must be avoided, even the appearance of conflicts of interest must be avoided.

Entry Errors

At Skate America last season, the first official use of CoP, Sasha Cohen received a program component mark of less than one, clearly an error by one of the judges in entering one of the marks.  Several reporters at the event discussed this with Ted Barton, ISU scoring system czar, and expressed wonderment that the system did not include any check for obvious entry errors.  His response at the time was that the judges electronically "signed" for their marks and it was their responsibility to make sure their marks were correct, not his.  Further, because of the single trimmed mean, the erroneous score was dropped so the skater suffered no harm and thus, in his view, it was a non-issue.  After lengthy discussion he agreed an error checker and confirmation mechanism would be easy to add to the system, and could be considered.

Since then, several other cases of program component marks less than one have cropped up.  Also, there have been a number of cases where a skater has fallen on a jump and received marks of all -3 except for one mark of 0 from a single judge -- another situation that reveals that entry errors are not uncommon.  Among the many changes made to the system since last year, addition of an error checker and confirmation mechanism were not included.

At this competition Michael Weiss received a program component mark of 0.75.  In discussion with another reporter, Barton took the same position he did last year -- not his problem and the skater suffers no harm.  

In the case of Weiss, had the judge intended to give a mark of 5.75 Weiss's score would have increased by 0.10 if the correct mark had been entered.  If the intended mark was 6.75,  the only other and more likely choice, his score would have been 0.40 higher.  (The judge involved was one of the seven used in the scoring.)

The ISU position on this is extremely short sighted and unfair to the skaters.  One would think that the overlords of this system would, out of a simple sense of fairness,  give the highest priority to guaranteeing the skaters receive every point they deserve.  No more.  No less.  An error of 0.10 points compromised three Olympic gymnastics medals this summer.  It has the potential to do the same in skating.

Further, if fairness is not a priority at the  ISU, one would think a prudent sense of "cover your ass" would be.  If the wrong medals at a major competition end up being awarded due to this error, it will be more than the head of the judge that the skating fans will want on the end of a stick, particularly when it would be known that the problem was brought to the ISU's attention years earlier, and they just didn't care to do anything about it.

National Bias

Take a close look at the judges scoring matrix for the Compulsory Dance segment, in which Galit Chait & Sergie Sakhnovski placed second and Megan Wing & Aaron Lowe placed third.  You will notice that one judge scored Chait & Sakhnovski substantially higher than the average and pushed Wing & Lowe down lower than average.  Another judge did just the opposite, scoring Wing & Lowe much higher than average and Chait & Sakhnovki lower than average.  As it turns out, this event had judges from both Israel and Canada on the panel.

Anonymity or not, could it be any more obvious that national bias is alive and well in the new super-duper super-secret scoring system.  If both judges had been included in the scoring they would just have canceled each other out, but as it turns out, the Israeli judge was included in the scoring but the Canadian judge was not.  Running the scoring calculation on the judges scoring matrix, one finds Chait & Sakhnovski received nearly a two point advantage because of national bias and the random selection of judges.

National Bias in the new scoring system.  It's there.  It's unfair.  And the ISU is doing nothing effective about it.

Skating Quality

What should have been the most memorable part of the competition, the skating, was the least.  Except for the performances of Tanith Belbin & Benjamin Agosto, and the Short Program from Tatiana Totmianina & Maxim Marinin the skating was uniformly unimpressive.  Too many skaters were too unprepared for this competition   The prime example for this is World Bronze medalist Stefan Lindermann who was dead last in the Short Program and only managed to pull up to ninth after the Free Skate.  The ladies event was won by Angela Nikodinov with only four triples, and the men's free skate was won by Ryan Jahnke without a successful triple Axel or quad.

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Copyright 2004 by George S. Rossano