Is the judging in figure skating still rigged?

Dick Pound has dubbed it a 'nightmare sport,' still open to corruption

Figure skating’s been given the Dick Pound Treatment. A month ahead of the Olympics, the always-provocative Canadian IOC member dubbed its marquee event a “nightmare sport,” one that had yet to solve the potential for corrupt judging. Pound, a Montreal lawyer, said the spectre of controversy still haunts figure skating.

It nearly derailed the Salt Lake Games. There, Canada’s aw-shucks darlings, pairs skaters Jamie Salé and David Pelletier, were initially bumped from gold to silver, thanks to what was later revealed to be the corrupt workings of a French judge—confirming many deeply held suspicions that vote-trading and suspect judging were par for the course. After a flawless skate (a “miracle of unity,” to one analyst) the rink at Salt Lake exploded into boos when Salé and Pelletier’s presentation marks gave them the silver. TV commentators, smelling a rat, quickly singled out the French judge for suspicion. Marie-Reine Le Gougne admitted (then later retracted the statement) that she was pressured by the French skating federation to favour the Russians in return for the Russian vote for the French ice-dancers. Legend has it that a furious IOC president Jacques Rogge demanded an overhaul of the scoring system.

Within a year, the International Skating Union (ISU) revealed its “tamper-proof,” Code of Points system (so knotty that, seven years on, coaches still confess to not fully understanding it). The difference: more judges now rule over the process (12 versus 9), and high and low scores are tossed. The new system also introduced secret judging, intended to free judges from pressure from their national bodies.

Pound—who contends that judges remain “beholden” to their national bodies—insists that judges should be appointed by the ISU. Secrecy, critics add, simply prevents media and the public from identifying problems. That anonymity is inherently corruptible, says Pound, adding: “they don’t have control of it yet.”

William Thompson, Skate Canada’s chief executive officer, says Pound does not understand the new scoring system. There are checks in place that look at the marks given by judges, says Thompson. If the ISU detects even a hint of bias, they reveal who that judge is, and that judge is sanctioned. Some element of subjectivity is inherent to the sport, he adds; figure skaters after all, don’t cross finish lines, or score goals.

Still, conspiracy theories rage on. This month, the Chicago Tribune outlined the latest: the ISU, it suggests, may be caving to financial pressure from Japanese sponsors to quietly sabotage scores and scheduling for gold medal favourite Yu-na Kim from South Korea to benefit her primary rivals, both Japanese. It would be enough to make you giggle—if, perhaps, it were any other sport.