AI: The new cold war

Apologies to our non sports fans, but the Olympics keep bringing up good questions.

There’s a big brouhaha happening over the results of the men’s figure skating competition.  Defending world champion, Russian Evgeni Plushenko is throwing a bit of a hissy fit at placing second to American Evan Lysacek, arguing that his performance was more difficult, and therefore he deserved to win.  This is of course stirring up all sorts of nationalistic silliness, including a half serious question as to whether or not Russia will grant Lysacek a visa to compete in the 2014 winter games in Sochi.

I might be biased by the fact that I generally find Plushenko to be a bit of an overly arrogant douche, and by the fact that Evan happens to be my new boyfriend ;), but this is my take:  Plushenko is a natural.  He’s an amazing skater, and as a result was able to come out of retirement less than a year ago and pull out a high caliber technical performance, which included a quadruple jump.  But that performance was very unpolished.  Plushenko can get away with half-assery like this because he is so talented, but even though he landed all of his jumps, he looked sloppy.  Lysacek’s performance, while it didn’t include a quad, did have several difficult jump combinations, and was near perfectly executed. He was focused, polished, and detail oriented.

This of course goes back to the age old debate about figure skating:  Is it a sport or an art?  Well, really, it’s both, so people will argue endlessly over how those two sides should be balanced.  I think you have to look at the whole picture; difficulty of elements and how well those elements were carried out.  To me, Plushenko is the genius kid in the class whinging over getting a B because he didn’t study.  Lysacek is the B student who worked his ass off and aced it.

Then there’s the whole problem of how you objectively score artistry, and whether the subjective elements of judging affect people like Johnny Weir; a very talented, very much not heteronormative young skater who tends toward the eccentric in his performances and costumes.

What’s your take?  Should technical difficulty necessarily trump technique?  What is the proper balance between sport and artistry?  Is this kind of complaint ever helpful?  Is it possible to set up a judging system that accounts for artistry without allowing for personal bias?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.

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  1. Well, of course Lysacek deserved to win!

    Seriously, isn’t the judging all very subjective? Frankly, I doubt an international panel of judges is going to be biased in favor of the United States.

  2. @mikespeir: One of the problems with an international panel is that this is an international competition. If you choose judges from countries that are not represented at the event what you might end up with are judges that just don’t know what they’re doing. A judge from a country with a small figure-skating program isn’t likely to have the same amount of experience that a judge from Russia would have, for example. I remember one of the commentators at the 2008 Olympics complained bitterly about some of the inexperience judges during the gymnastics competition. So yeah, finding good, non-biased judges looks like a tall order.

    And carr2d2, congrats on the new boyfriend! I hope you two will be very happy together ;)

  3. As far as I’m concerned, it requires both athleticism and artistry and if you can’t make it look smooth and effortless, then you haven’t done your job.

    I’ve always been impressed by Plushenko, but I was confused that he seemed to hop around without his usual grace. Gotta face the changing of the guard, moi drug.

  4. Over at the Washington Post, Tracee Hamilton pointed out that if Russia is pissed off (and since Vladimir Putin has put in his 2¢, I guess they are), they only have themselves to blame.

    The new scoring system – which has no top end and is based upon points and bonuses for performing hard jumps in the back half of your routine, which Lysacek took full advantage of – was implemented because of the 2002 pairs skating brouhaha. Because the Russians tried to cheat.

    She pointed out that if they have a problem with the new system, they have enough pull within the international skating community to do something about it at future events, but in the meantime, they should just learn to work the system like everyone else did.

    Personally? I agree – Lysacek – who is actually capable of pulling a quad, but his foot injury made him not attempt it – performed a far more solid and equally difficult routine. Plushenko is being a spoiled brat. His jump onto the center of the medals podium was particularly snotty, I thought.

  5. In the days of the Soviet Union, an international panel of judges could be relied on to favor nations in their bloc – US did well with western judges, Soviets did well with Warsaw pact countries and it would often come down to a judge from Austria or Switzerland or Sweden or one of those wealthy countries that weren’t too dependent on either super power.

    Now, an international panel is much harder to predict as we’ve only one super power and there are lots of strange political and diplomatic unknown in the past.

    I don’t follow figure skating, I’m more of a college hockey sort of guy (Go Crimson!) and, especially this time of year, I go for NCAA basketball (Go Gators!). I do appreciate figure skating and my memories of it are pretty fond.

    Definitely night time here in Madrid but I’m wide awake, I’m getting a bit old for this much travel.

