Sequins & Scandals

Why figure skating's popularity is in freefall. And no, it ain't just the costumes.


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Figure skating is the quintessential American sport, not merely because it is fiercely individualistic while at the same time incredibly conformist, but also because the athletes and fans, like the American electorate, have an extraordinarily high tolerance for corruption. It is surprising that the sport is not more popular in the U.S. It has long been the most popular sport in the Winter Olympics, but that is probably damning with faint praise because winter sports tend not to be very popular spectator sports, what with the standing out in the cold and all that. Still, figure skating has experienced a marked decline in popularity in recent years, so much so that the United States Figure Skating Association, now known simply as U.S. Figure Skating, lost its long-standing television contract with ABC and has had to accept what is rumored to be a much less lucrative arrangement with NBC.

There has been a lot of speculation concerning the reasons for the decline in skating’s popularity. Many people within the skating community feel it is the result of over exposure. And by this they do not mean the increasingly revealing attire of female ice dancers, but the fact that skaters have only two programs that they skate over and over again for an entire season. So fans who watched the seven Grand Prix competitions, plus the national and world championships ABC televised each year, saw their favorite skaters skating the same routines. Still, if the programs were interesting and the likelihood of a skater’s bettering his or her position from one competition to the next were genuine, frequent exposure might not be a problem.

Unfortunately, most of the programs are not particularly interesting, even the first time around, and with repeated exposure they become stultifyingly boring. There has been some discussion of this problem, and the much-touted new International Judging System (IJS) was devised partly in order to make the programs more interesting. That it has not yet had such an effect, and that in the eyes of many it has had the opposite effect, is often explained away as a result of the fact that the IJS is a work in progress.

There is another reason, I believe, for the decline in figure skating’s popularity in the U.S. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga argues in Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture that a competition, in order to be interesting to the public, must be perceived as fair. There is a widespread perception, however, that the judging of figure skating is biased and that the results of competitions are often fixed. This impression actually predates the judging scandal at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, in which a French judge admitted to having caved to pressure to favor the Russian pairs team, in exchange for similar favoritism on the part of the Russian judge toward the French ice dancing team. It goes all the way back to the days of school figures, in which skaters carved specific figures or shapes into the ice. These were not televised, but they counted more heavily than free skating, which was. The weighting difference meant that occasionally an obviously inferior free skater would still carry off the gold medal. In fact, it was the public’s perception that something was not right with these results that led to the eventual elimination of school figures from competition.

But the perception of bias and favoritism in the judging of skating persists, and it persists because, well, there is bias and favoritism in the judging. Actual point trading such as that which happened in Salt Lake City is rare; but what is sometimes referred to as “boosting” a skater’s score is common, and is even defended by skating insiders. The problem is this: Figure skating is marred by an incredibly perverse competitive structure. Skaters train for an entire year for one shot at a national or world medal. One shot. It doesn’t matter if they are injured or sick, have equipment problems, are in the throes of an emotional crisis, or are simply having an off day. They have one chance, and if they blow it, that’s it for the year, and all the money they spent on training for the year — now around $40,000 — is down the drain. Judges know this. Judges actually follow the progress of individual skaters throughout the year. They know who can do what, who tends to perform consistently, and who may be capable of performing brilliantly but tends to lose it at some point in important competitions.

The nature of the competitive structure and of the relationship between skaters and judges gives rise to several problems as far as judging is concerned. The first is that judges will often — and one could argue even inevitably — come to have favorites among the competitors. This wouldn’t matter if the standards for evaluating performances were entirely objective. But the evaluation of a performance that has any sort of aesthetic component, as figure skating programs do, is to a certain extent subjective, and this leaves room for personal bias to both influence the evaluation of individual performances and to be very difficult to detect. The influence of such biases on judges is usually unconscious. This was very likely the reason for what some fans viewed as the unexpectedly high scores Evan Lysacek received for his lackluster short program in the Skate America competition that was held just last month in Reading, Pennsylvania. “The Lysacek effect,” one fan called it. He’s a former world bronze medalist, the reigning U.S. men’s champion, and the 2007 Four Continents champion, so he’s going to skate well, right? And the fact that he has proven his competitive mettle means he deserves to place well, right?

There is an even more pernicious tendency on the part of some judges, however, to consciously “boost” the scores of skaters who have proven that they can consistently skate at a very high level, but who happen to have an off day when it counts. The logic behind this practice is that you don’t want to penalize such a skater for having an off day, and you don’t want to send some unseasoned skater off to international competition just because he or she happened to have a good day. So the practice of awarding marks based at least partly on reputation grew. It seemed to be ethically defensible to many people because it helped compensate for the unjust nature of the competitive structure of the sport.

No matter how well intentioned, however, the practice is inherently dishonest. Once judges feel they are not constrained to award marks based on the quality of the performance in question, the floodgates open to the influence of myriad inappropriate factors such as sexual orientation, political views, skaters’ personal lives, the ability of their parents or others close to them to make large financial contributions to the sport, and even who coaches them or who choreographs their programs.

