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Figure Skating: only partly what Kim Yuna needs for Gold

If you want to win a gold medal in Speed Skating, be fast. If you want to win one in Ice Hockey, score more points.  But in sports like Figure Skating, where judging is more subjective, there are other factors at play. Koreans have their eyes on Kim Yuna (김연아) as the favorite to take the Gold medal in Figure Skating at the Vancouver Olympics.  And why not? She’s already won three out of four of the Grand Prix Finals in 2009, and is the reigning world champion. But her nationality may have some to do with whether or not she wins.

Slate.com has a great article today suggesting that judging at the Figure Skating competitions might actually be fixed.  Back in 2002 in Salt Lake City, a scandal erupted over apparent collusion  by the judges to favor a Russian couple over a Canadian pair.  To prevent that from happening again, reforms implemented since then may have actually made the potential for bias worse rather than better.  A study after 2002 suggested that

…judges awarded higher scores to athletes from their home countries…the “home judges bias” added nearly 0.2 points to skaters’ scores (on a six-point scale), often enough to boost their ranking by at least one position.

One country’s judges scratched the backs of other countries and vice-versa, creating an environment where skating talent was only part of the winning requirements. To fix that problem, skating scores are now reported anonymously so one can’t tell which judge vote for whom and for how many points. The idea behind this was to

make it hard to verify that corrupt judges have actually delivered the scores they’ve promised—no one can tie any individual judge to a score, and any of the nine could always claim that he was one of the two judges dropped from the scoring. It’s hard to collude if you can’t tell whether your partner in crime is keeping up his end of the bargain.

What’s happened, however, is that since there is no longer any press or public scrutiny of scores and who judged what, the home country bias is about 20% higher than the old system of public scoring.

Skate her heart out though she may, Kim Yuna may have to change nationalities in order to score higher.

Read the full article from Slate to get more details. Or read about the skating fiascos brewing at Sports Illustrated or Yahoo Sports.

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