Cheating and bias are pervasive in figure skating. The world seemed surprised in Sochi 2014 when Adelina Sotnikova, a figure skater from Russia, hugged a judge who scored her after finishing her long program. The Russian judge she hugged, Alla Shekhovtsova, was married to Russia’s general director of figure skating. Shekhovtsova helped give Sotnikova the scores that placed her in first.
On that same judging panel sat Ukraine’s Yuri Balkov. In 1998, Balkov was caught colluding with French figure skating officials to fix the results of the upcoming pairs competition. Balkov received only a slap on the wrist, an irrelevant one year ban, then was back judging internationally, and even at the next winter Olympics in 2002.
If the International Skating Union was sincere in its goals to eradicate dirty judging, it would have prohibited these two judges from scoring the women’s event in 2014. Unfortunately, the ISU is not. The ISU elects previously guilty judges to score some of the most prestigious and important competitions in the world.
Moreover, these judges are not asked to explain how and why they arrived at their respective scores. This is the accepted reality of figure skating. Simon Shnapir, a pairs skater representing the U.S. in Sochi told NBC, “None of us are strangers to how skating works… You either deal with that or you don’t.”
Figure skating’s judging problem reaches past single individuals acting with agency to perpetrate cheating and collusion. The problem is systemic.
Current ISU rules ask that countries elect judges for international competitions. These judges essentially represent their respective country on the panel. This creates an irreconcilable conflict of interest in competition that should be objective. Additionally, it allows competitive federations to pressure judges to score for their country as opposed to scoring without bias.
Eric Zitzewitz, a professor of economics at Dartmouth, conducted a study to examine this conflict of interest. Zitzewitz gathered international competition results from four seasons and found objective score inflation from judges scoring the skaters of their home country. Zitzewitz also found clear evidence of vote trading, where when a skater has a judge representing them on the judging panel, they are likely to be scored higher by all other judges on that panel.
His study concludes, “I have shown in this paper that figure skaters benefit from a compatriot on their judging panel, that this benefit likely reflects a combination of nationalistic bias and vote trading, and that this benefit has risen slightly over time.”
Figure skating, like most other competitive physical activities, is extremely demanding. Competitive skaters train daily for hours. They exhaust themselves mentally and physically, often pausing their education to focus all their time and energy on the craft.
As skaters improve and become more competitive, figure skating is no longer part of their life. Rather, it becomes their life entirely. These athletes pour their lives into an unfair sport. They deserve fair and unbiased judging more than any viewer.
In its contemporary state, figure skating can not be viewed as a sport because it is not fairly judged. Figure skating involves pseudo competition, where the actors competing are not athletes, but political federations with biased judges. Critics may argue that Olympic sports like freestyle skiing and trampoline will always be subjective and still should be considered a sport.
The difference between figure skating and other subjective sports is that figure skating is systematically unfair. Zitzewitz elaborates on this point in a Washington Post article, “Ski jumping has its international federation select the judges for competitions like the Olympics, and I find that they select the least biased judges. Figure skating lets its national federations select the judges, and my research showed that they select the most biased judges.” This historically has proven true, as figure skating has been ridden with scandal for decades.
Figure skating must be thoroughly reformed with its judging system rebuilt in order for it to be considered a sport. Society owes it to figure skating’s current athletes for they are the most punished.