Sunday, February 23, 2014

Just Dance 2: Sochi Edition


After all the high-minded headlines about host nation Russia's deplorable human rights record, and after morbid speculation that the political volatility in the region might not see these Olympic Games pass without incident, ultimately the one controversy out of Sochi 2014 that got the most viewers up in arms was strictly sport-related. That is, if you can even consider figure skating a legitimate sport.

In ladies' figure skating, Russian teenager Adelina Sotnikova dethroned South Korea's Kim Yuna for the gold medal. Kim had come into these 2014 Olympic Winter Games with barely a record over the last two seasons (albeit one that included gold at the most recent World Championships), having gone into a sort of semi-retirement following her career-culminating Olympic victory at Vancouver in 2010. Summoned back to the ice for one last skate to defend her title, she proved she had lost not a step, and she led all skaters at the end of the short program, though only by the slimmest of margins—less than three tenths of a point separated her from Sotnikova in second place.

Up to that point, fifteen-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya had been pegged as the Russian favorite to challenge Kim Yuna. I didn't even know Russia had another female skater at these games. In the new team figure skating event, Lipnitskaya had skated both the ladies' short program and the ladies' free skate for Russia, which ended up winning by so wide a margin that, you figured, if they'd had a skater of Sotnikova's caliber in reserve, surely they could have had Lipnitskaya sit for one of the routines, so that a greater number of Russian athletes could have shared in the team gold. But, no, the Russians left Sotnikova riding pine and off the team, so little confidence did they have in her to not blow what ended up being a ten-point lead over Canada, which had entered without any strong representatives in the ladies' programs.

After Lipnitskaya fell in her short program, however, Russian hopes for a gold medal in the Winter Olympics' marquee event transferred to Sotnikova. Feeding off the energy of the home crowd, Sotnikova skated cleanly and powerfully, also managing to incorporate some eye-catchingly beautiful techniques, like the rarely seen one-handed Biellmann spin.

Heading into the free skate, Sotnikova was in striking distance of Kim. Moreover, as NBC's analysts pointed out, Sotnikova was planning a free skate with a technical base value of 61.43, to a mere 57.49 for Kim, the difference reflecting the much higher degree of difficulty of Sotnikova's program.

As little as I understood the scoring system for figure skating, I thought this meant that all Sotnikova would have to do was nail her routine in order to win the gold. It seemed to me that Kim was pinning her gold medal chances on the likelihood that Sotnikova was going to fall during the free skate. Relying on others' failures instead of on one's own ability is, in my book, a strategy unworthy of a champion. So, when Sotnikova ended up posting a whopper of a score for her free skate, I really hoped Kim would maybe call an audible or something and attempt to add another element to raise her base value. Instead, Kim skated her planned routine, and, although she skated it immaculately, she ended up losing the free skate by a substantial margin of more than five points (149.95 Sotnikova to 144.19 Kim). It looked like the difference indeed lay in the higher base value of Sotnikova's technical elements, and that was all there was to say about it. Or was it?

Even at the moment that Kim's scores were announced, before any of the scandalous accusations and online petitions that followed, there was something that left a bad taste in my mouth. The judges' scores suggested that there had been a clear victor, but that had not been evident to me. More than feeling that Kim got robbed, there was just something deeply unsatisfying about how the judges, who have too often been discredited to take seriously as authoritative, seem to almost arbitrarily elevate one winner in the absence of certainty.

On the one hand, Sotnikova had skated the discernibly more challenging program. She had performed more triple jumps, and her spins had been more impressive. On the other hand, there is something to be said of Kim Yuna's vaunted grace on the ice, as she really did strike me as the most elegant and polished skater of the night, exiting jumps with the same speed she entered them. Whereas all of Sotnikova's jumps looked every bit the daring feats of mustered athleticism that they were, Kim's every movement was sold with an effortlessness giving the impression that skating came as naturally to her as breathing.

Some have framed it as a contest between the technician, Sotnikova, and the artist, Kim, and, in this case, technique simply won out. Were it truly the case that Sotnikova's technical advantage outweighed Kim's artistic edge, I'd be inclined to stand by the result. The artistic component to figure skating is, honestly, the part I think makes it hard to take it seriously as a competitive sport. It's all so subjective, after all. And while, yes, we do judge works of art against one another and hand out awards to those deemed best, surely no serious filmmaker, for example, pursues their craft with an Academy Award as their ultimate goal, the way that a figure skater's four years of hard work and preparation are all for that Olympic medal signifying that a panel of judges appreciated your work more than they appreciated that of your peers.