Jon Jackson, a former figure skating judge, charges in his book, On Edge, that judges would sometimes even discuss amongst themselves strategies they could employ to make sure the results of a competition were what they considered satisfactory. One way of doing this was to give low marks for what was called “artistic impression,” but which is now called “presentation.”

One is almost irresistibly drawn to the conclusion that some manipulation of this sort lay behind the results of the purportedly Original Dance portion of the ice dancing competition at Skate America. The American team of Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre, who are known for outstanding presentation skills and were the only team to perform a genuinely original dance, received low marks for, yes, presentation. The rest of the field subjected the spectators to a parade of recycled-to-the-point-of-tedium Russian, Greek and Middle Eastern folk dances. (God help me if I have to sit through another Russian folk dance on ice and anyone with the audacity to present it as “original” ought to be taken out Bolshevik fashion and shot.) Navarro and Bommentre, in contrast, gave an electric interpretation of an African tribal dance that had far greater involvement of the upper body than did any of the other teams’ dances. Why didn’t any of the other teams accompany their intricate footwork with similarly mesmerizing gyrations of the torso? Because it’s difficult! There is generally very little movement of the upper body in skating programs, apart from a few gestures made with the arms, because the upper body is a stabilizing element. It is very, very difficult to do what Navarro and Bommentre did. The only other skaters ever to come close are the reigning world ice dancing champions Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski (who actually use the same choreographer, Natalia Linichuk, as Navarro and Bommentre), and the current world men’s silver medalist Daisuke Takahashi. The judges could not avoid crediting the difficulty of Navarro and Bommentre’s program in terms of the “technical score.” When the presentation score came up, though, it was almost seven points below the technical score. This was a shocker to the audience in the Sovereign Center, and to everyone familiar with the team, because their strength has always been presentation. They are perennial crowd pleasers. Theirs was not simply the most difficult dance of the competition — it was presented so beautifully that it was once again the clear audience favorite. Yet their presentation mark inexplicably sank. It was as if the judges had decided where they wanted this team to place, and, since they had to award them high technical marks, they just deducted those points from the ones they had set aside for presentation, independent of the fact that their presentation was outstanding.

Given that this is an article about bias and favoritism in the judging of figure skating, it behooves me to mention that since I first saw Navarro and Bommentre skate at the 2006 National Figure Skating Championships, to standing ovation, I have become personally acquainted with the team and its coach, Robert Kaine. I have also recently begun to take skating lessons with both Navarro and Kaine.

Still, the whole ice dancing portion of the competition appeared to have been fixed, in that the order in which the skaters finished seemed to have been determined by the order in which they skated. This might seem a kind of arbitrary way of fixing results, but only if you did not know that the order in which the teams skated was determined by the order in which they finished the year before. So the team that skated first was the team that was known to the judges to have finished dead last the year before, and thus unsurprisingly received the lowest marks of any team. The team that skated next was the one that had finished next to last the year before, and thus predictably received the second to the lowest set of marks this year, and so on, and so on.

Whose bright idea was it to have the skating order determined by finishing order in last year’s competition? This is stupidity on a truly colossal scale. Judges cannot help but have been influenced by the order in which the teams skated. Every undergraduate who has read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions knows that one sees what one expects to see, and there are mountains of psychological studies that confirm this.

Part of the problem must simply be ignorance. Establishing the skating order in such a way is so wildly inappropriate that it is guaranteed to raise cries of protest and to once again focus the wrong kind of attention on competitive figure skating, the sport that is desperately trying to reestablish credibility with the public. When I wrote U.S. Figure Skating recently to inquire about the average level of education of judges and officials within the organization, I was told that this was not a question that was asked of judges or officials. The International Skating Union (ISU) is the organization that governs international events and which thus set the skating order at Skate America. They would not respond to my query. They draw their judges, however, from the various national federations, so it seems safe to say they are equally indifferent to the level of education among judges and officials. It is thus possible that the folks at the ISU have not read Kuhn and are, therefore, unfamiliar with the mountains of psychological research on the influence of expectation on perception, an influence referred to in the literature as “the confirmation bias.”

I would go so far as to say that ignorance on the part of those governing the sport is perhaps figure skating’s main problem. People will occasionally defend the tendency of judges to allow personal bias to influence the awarding of points on the grounds that the judges are all volunteers and thus cannot be held to the same standards of professionalism as would be appropriate if they were paid for their work. But such a view stems, again, from ignorance. “Professions” are distinguished from “occupations” not on the basis of whether, or how much, practitioners are paid, but on the basis of whether the work represents some intrinsic good that is pursued for its own sake rather than for pecuniary reward (i.e., money), whether it requires specialized knowledge, and whether practitioners wield a certain authority over non-practitioners. Each of these conditions is satisfied by the role of figure skating judge. That the first is satisfied is pretty obvious. The second is also satisfied, however, because even if some figure skating judges are deficient in the area of post-secondary education, they receive training in the judging of skating and must pass exams before they are qualified to serve as judges. Finally, they obviously wield enormous authority not only over the athletes whose performances they judge but also over the careers of coaches and choreographers whose livelihoods are substantially influenced by how well their skaters do in competition. Figure skating judges are thus professionals quite independently of whether they receive any financial remuneration for their work and should thus be held to the same standards of professional ethics as are other professionals.

