Olympic Gymnastics,
A Cautionary Tale for Figure Skating

Watching the Gymnastic events at the Athens Olympics last week, for a while I was confused, and wondered if the ISU had taken over another sport.  Since the completion of the men's overall competition, the controversy over the scoring error rages on, and now there are the familiar calls, so often heard in figure skating, to hang the judges and change the scoring system.

That the callers made a scoring error that affected all three medal results is accepted by all.  It is clear the Koreans had an opportunity to protest the error at the time and didn't.  It is also clear that there in no provision in the rules of gymnastics to do anything about it now.

For FIG to have recently asked Paul Hamm to voluntarily initiate a medal swap is absurd.  Basically FIG is saying, we made a mistake, would you athletes fix it for us.

But that is not the athletes' job.  That is FIG's job.

If the error had been corrected at the time, one can only guess whether the rest of the competition would have played out the same or not.  Thus, it has always been the practice in sports that if an error is made in the officiating that affects the outcome of a contest, the results of the contest stand, unless the error is due to some form of dishonesty or misconduct, which does not seem to be the case here.

So, why is this a cautionary tale for figure skating?

Because the new ISU judging system is based on the gymnastics judging system, with only minor difference between them.

In gymnastics, the equivalent of figure skating's callers specify the base value of a routine if it was executed error free.  The judges then reduce the score based on the quality of the actual execution.

In the new judging system the callers specify the base value of a routine if it was executed with average quality and the judges mark up or down from there based on the actual quality of execution.

In the discussions leading up to adoption of the new judging system the ISU represented that the callers were not judging the competition, and thus did not have a level of responsibility that merited concern, particularly since three officials would be involved in the decision.  Other did not agree, believing that having just three individuals determine the base points, particularly for the subjective levels for the spins and step sequences, was risky and gave the callers far too much control over the results.

The current controversy in gymnastics confirms the latter point of view.  Gymnastics also uses three officials to decide on the base value, and they got it wrong.  All three have been suspended.  In getting it wrong they affected all three medal results.  Because the two scoring systems are basically the same, if it happened in Gymnastics (in the Olympics, no less) it can happen in figure skating.  The current situation in gymnastics demonstrated that the use of callers in the new ISU judging system is a time-bomb waiting to go off!  In addition, figures skating also does not have a mechanism to change the results if an error in the judging is discovered after a competition; a second time-bomb waiting to go off!

Throughout the gymnastics events, one heard the familiar cries of judging bias, with this one supposedly scored too high and that one scored too low; and this time several federations have joined in the charges.  This, in a scoring system where the routines are assigned a base value according to strict criteria and the judges only judge the quality of execution, just like the new ISU judging system.  Using this type system the gymnastics judges generally agreed pretty well with each other, much better than do figure skating judges, and yet many were unhappy with the results, and now there are calls to change the system.  Showing yet again, there is plenty of room for subjectivity to enter into the results in these systems and raise questions about the scoring. 

One man's bias, of course, is another man's undue influence.  For example in the case of Alexei Nemov, the Russians cry bias for the judges marking too low, while the Canadian judge who was "urged' to change his mark, and did, cries undue influence!  So who is right and how does one decide?

The issues here are ones skating fans will be familiar with.   Under any judging system, how does one insure the judges mark in strict accordance with the rules; how does one insure accountability for the judges; and how does one decide if errors were made in the scoring and, if so, correct them.  It is clear from the gymnastics events at the Athens Olympics, a point based system such as the one use in gymnastics and figure skating does not solve these problems, and vindicates the view of those who have said all along the new ISU judging system does not adequately deal with the accountability issue in figure skating.

Further, it shows, that once skating fans figure out the new judging system, and how to interpret the scores, they too will realize that under the new ISU scoring system one skater may be scored too high and another may be scored too low, and nothing is different from before in that respect.

If the ISU thinks that its new scoring systems, even with its anonymity in the major events, is going to end criticism of the results and make judging controversy go away, the gymnastics events at the Athens Olympics show they  are deluding themselves; and it will be ironic if, after the ISU has adopted a form of the gymnastics scoring system, gymnastics abandons it!

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Copyright 2004 by George S. Rossano

29 August 2004