SOCHI, Russia — Leave it to figure skating and judging, where winning can be obscured by whining.
Any sport without a finish line or clock or some definitive standard is subject to skepticism about the results. It has happened at the Olympics before, and now it’s happened at Sochi after Adelina Sotnikova skated away with the gold medal, the first for a Russian woman in the individual event.
Social media was ablaze with questions and accusations, particularly from South Koreans who saw countrywoman Yuna Kim denied a second straight Olympic title. Others wondered about the makeup of the judging panel and why there is so little transparency in the judging.
Perhaps this simple fact can be offered as an explanation: Under the current points system, adopted after the judging scandal at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, Sotnikova, 17, did exactly what she needed to come out on top.
“Today’s figure skating comprises those evaluations that include a program, steps, jumps,” Sotnikova’s coach, Elena Buyanova, said. “We were not behind in our complexity, rotations, and I think we should be proud of our two girls because they did not give in to the world elite.”
Watching from his NBC broadcast location, 1984 Olympic champ Scott Hamilton was intrigued by the 17-year-old Sotnikova’s strategy, which he said worked perfectly for the scoring format. It was more than enough to beat Kim and Carolina Kostner, whose bronze medal was the first in Olympic singles figure skating for Italy.
“Adelina collected more points. That is really the only way you can describe it,” Hamilton said. “If you look at Yuna of the past, this was not a program as difficult as she has done, and she left the opportunity for someone to collect points on that side of the scoring.
“It may not have been as beautiful as Yuna and Carolina, but under the rules and the way it works, she did all that. … I think it was a just strategy that worked on the night.”
It was a strategy based not so much on artistry but on technical superiority. Nothing in the rules says the program must be an artistic masterpiece. Some observers called Kostner’s Bolero just that. Just check off the boxes: great coverage of the ice, connection between steps, execution that is powerful.
Sotnikova did that, although her margin of victory of nearly six points was shocking.
Eteri Tutberidze — coach of 15-year-old Russian Julia Lipnitskaia, who overshadowed Sotnikova until the last two days — fully supported the outcome.
“Later at night, I watched on TV and Sotnikova was an absolute champion for me,” said Tutberidze, whose skater finished fifth. “It was a presentation of her life. I have never seen her before be so concentrated and skate every element so neat. … emotions, jumps, rotations, spins, spirals, and if you combine all these elements, Adelina won overwhelmingly.”
Finding the correct elements is a challenge for everyone: skaters, coaches and choreographers. There is so much gray area in this scoring system, just as there was in the old 6.0 format, that even when the athlete’s strengths mesh perfectly with the music, there’s never any certainty the judges will be impressed.
So upsets happen.
“It’s so hard to find the ideal system that would work for everyone, when it comes to even making the rules of figure skating,” said Peter Tchernyshev, who won five U.S. ice dance titles under the 6.0 formula.
“It’s not track and field when you ran faster. Or lifted more weight. Or jumped higher. Again, it’s very subjective, yet this sport is surviving over so many years because everyone realizes it’s very athletic. As I said before, somebody likes more athletic, somebody likes more balletic figure skating. Who’s right? Who’s wrong?”
Is there even a right or wrong? Judging, after all, comes down to expert opinions.
The athletes wisely steer clear of it all as best they can. Sure, American Ashley Wagner, who finished seventh, questioned the veracity of the points system and, most notably, the lack of openness in it. Generally, though, the skaters take the approach Kim used, hours after she retired from competitive skating.
“I didn’t watch the performances of the other skaters, so I don’t think it makes a difference whether or not I accept this,'” she said. “I don’t have any regrets, and because it ended, that’s that.
“There have been times in other competitions as well when the score did not reflect my performance, no matter how well I did, to the point of being strange. I imagine various scenarios before the competition: doing well, not receiving a good score and coming in second place. Because I imagined a lot of things yesterday, I don’t think it was that surprising.”
(By Barry Wilner, AP Sports Writer. AP Writer Leonid Chisov contributed to this report)