Andrew Alderson 's Opinion

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Andrew Alderson: Judgement daze at Sochi

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Russia's Adelina Sotnikova was considered a surprising winner of the women's event, defeating reigning Olympic champion S Korea's Yuna Kim. Photo / AP
Russia's Adelina Sotnikova was considered a surprising winner of the women's event, defeating reigning Olympic champion S Korea's Yuna Kim. Photo / AP

Summer or winter Olympic Games events make more compelling viewing when measured against fellow competitors and time, rather than by judges.

When sporting skills are assessed by the human eye, the subjectivity detracts from the achievement. Judges' expertise in disciplines is acknowledged but needing them because the average couch potato can't distinguish between good and bad makes for a historical asterisk and puts the sport concerned in an ivory tower.

Judging is a necessary blight on many of the Olympic movement's most graceful, skilful and artistic disciplines. This month in Sochi, it was freestyle skiing and snowboarding, figure skating and ski-jumping. Summer examples include boxing, gymnastics and diving.

Sure, the average observer can recognise a crash in the snow, a skid on the ice, a knock-out blow, a shabby dismount or a belly-flop from the comfort of their living room. It's differentiating at the elite level of competition where circumstances sour.

Take the women's figure skating at Sochi. ESPN writer Jim Caple described the judging as being, "both the positive and negative of figure skating. The positive is the subjective scoring adds layers upon layers of controversy and politics. The negative is the subjective scoring adds layers upon layers of controversy and politics".

Russia's Adelina Sotnikova was considered a surprising winner of the women's event, defeating reigning Olympic champion Yuna Kim of South Korea.

The nine judges for the short and long programmes were chosen by draw from a pool of 13, with eight of the judges working only one event or the other. Judges from the United States, South Korea, Great Britain and Sweden were not chosen to work the women's long programme after being on the short programme panel the previous evening. Two of their replacements were Ukrainian Yuri Balkov, who was exiled from judging for a year after being recorded by a Canadian judge trying to fix the 1998 Nagano ice dancing competition, and Alla Shekhovtseva, a Russian judge who is married to Russian Skating Federation boss Valentin Pissev. She was snapped hugging the gold medallist (her compatriot) afterwards. The two other new long programme judges were from Estonia and France (who conspired with Russia to try to fix the pairs and ice dancing at the 2002 Olympics).

A petition started on change.org by 'Justice Seeker' from Vancouver is calling on the International Skating Union to investigate and demand a reassessment. The number of digital signatures on the petition is close to two million.

Rancour festers in sports that work under subjective systems.

Slopestyle snowboarding is another example. During the Games, Yahoo's Jeff Passan concluded: Riders were judged on a 1-100 scale based entirely on 'overall impression'. Judges were allowed to collaborate, and the head judge could suggest changes. The official criteria urged consideration of difficulty, amplitude, execution, variety, progression, and combinations but no objective metrics existed to measure those factors. Judging was conducted by the international skiing federation, the FIS, not by snowboarders.

If sports are to be judged by anything other than time, Olympians deserve systems that break performances down into more than just a few seconds' analysis from a computer screen. Other factors could affect the outcome such as sub-conscious comparisons with prior competitors, a miscalculation of the level of difficulty or, in the case of boxing, whether a punch landed. Simplification needs to be sought.

Nothing beats watching competitors race each other and/or the clock. That's the best way to establish who has the heart and the mind to deal with the pressure imposed by an Olympics.

One of the Winter Games' best examples was snowboard parallel slalom. Two competitors raced each other twice down both sides of a slope and the overall times were collated. The rider in front after the first ride takes their time advantage into the second run. They then deal with the psychological impact, knowing their competitor is chasing. Conversely, the slower athlete is forced to increase pace and maintain technique to catch up. Physical and mental limits are tested, epitomising Olympic competition.

- Herald on Sunday

Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Andrew Alderson writes on sport for the Herald on Sunday. His main focuses are cricket and the Olympic disciplines. His most recent project was reporting on New Zealand sportspeople competing in Europe during the 2013 northern summer. He has attended three cricket World Cups and three Olympics.

Read more by Andrew Alderson

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