  6. I don’t really know much about figure skating scoring. I did participate in winter guard in HS and college. The Winter Guard International organization called it “the Sport of the Arts” and it was primarily a competitive activity. However, because of the subjectivity, no one really took the judging results all that seriously. Everyone just tried to do the hardest, most athletic, coolest, artsy-fartsiest shows that they were capable of and enjoyed performing and watching others perform. Yeah, we always hoped to make it from semi-finals to finals and the winners (never us) were surely excited to win trophies but that wasn’t the main purpose. If you are doing something that has that much subjectivity associated with it, you just have to accept that selecting the “best” is kind of meaningless to an extent.

  7. Any one scoring system is going to be biased. Several judges, each grading on different aspect of the sport, should be deployed. The judging should be formulaic. Open-ended things, like number of tricks and their difficulty, should be weighted such that an athlete would need an extreme amount of them to get as many points as the closed-ended scores.

    Then, say there are six judges, the high and low scores should be dropped. This prevents competitors from having lopsided performances.

  8. My take on the whole “is it sport or an art?” question is that it’s as much a sport as american and mexican pro wrestling, no more, no less.

    But american and mexican pro wrestling are, of course, vastly more awesome and have much better costumes. Especially the mexicans, of course, what with the masks and all. If there were any justice in the world, masked wrestling would be an olympic discipline.

    I should have been a mexican pro wrestler – it’s just my rotten luck to have been born on the wrong continent. I would have been great in a mask and cape.

    I seem to have wandered a bit off topic here. I don’t know what came over me.

  9. I tend to the view that figure skating should not be considered a proper sport – particularly since the only objectively judgeable element (the compulsory figures – you either followed the prescribed track or you didn’t…) was removed some years ago.

    I know that considerable athleticism is involved, but the same is true of ballet dancing, and how many Olympic medals does Darcy Bussell have?

  10. I think this is a false dichotomy. Can’t great art have great detail? Why does it have to be one or the other? Can’t great art be IN the details? I understand why it is here but I think that trying to put it forward as either you are an artiste or anal retentive is wrong on both counts as a more general argument. Some of the best art I’ve seen is extremely polished and some of the worst also has some of the sloppiest attention to detail.

    Personally I’m a details kind of girl I always have been.

  11. @loudlyquiet: in the grand scheme, yes, it’s a false dichotomy. but, in practice, as we’re seeing here, it’s a very real debate within the sport. plushenko believes that he deserved gold based sheerly on the fact that he completed a quad, regardless of how it was performed. of course it’s possible to both do a quad and do it with artistry. what’s being argued here is whether or not artistry is relevant.

  12. @chistat: @Al: i disagree. there’s no such thing as competitive ballet (as far as i know). i won’t argue that figure skating is purely sport, but it certainly possesses elements of sport. i’d put it somewhere in the neighborhood of gymnastics.

  13. But that is just the thing. It isn’t “artistry” is it throwing ones self into the air more vs throwing ones self into the air more perfectly.

    I don’t think that doing a quad or not isn’t more or less artistic than doing a triple with perfect motion control. Ok that’s not true, personally I think doing a triple with perfect motion control is more artistic.

  14. It would help if people thought of the events as athletics, which figure skating certainly is, rather than “sports” – hell, hockey teams hire figure skaters to improve the team’s skating ability. [Conversely, ballerinas sometimes hire fencers to improve their precision. My old fencing coach, who was the most graceful person I have ever seen, used to do that.] Given that the Greeks counted rhythm and precision in discus throwing, counting artistry in “sport” isn’t an alien concept to the Olympics.

    Two of the four pan-Hellenic games included poetry and music, so there’s evidence that the ancient Greeks deemed art and athletics both to be appropriately competitive performances to dedicate to the gods.

    Judging in conventional sports can be adjudged to be somewhat subjective – is that tennis ball in or out, did that batter touch the base as he ran, etc. The advent of filming and slow-motion replay proves that. So no judging panel is ever going to be perfect. I do think, however, that art cannot be divorced from performance in an event that prizes form. One quad does not perfection make when the other elements are perfunctory. Methinks the ancient Greek gods would have disapproved of sloppiness.

  15. @Al:

    Yeah, I was discussing the compulsory figures with my husband. One of my friends in junior high was a skater, and she said they were her least favorite thing, but so important. They used to be 60% of your overall score, so you didn’t have to be a good free skater to win medals.

    I always find it amusing that they still call it figure skating now. I’m not sure they even train skaters in figures anymore.

