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Skating on thin ice



Published: Sun, February 17, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



By disqualifying the French judge in last Monday's Olympic pairs skating championship and thereby declaring a tie for the gold medal, the International Skating Union and the International Olympic Committee reached as quick, just and happy a result as could have been expected under the circumstances.

Dropping the French judge's numbers, based on her statement that she had been pressured by her own skating federation to favor the Russian skaters, produced a numerical tie in the presentation marks: four for the Russians, four for the Canadians.

And so Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze will keep the gold medals they were awarded Monday night and Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier will trade their silver medals for gold ones that will be presented today.

The waffling judge has been suspended and an investigation into who pressured her is underway.

But the International Skating Union and the International Olympic Committee are going to have to do much more than investigate this incident. They are going to have to revamp a seriously flawed system of judging.

A few years ago, the ISU could have addressed its judging problems by taking a much harder line on obvious irregularities. If the ISU had adopted a one-strike-and-you're-out rule, the scandal of the 2002 Olympics might not have happened.

Weak reaction: Instead, allegations of cheating weren't taken nearly seriously enough. Three years ago, when two judges where caught on videotape cheating (in scoring that favored Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze!) the judges got slaps on the wrist.

Now it is too late to tweak the system; the system must be changed. One way would be to eliminate the affiliation between judges and their national skating federations. Build an international corps of paid judges who answer only to the ISU or, in the case of the Olympics, the IOC.

The performance of the judges should be closely monitored. Even in a sport such as figure skating, videotape can be used to analyze whether judges were being fair. Those who make honest mistakes would have to improve. Those who show a pattern of errors or against whom there is evidence of cheating should be drummed out.

Skating's scoring methodology is also suspect. In gymnastics, the high and low scores are dropped and the remaining scores are averaged, providing less opportunity for collusion than the ordinal system used in skating.

Unless action is taken now, there will inevitably be another scandal, which would jeopardize the Olympic future of one of its most popular sports.




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