Tuesday, February 23, 2010

24 Hours at the Olympics ...

A standing ovation for our skaters ...

My hips survived 24 hours in Vancouver -- tons of walking, stair climbing, standing, and sleeping on a hard couch at a friend's house. Well worth it for the experience of a lifetime - seeing the Canadians win gold in ice dance for the first time with a beautiful performance.

I have to say kudos to Vancouver and to Canada for hosting a calm, organized and friendly Olympics. Everyone in Canada was helpful and happy to have us visit their country, if only for a day. We had gorgeous weather as well for our 24 hours in Vancouver - crystal clear blue skies and warm temperatures. We purchased a few souvenirs, and I have to say, I love the color scheme of these olympics. The various greens and blues in the jackets worn by the volunteers (and purchased by us as t-shirts and jackets) were gorgeous and showcased the natural beauty of the host country.

As for the ice dance competition, well, as you know I am an ice dancer and a judge of ice dancing. As a figure skating judge, I am forbidden from commenting in an online forum about an event that I have judged. Lucky enough, however, I was not judging the Olympics, but merely a spectator. So I can share with you my thoughts on the ice dance event, and will do so in my next post.

It's hard for many casual observers to understand figure skating, the new judging system, and in particular the esoteric ice dance event. Whether or not you believe ice dancing is a legitimate sport (and this is something I could write an entire post about, but will save that for later), it is a combination of art and athleticism which can be judged. Yes, judging is subjective, but all sports have a component of subjectivity. Officials are human beings, not robots.

Figure skating, with its off-ice drama, sometimes gaudy costuming, and musical component, is often criticized more harshly than other sports for its "subjectivity." Often those criticizing don't realize that athletic technique is involved, and there are a plethora of rules. The average fan may not understand them but the judges do. Sometimes judges don't agree with the rules set by the ISU, but our job is to enforce the rules of the sport as they are written, not as we wish they were written. Often outcomes that fans don't understand make perfect sense to skaters, coaches and officials based on the rules of the sport.

An element might look good to the untrained eye, but might still be done with incorrect technique or may not be what the rules require. Judges following the rules are sometimes booed by spectators who don't realize that the skater has done the wrong elements, or has done elements with poor technique.

I think overall with the advent of the new judging system we have seen fairer outcomes but of course it is still possible for judges to mark their favorites high and the others lower. That doesn't necessarily change the outcome, since the score is not solely attributable to the judging panel -- the technical panel also impacts the score -- but it might.

Yes, sometimes there is nationalistic bias in figure skating. Less so than in years past with the new judging system. Sometimes judges make honest mistakes. For example, in the men's short program one judge gave Jeremy Abbot's single axel (which was meant to be a triple axel) a GOE of +1. Judges are required to give a -3 in this case because a double or triple axel is required in the short program. Bias? I doubt it. This was an honest mistake, but it happened and can be seen in the event protocol.

Judges in the United States go through intensive training to learn the intricate rules of the sport. Judges are not paid and most pay for their own training, which can run in the thousands of dollars. Most fans are not aware of this.

Bias and poor calls/refereeing/judging can happen in other sports as well. How many times has a football, basketball, or hockey game outcome hinged on the calls of the officials? How many fans have cursed the "unfair" calls of the referee/umpire in these unquestionably "real" sports when the outcome did not go the way of their favorite team?

Then there is figure skating. It features by necessity the same "subjective" officiating as most other sports, along with rules that are poorly understood, a scoring system that is new and complex, and subtleties of technique that those who have never skated can't really compreheand. Add in makeup, sequins, music, and the off-ice drama of some of skating's more interesting personalities. Stir in the sour grapes, public poor sportsmanship and accusations of "cheating" by those who did not get a medal in the color they felt they deserved. It's a recipe for the average viewer to be at once fascinated and disgusted with figure skating.

Those of us who judge skating take it seriously. We want to judge our best for the benefit of the skaters. We are human beings with opinions and preferences and not computers, but we want the outcome to be correct. We go to schools and seminars during our free time to educate ourselves on the new rules and spend our weekends and vacations in cold and dirty ice rinks located hours from our homes, often getting up at ungodly hours and driving there in the dark, judging 7-year-old Michelle Kwan wannabes and young dance teams who can barely keep time to the music. We occasionally get to judge something glamorous such as a national championship, but mostly we are in the trenches with the skaters and see the reality of the grueling training and potential for injury; the repeated falls, bruises, blood, sweat, and hours of repetition to learn new skills. We judge because most of us skated too, and we know that skating combines art, athleticism, music, and theater into a sport that is unlike any other. We love it and want to judge it fairly.

1 comment:

Gordon said...

Terri -- this is a great commentary and I agree with it entirely!

Okay, I do wonder about you saying it's lucky you weren't judging the Olympics lol! Maybe next time! :-)

I do think the comparison with other judged/refereed sports is a really apt one that should be made more often. Football comes to mind.

As a skater I am very aware of the contributions and generosity of spirit of judges. Yes sometimes we whine about them but we appreciate their invaluable contribution to the sport. I've been fortunate to benefit from critiques by judges that really helped me focus and improve my skating.

I do think that the IJS has solved the most egregious problems that it was meant to address. I would like to see some tweaks in it to reward skaters more for artistry though -- it seems to me that while programs are more athletically challenging than ever, the aesthetic value of them has declined. I'd like to think we could have both.