  16. I think about when Kerrigan lost the gold. Let’s face it, technically she was better but she just isn’t … well…pretty doing it. It just looks physical, but lacks any sort of beauty or wonder. She could do the jumps and the moves, but then again…you felt a robot could do the same sort of job.

  17. As a skater, honestly.. Plushenko was the better athlete, and was robbed. Do I like him as a person or role model? No… but he really did kick Lysol’s ass.

    Lysachek was boring to watch. They can claim artistry and shit all they want, but even his costume was boring as all fuck. His music was totally uninspiring, he was just.. boring.

    This is 2010. Quads have been performed for over a decade now, if memory serves. Realistically, no one should even show up to the games without one, and it was total nonsense that some men didn’t even have triple axels.

    Mens skating has really gone downhill. 10 years ago, NO WAY would Lysachek have won.

  18. I think the boys should kiss, make up and have a nice talk with Matt Lauer. Then I’d like to see all sports with judging and style points relegated to the circus and Disney theme parks where they belong.

  19. @James Fox:
    I agree, there’s always going to be a grey area when it comes to subjective criteria in sport, but the point on the continuum to have that debate is boxing, not figure skating.

  20. @James K: The new punch count system in amateur boxing seems to work well. I use to love boxing years ago, but I’ve pretty much lost interest in all forms of pugilism. Then again having rhythmic gymnasts in cage matches against figure skaters…, now that would get me in front of the TV.

  21. If Russia even hints at not allowing a Visa, the IOC could pull their bid – It’s been threatened and smacked down before.

    Typhoid, I’ve heard plenty of skaters saying that execution is more importmant that difficulty. Me, I think the costume should be worked into the scoring system.

  22. Just more ammunition for the figure skating does not belong in the Olympics crowd. I agree. Like the JREF Million Dollar Challenge, no judging should be allowed. The motto of the Olympic games is, “stronger, higher, faster.” Only sports that can be judged by this criteria should be included. Only sports for which there is a clear winner, independent of the opinions of someone watching. Did he score more points? Did she cross the finish line first?

    Was her spin more artistic? I think not.

  23. @Plittle: So you’re suggesting that figure skating at the Olympics is like a game of “horse”? One athlete/duet successfully does some move, their competing team has to replicate it. You miss, you get an “h”. First person to spell horse loses and the other goes on.

  24. When judgement is part of the scoring system, never will there be perfect consistancy – not between judges and not for the same judge seeing the same performance on two separate occasions.

    I shall digress to the medical field for an analogy. Years ago a study was done looking at the the ability of physicians to consistantly diagnose otitis media, which is primarily based on clinical judgement. In my experience most ear infections are no brainers regarding a diagnosis of yay or nay, but a significant portion are in that gray zone of judgement. The bottom line was not only was there not 100% agreement between physicians, but there wasn’t 100% agreement when the SAME physician looked at the same ear on separate occasions.

    I PREFER a clear winner in my sports – skating has several such events, figure skating and ice dancing aren’t examples of such clarity. But I think many are biased against these “sissy” sports, thus one argues that they aren’t sports at all. Many who argue against figure skating are the same people who love boxing ( I , for example love GOOD boxing ) or mixed martial arts. All macho followers of these sports would be angry if anyone ever said that these participants weren’t participating in sporting events, but many of the outcomes in these sports are judgement calls as well.

    Face it – even if a sport is determined by a clear cut objective point total many sports have an element of judgement : baseball, basketball, football, tennis, volleyball, soccer, etc etc are influenced by referees and umpires.

    Sometimes the subjectivity is artistic interpretation, sometimes it’s rule interpretation, or a fair/foul/in/out interpretation, but as long as the competition involves some combination of strength, endurance, speed, agility, hand-eye/foot coordination, and strategy then I think it is a sport.

    But it’s impossible to eliminate intended or unintended bias on a consistant basis when judgement is involved.

  25. I’m not sure all of it was biased assessment of artistry. Remembering back, the immediate criticism was that his jumps were not landed well, and his spins were slow. Turns out his score was most affected by marks off his technical, not artistry scores.

    Go home, ya baby.

  26. While watching the ice dancing compulsories skate to tango music. I wanted to see two men skating together:

    “Lascivious dance steps and the sexual connotation of many of the tangos’ titles (‘The Corn Cob’, ‘The Big Rod’, etc.) have been noted by all historians. Old photographs show two men dancing the tango together on the street. What they were actually doing was trying out various intricate steps to perfect what they would do with whores that same night in brothels.”

