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In Skating, Perfection Is in Judge's Eye

As many of you know, I love metaphors. There are plenty here.
Susan Ohanian

February 10, 2002

In Skating, Perfection Is in Judge's Eye

SALT LAKE CITY, Feb. 9 — For about 20 minutes, Michelle Kwan had the ice to
herself in an arena empty of fans. She went to work.

It was one of the last practices for the Winter Olympics' big draw, the
women's figure skating event, for Ms. Kwan, the young woman favored to win
it. Dressed in a simple outfit of funeral black, her face locked in
concentration, she glided, leapt and spun across the ice, elegantly and

Once, when she paused to brush the slush from the blades of her skates, it
was as if she were sharpening them so she could go back on the ice and slice
one last sliver of imperfection from her program.

If it were just a matter of performance, if a machine could capture the
perfection of her motions the way a stopwatch decides the men's downhill or
simple arithmetic decides a hockey game, she would seem unbeatable. But in
the subjective sport of figure skating, the difference between gold and
silver may not be a spin, but a smile.

In the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Ms. Kwan skated seamlessly. But
then came Tara Lipinski, who skated perhaps the best program of her life.
Knowing that, Ms. Lipinski skated the last 20 seconds behind a 100-watt smile.

"The audience fed off it," recalled Carol Heiss Jenkins, who won the gold
medal in women's figure skating at the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley,
Calif. "It said, `I feel great about what I've done.' " The judges, she said,
had to feel that energy.

"Emotion gets into it," she said. When two skaters are so close, when neither
stumbles or hesitates or shows any flaw to the judges, "it almost comes down
to the judge's personal preference — they have the power."

Former judges and other high- ranking officials in international figure
skating say that such subjectivity is the very nature of the sport, one that
combines technical skill that can be evaluated more or less objectively with
artistic performance that is wide open to interpretation.

But some coaches and skaters say that the subjectivity allows judges such a
broad inconsistency of standards that an award-winning program one day may be
substandard the next, depending on who sits on the panel of judges.

Other sports offer more rigid guidelines, said Christine Brennan, a writer
for USA Today who has written two books on the sport, "Inside Edge"
(Scribner, 1996) and "Edge of Glory" (Scribner, 1998).

In golf, Ms. Brennan said, if Tiger Woods makes a long putt to save par, his
score is easily tallied — and will reflect only that he successfully knocked
a ball into a hole in a certain number of shots. "In figure skating, he would
be scored on the way he stroked his approach shot, the way he stroked his
putt, and how beautiful was the stroke, and how did he carry himself as he
walked to the hole," she said. "His smile, his demeanor, his poise," all
would have to be considered, she said. "Instead of a par 3, give him a 3.2.

"It's not a science. It comes from the heart. And the sport wants it that

Ms. Heiss Jenkins, now a coach, said the figure skating decision in 1960
might have come down to style. Sjouke Dijkstra of the Netherlands was a
powerful, athletic skater. "I was lighter" and more balletic, Ms. Heiss
Jenkins said.

Past judges said they and their fellow judges only wanted to pick the best
skater. Susan Johnson, a veteran international skating judge who lives in
Atlanta, was one of the judges in Nagano who felt Ms. Kwan had won. She said
judges work hard to award the athletes who perform the cleanest and the best
programs. Skaters are judged in two programs: a shorter, technical program of
2 minutes 40 seconds and a longer, artistic one of 4 minutes for women and
4:30 for men and pairs.

One reason that spectators may believe bias exists is because they do not
understand the complexities of the judging system. In Olympic figure skating
there are nine judges, who earn their way to a place on the panel with years
of judging at all levels of competition, said Ben Wright, a figure skating
historian, author and referee in three past Olympics.

"It takes a tremendous amount of study," Mr. Wright said, "and is far too
complex for a machine to do." But, he added: "You have the obvious frailties
of the human person in reaching an objective decision. Judges come from all
parts of the world, and they are used to what the skaters in their country
are doing."

The referees, a powerful position in this sport, grade judges, and can
suspend them if they show national bias. Such actions are rare in modern
international competition, but in 1979, judges from the Soviet Union were
barred from international competition because of bias.

"We saw where government involvement had put enormous pressure" on the Soviet
judges, Mr. Wright said. "They pretty much were told what they had to do."

The breakup of the Soviet Union created a different set of circumstances in
judging. Instead of one judge, politically motivated to see the competition
in a certain way, there are several from the old Soviet Union who no longer
feel those political pressures but hold to similar standards of style and

"You have 12 or 13 judges from Soviet-bloc countries," said Frank Carroll,
who formerly coached Ms. Kwan and now coaches Timothy Goebel, one of the top
American men. Those judges, from Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Russia and other
countries, were all taught in the old Soviet system and have learned, Mr.
Carroll said, "to look at skating in a particular view."

Those judges see each other throughout the year and are "closer knit than we
are," he said. "The important thing for an American skater is, that skater
has to be better than anyone. If you're just as good, you're going to lose."

Ron Ludington, a skater in the 1960 Olympics who runs his own skating school,
said the European judges become more familiar and comfortable with the styles
of the skaters they see. "National bias is always going to be there," Mr.
Ludington said. "You can't do anything about that."

The concerns of bias are not limited to the United States. Last week, a
Russian skating official expressed concern that the judging could be swayed
by the feelings of American patriotism that hover over these Games. Such
officials may be trying to send the judges a message. "I'm sure they're
concerned," Mr. Carroll said. "Are the judges going to take that into
consideration? I don't think the foreign judges care."

A fall or stumble makes the judge's job easier. But if no one stumbles, "it's
all about, `What do you think?' " Ms. Brennan said. "It's like deciding who
won the Academy Award." But that subjectivity, she said, "is the lifeblood of
the sport — you can argue."

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