But even if you were to factor out the highly subjective artistic marks governed by the "program components" score, which makes up one half of a skater's total score (technical elements making up the other), and on which Kim did very narrowly outperform Sotnikova (74.50 Kim to 74.41 Sotnikova), what was news to me, brought to light by this controversy provoking closer scrutiny of the judging system, is that even the way the technical elements are scored is highly impressionistic.

When a skater takes off for a jump, it isn't simply a black-and-white "nail it or blow it" score that results. Whether or not you blow the landing, you get the base value for performing your rotations. But then there's also a "grade of execution" (GOE) on top of that. This is where judges can award bonus points (up to +3) or deduct penalties (up to -3), depending on how well they think you executed the element. There are definite guidelines for deductions (e.g. -3 for a fall, -2 for a step out), but the rationale for awarding bonus points is far less precise (e.g. +3 for "superior technique or execution"), and, even where deduction protocols should be clear, judges largely score at their own discretion. This is where things get gray, and where, if you take a close look at Sotnikova's scores, the subjectivity of the scoring becomes evident even on the technical elements.

As Lawrence Yee, blogging for Yahoo! Sports, observes, Sotnikova had an incorrect entry on her opening element, which should be a mandatory -1. In fact, only one judge dinged her for a -1 for the element, and another entered in a 0 for GOE. The rest all awarded her bonus points, one of them even giving her a +3! Without arguing that that one judge was necessarily crooked, just the wild variance in the scores here undermines the legitimacy of the system itself. There was also the matter of Sotnikova stepping out on one of her landings—the one visible slip-up in her routine, which made it harder, even for viewers at home with no concept of GOE, to understand how she scored so far ahead of Kim, who had no errors. Sotnikova's stumble, impossible to miss, is typically a -2, but most of the judges only docked her one point.

Editorials have come out on both sides, either upholding the fairness of the results or crying foul, and I must say I've been persuaded by the conspiracy theorists. The case in defense of Sotnikova's humongous score tends to either 1) take the form of a "deal with it, this is figure skating" dismissal, or 2) come from people like Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski on NBC, who would obviously stand to lose if the public stopped buying into the seriousness of figure skating as a sport. Critics, meanwhile, point out that the judging panel included a guy who was previously suspended for trying to fix the Nagano 1998 ice dancing competition, as well as the wife of the director of the Russian Skating Federation. Whether these two judges actually acted improperly, the mere appearance of impropriety is, in this case, as damaging as the reality, and it's shocking, given history of corruption and clear conflict of interest, that these people were ever allowed on the judging panel.

Putting things in context, skeptics also note that Sotnikova's free skate score at the Olympics was more than 18 points higher than her previous best in international competition. Did she really improve so drastically in just three weeks? Well, it's worth pointing out that, when Kim Yuna won gold in Vancouver, her combined score was about 18 points higher than her previous best, so maybe there's just an Olympic bump for performing on the bigger stage. Still, Sotnikova's 149.95 in the free skate also happened to be the second highest score of all time, just barely off Kim's record of 150.06 from the Vancouver Olympics. In giving Sotnikova such a huge score, the judges were basically saying that, but for the one stumble, she would have had the greatest long program they had ever seen. And, even with the step out, she was more impressive than anyone else ever, save for Kim four years ago. That's pretty nuts.

Even so, I wasn't really convinced that the fix was in until I investigated further. In my opinion, the most impressive skate of the night had been given by neither Sotnikova nor Kim, but by Mao Asada of Japan. Having suffered some devastating mistakes in the short program, Asada was no longer in medal contention by the free skate, and so her scores were basically an afterthought. But I thought she absolutely crushed it with her free skate, and indeed she was awarded a new personal best score of 142.71, vaulting her ten spots into a sixth-place finish. What's notable is that Asada's base score of 66.34 on her free skate was by far the highest of anyone in the field. Sotnikova and American Gracie Gold were the only other ladies who had base values in the 60s—respectively, 61.43 and 60.64. And Asada skated very cleanly, with no errors as big as Sotnikova's step out. Yet her final technical score from the judges was a mere 73.03, behind Sotnikova's staggering 75.54. Asada even landed a triple axel, the hardest jump performed by any female at these games, which no other competitor even attempted, and still she couldn't beat Sotnikova on the technical score, despite Sotnikova having a much lower base value. So, for those that seriously believe that Sotnikova beat Kim by out-gaming her on the scoring system with a more technical routine, observe that Mao Asada had the most technical routine of all, yet she still scored below a girl who performed one fewer triple jump (Mao had 8, to Sotnikova's 7), whose program included no triple axel, and who visibly stepped out on a landing. Ultimately, gameplan can be more than canceled out by how judges choose to hand out bonus points, and we've already seen that they're all over the place on GOE.