Unfortunately, they are not held to such standards. Judges don’t merely follow the technical progress of individual skaters: They will sometimes offer advice on choreography and even costumes. The advice is generally well intended, but it is inappropriate. It puts pressure on skaters to try to please judges, and undermines the integrity of the development of a personal style in a sport where such a style is essential. The interference of judges in this sense is very likely an even greater factor in the increasing conformity found in figure skating programs than is the influence of the new judging system, and yet it has not even been acknowledged, let alone discussed.

The problem is particularly acute in ice dancing. There are no jumps in ice dancing, so falls are relatively rare. All the teams do basically the same sorts of maneuvers, just put together in a slightly different order and performed to different music. (Although it is increasingly common to see different teams performing to the same music as was the case at Skate America, where two dance teams and several singles skaters all actually performed to the same piece of music.) That means the judging of ice dancing is even more subjective than the judging of singles’ or pairs’ skating, and skaters are desperate to get any sort of advantage they can. Since everyone is doing pretty much the same footwork, this desire for a competitive edge manifests itself in increasingly bizarre costumes. The formula for the average ice dancing outfit, apart from ensuring that the female is as scantily clad as is physically possible, appears to be: Find colors at such disparate ends of the spectrum that their juxtaposition actually induces nausea and then embellish with a torrent of sequins.

Sequin abuse is so widespread in ice dancing that, as incongruous as sequins on African tribal outfits are, even Navarro and Bommentre fell victim to it. Judges, it seems, are thought to respond well to sequins and many skaters thus feel that the additions make them more noticeable. If you ask me though, two human beings alone together, out in the middle of a vast sheet of ice, are pretty damn conspicuous no matter what they are wearing. It’s as if ice dancing judges are all suffering from some sort of degenerative eye disease that makes them unable to detect the presence of objects unless they glitter.

The French team of Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat had the courage to eschew the sequins and decorated their costumes instead with what appeared at first to be seat belts complete with shoulder harnesses. As the program progressed, however, the frenetic combination of styles actually conjured up the impression of the remains of straight jackets that restrained escaped mental patients. Little did I know, until I learned that the title of the music they skated to was “Craziness,” that this was actually the effect they had been going for.

I had feared briefly that their dance was supposed to represent some sort of sado-masochistic ritual as bondage appeared to be a recurrent theme at this year’s Skate America and indeed, there has to be a streak of masochism in people who would subject their fate again and again to system of judging they know to be inherently corrupt. So why do they do it if it isn’t masochism? And what motivates fans to return to competition after competition only to see their hopes for their favorites dashed once again, and whose discussion frequently circulates around topics such as which athletes were “propped up” as the result of influences such as reputation and nationalism.

What motivates them is the fact that when skating is good, it is very good, as was the case with the gold medalist in the men’s event, Daisuke Takahashi. That performance made history. It was marked by extraordinary plasticity and what one could call total-body involvement on the part of the skater. It was exponentially more interesting to watch than any of the other programs, and thus cannot help but sound a death knell for the current style of skating that now looks old-fashioned and stiff by comparison. Takahashi, in his short program, not only carried off his sequined costume, he could have had flames leaping out of it and would not have seemed over-the-top. He was like a flame himself, leaping first this way and then that, always moving, always changing, not frenetically like someone who doesn’t know where he wants to be, but determinedly, like the flame that wants to be everywhere at once and somehow, to the mesmerized onlooker, is.

Takahashi received a standing ovation, and not the kind where first one person and then another rises until eventually the whole audience is standing. The crowd in the Sovereign Center began screaming approval early in the program and, when it was done, leapt as one body to its feet before the music had even completely stopped. A crowd of Americans in a sport that tends to be marked by nationalism leapt to its feet for a Japanese skater in wild and thunderous applause.

When Takahashi had done was glorious and, even though the most publicized event of the competition, the ladies free skate, had yet to take place, the fans could talk of nothing but Takahashi for the rest of the competition. His marks put him more than 12 points ahead of Evan Lysacek, the second place finisher — this in a sport where places are often separated by as little as a tenth of a point. His performance was beautiful. It went beyond what everyone present thought was humanly possible, and will change the sport forever. The memory of it brings chills. People who were there will remember it for the rest of their lives.

In this case, at least, the judges got it right. • 8 November 2007


M.G. Piety is an associate professor of philosophy at Drexel University. She has published articles on philosophical topics in various books and in journals such as The History of European Ideas and The Journal of Business Ethics as well as in publications such as The Times Literary Supplement. She can be reached at