Linda Robertson

Linda Robertson: Figure skating needs credibility overhaul

Academy Award winners occasionally have to stand up and defend the merit of their gold statuette. But figure skating is the only sport in which the winner has to explain why she or he was deserving of the gold medal.

So it was that Adelina Sotnikova made her case into a microphone Friday, a day after she had made it on the ice.

At its most glorious moment, figure skating was again embroiled in controversy. The new queen, a 17-year-old Russian, received her lovely medal yet was denied her symbolic crown by detractors who questioned the fairness of judges who chose Sotnikova over South Korea’s Kim Yuna.

Sotnikova scored more points than her opposition, which usually suffices for victory in other sports. But not in figure skating, where a flawed judging system leaves too much room for debate.

“I want all the gold there is out there, everything that exists in figure skating, in all events, in all competitions,” said Sotnikova, sounding as ambitious as her repertoire in Thursday’s long program.

She and the Russian coaches spoke at a news conference that was less about what Sotnikova did right than more about what skating does wrong.

It’s a shame that a wonderfully entertaining sport has to engage in these postmortems. Figure skating has tried to clean up its reputation but only added another chapter to its shady history.

Behind the sequins and lipstick, hack politicians trade votes in a smoky room. You downgrade that skater’s footwork, I’ll upgrade this skater’s musical interpretation.

When the women’s competition concluded with Sotnikova’s generous 5.48-point victory over Kim, those who mock figure skating got new ammunition. Those who love it cringed.

But it is clear that Sotnikova earned gold. Her technical marks were higher because she hit a longer, harder list of tricks. She did seven triple jumps, to Kim’s six, with a 4.84-point lead on combinations. She was rewarded for two superior spin and step sequences. She won the numbers game, which is the key to figure skating today, not grace or charisma.

Recall that the elegantly expressive Michelle Kwan, she of the sublime spirals, was beaten in 1998 by jumping bean Tara Lipinski, who barely got off the ground but won the revolution count. On the other side of the spectrum, there was the Evgeny Plushenko vs. Evan Lysacek argument in 2010.

Kim miscalculated here. She opted for serious art with her brooding performance to Astor Piazzolla’s melancholy accordion music. Moving, yes, but not enough movement compared to the energetic Sotnikova, who aced her jumps except for one bobbled landing. Most of us would rather watch Kim, but Sotnikova played it smart. She got better grades on the math exam.

“I watched it on television later, and Adelina Sotnikova is the absolute champion,” said Eteri Tutberidze, coach of Sotnikova’s teammate Julia Lipnitskaya. “She nailed every element. It is tradition that Kim Yuna comes out and that’s it.”

Sotnikova’s component or “artistic” score was too high, only .09 less than Kim’s, as was her short program score. But she won this thing on level of difficulty.

If you prefer Kim, blame the scoring system created in the wake of the 2002 Salt Lake City judging scandal, when French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne was accused of colluding with Russian judges. Out went the 6.0 ranking system and in came a comprehensive points system with a technical panel of callers using criteria to grade each element.

Complicated as it is — too complicated for the average fan — the real problem with the system is the lack of transparency and accountability by judges. They were granted anonymity after Salt Lake City in an effort to protect their objectivity. You can’t point fingers at the German judge if you don’t know who it is.

But the concept has backfired. Nobody knows how the nine judges scored the skaters. They are open to even more suspicion, as was the case Thursday with Alla Shekhovtsova, who happens to be the wife of Valentin Piseev, chief of the Russian skating federation. Did she favor Sotnikova? Or judge her more rigorously than anybody else? It’s a secret.

“We knew Shekovtsova before she got married, as a judge first and foremost, then a wife,” said Sotnikova’s coach, Elena Buyanova. “It’s useless to talk about this.”

The Ukrainian judge was once suspended for trying to fix Olympic ice dancing.

The International Skating Union must address the flaws in its system before figure skating loses more credibility. Remove anonymity and eliminate any chance of nepotism or conflicts of interest. U.S. Figure Skating is pursuing a plan to identify judges again at national competitions and is lobbying the ISU to reform.

“There are many changes that need to come to this sport if we want a fan base,” U.S. skater Ashley Wagner said.

She’s right.

A petition on generated huge traffic. Figure skating is a subjective sport, but too many debates tarnish its gold-medal winners.

Related stories from Miami Herald