We can even go back to the short program, which left Sotnikova breathing down Kim's neck—a pressure Kim almost never had to deal with during her period of dominance. Sotnikova had the lowest base value (30.43) of any of the skaters in the top four in the short program, yet her technical elements score, 39.09, actually ended up higher than Kim's at 39.03. Both skated cleanly. Again, it's those subjective GOE bonus points that make all the difference.

I haven't even touched on the program components scores—the artistic factor—for Sotnikova and Kim. Most of those claiming that the results were outrageous especially think that it was Sotnikova's components score that was absurdly inflated compared to Kim's. They say that Sotnikova exhibited the artistic sophistication of a teenager (which she is), while Kim delivered a regal master-class performance. Once more, that's all subjective.

After all that, I'm still not even saying that Kim Yuna was robbed necessarily. I thought Sotnikova's short program was spectacular, and her free skate was also very good but not without visible defect, let alone worthy of so many +3's as some judges awarded her. As for Kim, I was not a huge fan of her four years ago, when I thought her less ambitious than her rival Mao Asada of the triple axel. But the seemingly world-weary Kim Yuna of 2014 was strangely a vastly more compelling character to me. No more stupid James Bond routines as four years ago, I felt there was a real depth and maturity to her performance, not to mention she landed all her elements cleanly, the only skater to make it through both programs without any deductions.

For me, the winner was too close to call. The only way to call it, as the judges did, was purely subjective—those five points Sotnikova won by were not based on any objective technical superiority, no matter what anyone tries to tell you—and that's what exposes figure skating once again as kind of stupid. Even without necessarily disagreeing with the final result, I am able to declare the judges wrong. How, after all, can they be right when they're not even consistent, and the calls they make so often seem at random? And the system is beyond repair, because, at the end of the day, figure skating really isn't a sport in the competitive sense, as purely subjective scoring is going to pivotally determine any remotely close contest. Its recognition as a sport—the intense coverage of Olympic figure skating in the sports section—has never been based on any kind of logic, but persists because it is an institution, dating back to a less enlightened era, and it will continue to be for as long as people tune in to see it. The question is, how long will people continue to put up with this?

I turn to U.S. competitor Ashley Wagner: "This sport needs fans and needs people who want to watch it. People do not want to watch a sport where they see someone skate lights out and they can't depend on that person to be the one who pulls through."

Wagner, a non-contender, earlier came off kind of boorish and narcissistic, when she complained about her own scores being too low. But she has a point here, and I appreciate her being that person that says these things, thereby freeing up the more adored darlings of the same sentiment to take the high road with gritted teeth.

Wagner also suggested that the Russian skaters enjoyed home-ice advantage, which, perhaps likelier than conspiracy, could account for the inflation of Sotnikova's scores. It was probably hard to resist being swayed by the energy of that partisan crowd ("Look how she commands the crowd!" "Well, yeah... she's Russian"), which did not shy away from commencing a "Rus-y-a, Rus-y-a" chant even right as a clearly anxious Kim Yuna's scores were about to be announced. If home ice did make the difference, I suppose you could just chalk that up to a case of the "conditions"—not unlike weather or a competitor's health—simply favoring certain skaters that day.

Realistically, I don't see figure skating changing in any significant way. I mean, you could make figure skating into a legitimate competitive sport, but it would involve so many rules changes that, by the time you got there, it would be unrecognizable, and nobody would want it. No, people will get over this, then tune in again in four years to see the athlete-artists they love to watch, and when it blows up again, we'll just have this same debate once more, to no meaningful result.

For me, the more compelling narrative at these games was that of Russian short track speed skater Viktor Ahn (formerly Ahn Hyun-soo of South Korea), who, after having fallen out with a South Korean team that must have thought it was strong enough even without him, emerged to become probably Russia's true MVP at Sochi, unambiguously winning his new home country 3 gold medals and 1 bronze, while the renowned South Korean men's short track team left empty-handed.

Yeah... I predict, when South Korea takes over in four years as the next host of the Olympics, things could get real ugly. Well, only as ugly as they've always been. I mean, was it not only four years ago that the Russians were the ones crying conspiracy when the judges elevated U.S. men's figure skater Evan Lysacek to the gold medal over Russia's Evgeni Plushenko?

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