With World Championships of figure skating beginning on Monday, South Korean Olympic Committee has said that it will file a complaint to the International Skating Union about an alleged breach of the code of ethics during the ladies competition at the Sochi Olympics. It's a complaint the Koreans are afraid they'll be punished for.
The complaint named judges Alla Shekhovtseva of Russia and Yuri Balkov of Ukraine. Shekhovtseva is married to the head of the Russian figure skating organization and was the judge seen hugging gold medal winner Adelina Sotnikova moments after the competition, and Balkov, who allegedly has ties to Moscow, was suspended for trying to fix a result during the 1998 Olympics. Both judges scored the ladies free skating competition, which saw Sotnikova receive the highest scores of her life and Kim Yu-na a silver medal free skate that many experts say was underscored.
The KOC and Korean Skating Union are asking for a thorough investigation of the judging composition and whether it was biased toward Sotnikova. And they filed the complaint knowing that it might result in retaliation. "We had to be very careful since an appeal or a complaint could strain relationships with international judges and bring disadvantages to our players in international games," a KOC official said on Friday.
The KSU and KOC's fear of retaliation and reluctance are pretty disconcerting. And it shows how difficult it is to change the current judging system. How are countries supposed to complain if their skaters scores can be held as ransom? And what does it say about the ISU and the kind of environment it has set if countries like South Korea feel they will be punished for voicing their concern?
The unavoidable question is whether the South Korean delegation's allegations about "suspicions of bias" have any merit. Over the past few weeks, Sotnikova and Kim's programs have been examined again and again, backwards and forwards. The Wire has pointed out that there are some odd things that didn't come to the judges' attention, like what looks to be Sotnikova's under-rotation on this triple loop. Her back foot shouldn't be moving when it hits the ice:
Or whether or not this triple lutz, a jump that Sotnikova has a history of "cheating," was actually done properly and on the correct edge (the jump is supposed to start with the outside of her left foot):
And when you look at things like score sheets, there are some curious wrinkles like the abundance of +3 GOEs (the highest scores judges can give) on Sotnikova's and fellow Russian Julia Lipnitskaya's programs, but the utter lack of them on the other ladies' scores. Since then there have been other discrepancies, like the points awarded on Kim's and Sotnikova's footwork sequences, the meteoric rise of Sotnikova's artistry scores, and the IOC publishing fake quotes from Kim about how Sotnikova was a better skater that night.
All these problems and all these conspiracy theories stem from one problem: figure skating is a subjective sport that needs boundaries, transparency, the minimization of bias — and the ISU has never really figured out a way to do any of those well. It doesn't seem to want to change. This is how the ISU determines conflicts of interest currently:
The term ”family” as used in this Rule shall be understood as including all persons who, due to their relationships, may reasonably appear to be in a conflict of interest position regarding a competing Skater, ineligible person or remunerated Coach.
How does Shekhovtseva, with her marital ties to the Russian skating federation, not fall under that definition? That doesn't happen very often in other sports. For example: it'd be like if John Calipari's wife was allowed to ref Kentucky's next game in the NCAA basketball tournament ... if the next game were a national championship. That idea would be killed the minute it was even thought of.
Yet, in ice skating that's allowed. Or even encouraged. "Would you rather have an idiot acting as a judge than a good one who is a relative of the manager of a federation?" Ottavio Cinquanta, the ISU President asked the Chicago Tribune the day after Sotnikova's gold medal win.
The ideal choice here is obviously neither, but Cinquanta seems okay with "good" judges who might be biased. "It is far more important to have a good judge than a possible conflict of interest," he said.