Ethics and Accountability in Judging


In the aftermath of the judging scandal at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, the ISU has proposed revolutionary changes to the method of judging skating competitions.  While it is encouraging that the ISU is now facing up to the challenge of reform, it is odd that the primary response to an ethics scandal is a plan to revise the mathematics of the judging process.  The mathematics of the process is indeed an important part of reform, but to rely on mathematics alone to solve the many apparent problems facing the ISU is a critical error.

Various mathematical approaches are available for specifying the judges' marks and combining them together.  Some methods are particularly poor at filtering out the effects of bias in the marks while others are extremely good.  The approach being put forward by the ISU is among the worst for mitigating the effects of bias.  The current system, know as OBO, is also fairly poor in this respect, though not as bad as what the ISU proposes to replace it with.  The previous ordinal method, which is still used in the U.S., is among the best for filtering out bias.  Even superior to the ordinal method are median mark methods.  In another article we have compared the ISU random mark proposal to a median mark method developed in 1997 and show that the ISU random mark method is extremely poor at filtering bias, while the median mark method performs extremely well.

It is our contention that the ISU should adopt a median mark method of accounting for the next season, but we also point out here that no mathematical method can ever be 100% effective in filtering bias, and thus whatever scoring system is used it must be accompanied by a strong set of ethics and accountability rules to minimize in the first place the presence of misconduct in the judging ranks.

Following the judging controversy in the 1998 Olympics and the toe-tapping incident in the 1999 World Championships both the ISU and the USFSA began to take a look at the issue of judges accountability.  Both organizations dropped the ball, and neither instituted a system of judges accountability.  The USFSA, to its credit, however, has a strong, effective ethics program and grievance process that was developed since the Harding-Kerrigan incident.  The USFSA makes ethics an important part of its training program for judges and has a grievance process to cover the full range of potential misconduct that might occur on the ice or off.  The process is in place at every qualifying competition, ready to be put into immediate use should the need arise.  Recently, the USFSA has also begun to revisit the accountability question.

The ISU, unfortunately, does not have as thorough a set of ethics and grievance rules as does the USFSA, and there is no sign they are being developed.  At the Winter Olympics, the situation in the pairs event was handled on a somewhat ad-hoc basis.  In the end, though, action was taken with three year suspensions handed down to ISU judge Marie-Reine le Gougne and ISU Council Member Didier Gailhaguet.  In a mixed message, however, USFSA judge Jon Jackson, pairs event referee Ron Pfenning, and figure skating technical committee head Sally Anne Stapleford have taken heat for their roles in the affair - roles which consisted of reporting the misconduct and carrying out their responsibilities professionally, ethically and courageously.  Both Pfenning and Stapleford are up for reelection to the figure skating technical committee in June, and both are though to be at risk of losing their positions. It would be tragic if two of the best roles models in the ISU were to lose their positions due to politics.  In effect, the elections for their two positions will be a referendum on the place of ethics in the ISU.

At the 2002 World Championships the Lithuanian dance couple of Margarita Drobiazko & Povilas Vanagas filed a protest over the results for third and fourth place, making serious allegations of bribery and physical intimidation.  The protest was dismissed out of hand by the referee, Courtney Jones, and the allegations appear to never have been seriously investigated.  In this case the ISU gave the appearance that the main goal of the ISU was to sweep the incident under the rug.  The ISU does not seem to grasp the concept that the appearance of misconduct and the failure to openly and seriously investigate misconduct is as damaging to the ISU as actual misconduct.

At the 1998 World Championships it was suggested to ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta that ISU officials should be held to such an ethical standard that they would, like Caesar's wife, be viewed beyond reproach.  At the time, he dismissed the need for rules requiring that standard.  Following the toe-tapping incident at the 1999 World Championships he was asked about rules to better monitor the activities of the judges and to increase the emphasis on ethics in the ISU.  His response was judges would be able to circumvent any such rules and one had to trust in their professionalism.  At the ISU Congress in 2000 two systems of judges accountability were on the agenda but were neither were implemented.  Now in 2002, between the Winter Games and the World Championships, it is clear again that the ISU needs to face the ethics question head-on, and again ISU management is largely avoiding the issue.  At the 2002 Congress, the ISU will again take up the issue of accountability in the context of how one evaluates acceptable performance of the judges, but the larger issues of ethics and grievance handling are currently not on the agenda.

The ISU needs a strong ethics, grievance and accountability commission.  It needs to implement rules demanding and insuring the highest standards of ethics possible, and to extensively improve the way allegations of misconduct are handled.  If the ISU wants to minimize misconduct among its officials, then the most effective way to insure it, is to see that its officials are filled with the fear of God and the sure and certain knowledge, that if they engage in misconduct they will be caught and they will never judge again!

The USFSA has a rather lengthy ethics statement, but the principle of judges ethics the ISU should adopt can be reduce to a short, simple concept.

Judges will not engage in misconduct and will not tolerate those who do.

Judges who engage in serious misconduct must be banned from the sport for life.  Banning someone for part of a season, or a year or even three years is inadequate.  Past experience shows that it does not work.  Once judges show they cannot be trusted, the integrity of the organization and the need to maintain the trust of the skaters and the public, demands they be dismissed for life.  Minor misconduct should result in a minimum punishment of suspension for one or more years.   Associations whose judges show a pattern of misconduct should be put on probation, with all that associations' judges required to undergo retraining, including ethics training, before any of the associations' judges are permitted to judge another ISU event.

In addition to unequivocally punishing misconduct, demonstration of the highest ethical standards should be highly rewarded.  Ethics should be an important part of advancement in the organization.  The sport would be better served by judges of the highest integrity who make the occasional human error than by knowledgeable judges who play fast and loose with the results when it suites their fancy.

The division of misconduct into major and minor is somewhat subjective.   The following are suggested as a few examples of major misconduct:

    Vote swapping.
    Bribery -- both offering or receiving.
    All other forms of deal making.
    Communicating with another judge on the panel with the purpose of coordinating marks.
    Physical intimidation or other threats to coerce a placement.

For minor misconduct we suggest the following as examples:

    Failure to report an overture to engage in misconduct, even if the judge spurns the offer.
    Failure to report first hand knowledge of an act of misconduct.
    Failure to report first hand knowledge of other judges planning to engage in any form of misconduct.
    Attempting to influence a judge by discussing the possible outcome of any event before it has occurred.
    Engaging in national bias.
    Observing an official practice session for any event at any time.

The observing of practice sessions is currently permitted, but should be banned.  Supporters argue that observing practice sessions allows the judges to get a sense of the level of the competition which helps them be prepared for the programs to be performed.


Observing practice sessions runs too great a risk of polluting the judgement of the judges.  In addition, it gives the public the appearance of pre-judging the event and the toleration of impropriety.  The negatives outweigh any legitimate value to the judges.  Further, if an ISU judge cannot judge an event without the crutch of observing the practice sessions they shouldn't be a judge.   This is especially true for events such as the grand prix, ISU championships and the Olympic Games which involve the top ranked skaters.  It does not require a great deal of experience at ISU events to acquire a working knowledge of the program contents for the top 20 skaters in each event.  I can do it, and my mind is a sieve!

If the ISU wants true reform, then ethics and accountability must be made a major part of the reform.  The ethics of every organization derives from the emphasis placed upon it by its management.  ISU leadership must take responsibility for whatever lack of ethics exists in the organization, and must move forward decisively to rectify the situation and restore credibility with the competitors and the public.

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