Schrager: Judging controversy no surprise in figure skating

SOCHI, Russia — When it comes to legendary sports duos, figure skating and judging controversies have about as rich a history together as Ruth and Gehrig or Jordan and Pippen. So, why would we expect the 2014 Sochi Games be any different than any of the other Winter Olympics in which the sport’s final results were met with controversy, curious marks, and more than precarious makeups of the judging panels?

Thursday night’s epic ladies’ free skate was matched by a less than epic international response to the evening’s final results. Confusion over scoring bled into a Friday morning in Sochi in which questions were still being asked and heads were still being scratched.

Adelina Sotnikova, the Russian 17-year-old gold-medal winner Thursday night, skated a jam-packed free skate program, loaded with point-generating jump after point-getting combination. It wasn’t the smoothest or most aesthetically pleasing of skates, but Sotnikova nailed all seven jumps and combinations she attemped, and under the new scoring system, certainly deserved every mark she received. Yuna Kim, the defending gold medal-winning Korean megastar and the ladies’ point leader heading into Thursday night’s event, skated flawlessly in a different way. It wasn’t a point-here, point-there performance. Instead, it was an extended artistic masterpiece, highlighted by perfectly sound jumps within a longer story and program. Whereas Sotnikova completed seven jumps and combinations, Kim only attempted six. Choreography, experience, beauty, and grace couldn’t overcome that difference in the end. Sotnikova, the technician and point generator, won gold, while Kim, the artist and defending champ, came up a few points short.

The Russian crowd in the Iceberg Arena nearly melted when the results were revealed, and rightfully so. Sotnikova came from basically nowhere to give the host nation a gold medal in one of the Games’ most high-profile events. Barely on the international skating radar three days earlier, Sotnikova defeated the reigning queen of ice skating, and did so in front of a salivating home crowd. I’ve covered major college basketball games, college football clashes, and Super Bowls. I’ll put the noise and response in that Sochi crowd Thursday night up against any Seattle Seahawks or Duke home games I’ve covered in the last decade. It was a Russian rock concert on steroids.

But not everyone was happy. The all-important Twitter response was one of outrage, with the overriding theme being that Kim, the international superstar and longtime face of ice skating, was "robbed" by the judges, the Russian home crowd, and the spunky 17-year-old upstart. The website Change.org reported 730,000 petition signatures about the results within just six hours, demanding an investigation (and now they are up to more than 1.6 million — and counting). Furthermore, word leaked that there were some curious things surrounding the judging panel. Though the judges’ scores all remain anonymous, there certainly were more Eastern bloc voters than Western ones for the ladies’ free skate, and both the South Korean and American voters were replaced.

So, here we are again. Figure skating and controversy. Two peas in a very fragile pod.  

On Friday morning, the IOC responded to the demands of a formal investigation.  

"I think you’re getting a little ahead of yourself," IOC spokesman Mark Adams told reporters. "I think first off we have to see if there’s an official complaint, because the people concerned I’d assume would make a complaint and it would go to the federation. I’m not aware there’s been such a complaint and if there was they’d got through the federation. I don’t think it’s even happened yet. If it does that will be the first step to go through if there isn’t a credible complaint we wouldn’t take it any further."

To her credit, Kim wasn’t demanding any such action. "The scores are given by the judges, so I am not in the right position to comment on it," Kim said on Thursday night. "There’s nothing that will change with my words. The biggest thing was I felt relieved because it was over."

That’s a 23-year-old speaking, and doing so with incredible maturity and class. It’s why she’s the queen. She also knows how these things go. It’s not Yuna Kim’s first rodeo. Yes, she was a few points away from being the first women to win back-to-back gold medals since Katarina Witt. But she also grew up idolizing Michelle Kwan, and saw her idol skate a near-perfect program in Nagano in 1998, only to come in second to a younger competitor named Tara Lipinski.

I spoke with Kwan, who’s been working the figure skating beat with me for Fox Sports this month, and her response was eerily similar to Kim’s. "Under the scoring system, hands down, Adelina won," the two-time Olympian said. "However, I personally enjoyed Yuna Kim’s performance more. She had a combination of artistry and athleticism. But Adelina jam-packed her program with a triple-triple combination and a double axel triple toe that Yuna didn’t have. When you compare them like that under the scoring system, Adelina wins."

But what about the judges? There’s a bit more reason for controversy around the makeup of the panel than the scoring itself. Nine judges are used for the short and the long programs and those nine are chosen out of a pool of 13 individuals. Some judges do both events; some do one or the other. All 13 are used in at least one of the two programs. Four judges — one from the United States, one from South Korea, one from Great Britain, and one from Sweden — were used for the short program on Wednesday, but not selected to just the long program on Thursday. Two of their replacements happened to be from Eastern bloc countries — Ukraine and Russia. The Russian judge, because there wasn’t enough controversy already, also happens to be married to the Russian skating federation’s general director Valentin Pissev.

Oh, and the Russian girl won the gold. Connect the dots and you can see why there are more than a few conspiracy theorists having a blast at the moment.  

Adams, the IOC spokesman, shot any such theories down on Friday. "The IOC has a pretty sophisticated judging system with safeguards in place and each of the judges has a video review where they can review each of the jumps so there’s a number of things in place," he said. "At this stage, I think we’re discussing purely hypothetical things and my personal point of view would be to congratulate a fantastic performance."

As the host country celebrates gold, the rest of the world pokes holes and finds more than a few reasons to question the final results. Would it be figure skating if it was any other way? It’s the way of the world in this sport. Kim wasn’t thrilled on Thursday evening, but she accepted the silver with typical class and pride.  

If anything, she comes out winning in Sochi, too. Her performance was incredible, but her immediate response to the results was arguably even better. Graceful to the very end, she announced she’d be stepping away from Olympic competition shortly after the final scores were released. She goes down as a gold and silver medal winner, and one of the all-time greats, both on the ice and off. Ask around about Yuna Kim and you’ll hear the same thing over and over. "Class" is the word often used.

And this will blow over. Things like this always do in this sport. In the end, figure skating and judging controversies just have a rich and long, storied history together. If anyone thought they wouldn’t have skated in tandem at these Olympics at some point, they were being naive.  

You can’t ignore history.