    “Since only prostitutes would dare performing this dance, in the beginning most couples were formed by two men.”

    At the very least a couple male skaters should do it for the skating exhibition after the competition is over and choreograph it as a stylized knife fight.

  27. @TyphoidMarie:

    I’ll be the first to admit – if Plushenko had performed and landed his jumps as well as Lysacek landed his? Yes, the gold medal should have been his. But he didn’t. And he didn’t spread them out like Lysacek did, to take advantage of the “back half of the program” bonus. I can see doing a quad early while fresh, but nothing stopped Plushenko from similarly tweaking the rest of his choreography so his other jumps could receive bonus points.

    And I’m willing to admit – that he performed as well as he did after a 3 1/2 year retirement? Good god, that’s fuckin’ monumental.

    And it is so painfully obvious that the Russians put so much more artistry into their skating. Even my husband noticed it during the pairs. Not doubting or denying that. I have a thing for Russian history, so I know that’s a culture with a deep artistic and cultural heritage.

    But the bottom line is, Plushenko didn’t lose gracefully. He was a spoiled brat about it. I can see being upset, but these guys watch each other for months. He knew exactly what Lysacek skated and he could have done the same thing as far as distributing his elements through the program, instead of mostly in the front where they earned less points. That he didn’t is a result of the arrogance of himself and the Russian skating program. Period. Because those are the rules and they were allowed to play them just like everyone else. And lord knows the Russians know how to play the system, whether in front of the scenes or behind them.

    Besides, when isn’t there an Olympics when at least one figure skater is robbed of the gold?

    Over on Figure Skating section, they have overlaid both of their performances with the points they received for their elements. You can see that the bonuses helped Lysacek’s less athletic routine immensely. That should be a lesson to the Russians – they can grandstand, or they can tweak over the next four years and consider 2010 a glitch in their figure skating dominance.

  28. As a student in fine art, I could make the most amazing looking painting ever but still end up with a bad grade because the thing is being held together with bubblegum. I would also get turned away from galleries and such for bad presentation because it looks like it’s about to fall apart.

    So, I don’t care if something was very difficult to perform or make. If it’s not held together soundly, it’s going to fall apart sooner rather than later.

  29. Is it a sport or an art? Well, really, it’s both, so people will argue endlessly over how those two sides should be balanced.


    Figure skating is not a sport. It’s an athletic exhibition. There is a difference. In figure skating, the judges get to decide who wins based on whether they liked their performance better. There’s a scorecard, but there’s plenty of wiggle room.

    In a sport, there are rules to determine who wins and loses. The judges job is explicitly not to decide who wins or loses, but simply whether the players are following the rules.

    If this Russian guy wants to have his skill be the sole determining factor of his victories and defeats, he needs to take up a sport. Maybe golf.

    Otherwise, he can cry, but he should know better. Pretty matters when you aren’t playing a sport, and he just wasn’t pretty enough.

  30. Working in the arts I’ve always been annoyed that somthing so arts based (and therfore subjective) needs to be viewed almost entirely in compettion. Dance competitions are relegated to the stagemoms and reality TV, why is dancing on ice predominatly a sport? (I know, I know ballroom dancing is a competitve sport, of freaks!). I don’t care so much about any of this, I actually find it sad that somthing as impressive as figure skating is only appreciated when we get to say one person is better than everyone else. Or when they’re dressed as Tigger or The Little Mermaid.

    My question is why do we always want to place one skater above another. As a Canadian (married) man I’ve watched more than a couple of top ranked figure skaters fail continously at the Olympics. And while it bugs me that Kurt Browning never got the Gold he deserved (as long as I wish to get laid) what bugs me more is that he has to?

  31. @halincoh: Face it – even if a sport is determined by a clear cut objective point total many sports have an element of judgement : baseball, basketball, football, tennis, volleyball, soccer, etc etc are influenced by referees and umpires.


    The difference is the role of the umpire. In a real sport, the Umpire/referee/line judge is NOT supposed to determine who wins, only if the rules are followed. In figure skating, diving, skateboarding, and other non-sports, the judges job is exactly to decide who wins or loses.

  32. @sethmanapio: On the nosey! Have had this argument numerous times with different people over the years. When’s the last time you saw a real sport (like baseball or basketball) where a game was played under protest because of the judgment of a ref? (1972 Olympic gold-medal basketball game comes to mind).

    Now boxing is still on the fence, since judges have the power to determine a winner, but there is the possiblity of a clear-cut winner via knock-out. Soooooo…

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