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Published: Saturday, January 9, 2010, 11:30 p.m.

Why there is no longer a perfect ‘6’ in figure skating

  • Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada (left) and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia pose with their gold medals for the figure skati...

    Amy Sancetta / Associated Press

    Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada (left) and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia pose with their gold medals for the figure skating pairs competition in Salt Lake City in 2002.

One of the great gender divides of my college generation was over the book and, later, the movie “Love Story”.
Back then, the two were mandatory reading and viewing in all romantic relationships. They reduced both men and women to tears — but for entirely different reasons. What was a man supposed to think when the best female minds of a generation believed that “love means never having to say you’re sorry”?
More than 30 years later, my psyche was still scarred by memories of that claptrap. So at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, when the Canadian pair, Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, began to skate to the musical theme from “Love Story”, I experienced a full-blown nausea flashback.
That may explain why I was the only person in the arena not outraged when the Canadians, who skated flawlessly, were placed second to a Russian pair, Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, who had a conspicuous stumble in their routine — but had superior aesthetics (above all, their music — “Meditation from Thais” by the French operatic composer Jules Massenet.)
The crowd, which had been chanting “6” when the Canadian duo finished, hoping they’d be awarded a perfect score, began booing, hissing and shouting all sorts of nasty at the judges after the result was posted. The fans clearly believed that the decision was scandalous. But what does your average fan really know?
As it turned out, quite a bit. The fix had been in. A weepy French judge, whose vote tipped the gold medal in favor of the Russians, would soon confess to a colleague that she had been pressured by her skating federation to support the Russians so that the Russian judge might return the favor to the French ice dancers. (The French did win the ice-dancing gold, though the Russian judged voted them second.)
After a considerable media outcry, the skating federation made like Solomon and split the gold between the rival pairs. The foursome posed — all smiles — for pictures. The public seemed relieved and happy. Yet the whole affair struck me as business as usual in the sport. Judging in figure skating had always been about as reputable as that in boxing.
Prior to Salt Lake, I hadn’t witnessed a single Olympics where at least one gold medal in figure skating didn’t appear a travesty — and in 1994 at Lillehammer, all four seemed suspect. At the 1998 Nagano Olympics, the very same Russian pair that was crowned in Salt Lake was awarded the silver medal — over the German world champions — despite a stumbling performance that concluded with the duo sprawled in a heap on the ice.
The judging machinations stemmed largely from Cold War residue. Medals translated into money, desperately needed by Russian figure-skating programs after the Soviet-supported sports empire was defunct. But there were also genuine aesthetic differences. Russian judges and their allies had been schooled to favor the classical, the elegant, the balletic. The western bloc had more taste for athleticism, pop and pep. Think of it as the difference between the Bolshoi and the Rockettes.
What changed everything in Salt Lake was that a judge had finally fessed up. The fallout was immediate. In the ensuing men’s and ladies’ competitions, the judges stunned fans by awarding gold to the best performers — producing upsets — one mild and one major.
In men’s, the judges had always preferred the avant-garde musings of defending world champion Yevgeni Plushenko over his fellow Russian Alexsei Yagudin’s macho strutting. But they were stuck when Plushenko performed insipidly while Yagudin brought the crowd to its feet with his swashbuckling charge across the rink. Then in the ladies’, the judges refused to prop up the favorites, America’s Michelle Kwan and Russia’s Irina Slutskaya, after botched routines, instead awarding the gold to unheralded Sarah Hughes for her exuberant and error-free skate.
Post-Salt Lake, reform really took hold. The sport chucked the old scoring system based on the perfect “6” and replaced it with a complex, mathematical weave in which every move had an assigned value. It was only slightly less comprehensible than the Congressional health bills. Instead of desired transparency, it delivered confusion: fans who thought they knew what 5.4, 5.8 or 6.0 represented had no clue what 78, 93 or 127 meant.
Figure skating’s popularity began to decline. Though most of the blame fell to the Olympic shenanigans, fans actually appeared to pine for the old scoring system. Perhaps we actually prefer our figs with a whiff of scandal. And that booing the judges was part of the fun.
Mark Starr has been a national sports correspondent for Newsweek since 1982 and has attended 10 Olympics. Look for his columns each Sunday in The Herald leading up to the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Story tags » Winter Olympics

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