Tuesday, 18 April 2017

The Winter Olympics, Skating...and cheating - Part 1

[This piece was written in 2014, during the Sochi Winter Olympic games. It's also what reminded me I could still write.]

The Winter Olympics, Skating, and Cheating - I

I suspect this is going to be a long one. So those of you who are reading can go get a cup of coffee to see you through the inevitable yawning.

Winter sports are one of those arcane things, along with the art of separating fact from fiction and not over-reacting to provocation, that are beyond the ken of the average person, at least in our part of the world. Which is completely understandable, given that most of India doesn’t really have a winter, and even where we do, the snow is a force of nature to be combated, not enjoyed. To add to the isolation, winter sports have never been broadcast live in India, until the Sochi Olympics that are in progress right now. Once again, this is hardly surprising, since there is unlikely to be much of an audience in India to watch it. If anything, the fact that Star Sports has 6 channels along with the fact that the rights to the two Cricket series in progress at the moment are with other broadcasters is probably the only reason we even get to see the Winter Olympics this year.

Curling, 1928

So we get to see, in all it’s glory…Curling, a sport that seems to have been invented at a time when people had trouble getting volunteers to sweep the skating rinks. Try to view it as seriously as we might, it’s still hilarious, and the Canadians have perfected it to such an extent that it may be safe to describe it as “a sport where grown men (and women) slide kettles across ice and in the end, the Canadians win”.

Curling, 2014
Then there is Ice Hockey, which is as much like the hockey we know and love as a tiger is to your grandmother’s lazy tomcat. It’s essentially a free-for-all with sticks where, again, in the end, the Canadians win.

Good friends playing Ice Hoekey
Ice Hockey, pretty much always

Speed-skating is more understandable, being a reasonably straightforward race, and it’s more egalitarian, though it seems the Dutch are the leading team.

One slip, one single slip, and it's all over

Then there are the events that seem to depend mostly on gravity. Bob-sledding and luge seem to be ‘sports’ in the way that bungee-jumping is a sport, consisting primarily of competitors getting into oddly-shaped apparatus, muttering a prayer to Isaac Newton, and sliding downwards on ice. I suppose there must be elements of skill involved, simply from the fact that there are competitors who win more consistently than others, but it’s all looks suspiciously like too much fun to be taken seriously.

You boys watch it down there
Thanks for the head's-up, Isaac
There’s the rest - slalom, snowboarding, various modes of downhill skiing, all of which are breath-taking to watch, especially in the HD transmission that we are getting here. These are the spirit of the games, I think – athleticism stretched to dare-devilry, young men and women who seem to compete against the elements more than each other, where even they seem to realize that who wins or loses is only a small part of the event. This is the spirit of evolution – humanity triumphing over the Gods of Winter.

Take that, Winter!

Which brings us to the main reason most of the world is even aware of the Winter Games – Figure skating.

We can all understand (or think we do), figure skating, at least compared to some of the other sports I’ve mentioned. (Well, I doubt anyone understands Curling, least of all the…umm…curlers?) After all, skating is art, performance, athleticism. Ballet on Ice. Even in the winter-forsaken land of India, there is an audience for figure skating, and at a global level, the attention it gets is massive. In a sense, figure skating is similar to the artistic gymnastics routines at the Summer Olympics, but whereas in the summer games, it is but one of many marquee sports, at the Winter Games, it’s pretty much the centrepiece of the whole games, with the Ladies Singles competition being by some distance the most anticipated event.

I suppose that’s also why it’s the one sport that, in spite of living in the metaphorical backwaters of India, we do know a bit about. We may never have heard the names of the brave souls who won the Slaloms, Luges and Bobsledding competitions over the years (though we can safely assume Canada won at  Curling), but many of us have at least heard the names of Katarina Witt, Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski and Sasha Cohen. And, of course, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan.

Katarina Witt

Michelle Kwan
Tara Lipinski

Sasha Cohen
(Collectively, four reasons to love Figure skating)

Those last two names, even now, twenty years after that fateful night when a miscreant assaulted America’s reigning figure skating champion, bringing a piece of metal pipe crashing into her knees, spell “controversy”, and controversies have never left the sport since then. But more on that later.

The immediate point is that judging scandals, graft accusations, score-fixing, there’s little that has not been laid at the doorstep of competitive figure skating. After all, in a sport where the winner is decided by a panel of judges, objectivity is impossible. There is little perceptible difference in quality between the competitors, the top ten or so skaters in the world normally so close to each other in terms of talent that allegations of bias will always find evidence to back them.

Which brings us to the latest “scandal” to rock the sport.

A couple of nights ago, in the finals of the Sochi Olympics Ladies singles skating event, a 17-year old Russian, Adelina Sotnikova, who has won the Russian national title four times, a gold and a silver at the World Junior Championships, and has several medals on the Grand Prix and European level, pulled off a performance of stunning athleticism, speed and determination, to win gold ahead of defending champion Kim Yuna, whose own performance was packed with other-worldly grace and elegance.

The Korean one

The Russian one

It should make for a great story, and is hardly something that hasn’t happened before – a talented youngster with a solid, if not spectacular track record skates the performance of a lifetime, edging the established champion to win a popular victory.

Except that instead, it led to a social media outburst, primarily from Korea and the U.S.A., allegations of match-fixing, talk of Putin exerting pressure on the judges and, all-in-all, making a case that Adelina’s victory was a hopeless miscarriage of justice to Kim Yuna. Vitriol has been poured on the young skater in ample quantities, YouTube videos brim with rants by unknown people on how she should just give up her medal, and of course, the inevitable recommendations to her to kill herself.

Was it an open-and-shut case of judging fraud? Of course not – as I’ve said before, the judging is subjective, and as a neutral layperson, watching as a spectator, I could see very little to distinguish between Sotnikova, Yuna, and the bronze medallist, Carolina Kostner, a 27-year old veteran whose story makes for equally compelling reading.

The Italian One

In a perfect world, we would all accept that a close result cannot please everybody and move on. For a more familiar metaphor, we generally accept that Tendulkar, Ponting and Lara were the best batsmen of their era, but find it difficult to name one as definitely the best of them. Statistics tell us that Tendulkar has the best record, and that's also something that we generally accept, even if with reservations. And so, the fans of figure skating should accept the judge’s decision that Sotnikova deserved to win that night, even if choosing a winner among three exceptionally talented ladies is always going to be impossible.

But we don’t live in a perfect world and sporting spirit has never been as much a part of American, or perhaps, the human spirit as we like to think it is. While the lady the Koreans and the media gushingly refers to as ‘Queen Yuna’ shrugged and said she accepted the result because ultimately it was done and over with, journalists, bloggers and assorted twitterati have been filling the web with hatred directed at Russia and Sotnikova. It certainly only added fuel to the fire when Ashley Wagner (who placed 7th after herself being a rather controversial qualifier for the games) stated that she felt the results were rigged.

Figure skating wouldn’t be figure skating without it’s controversies, but somehow I felt there’s something very wrong about the extent of hate being laid at the door of a 17 year old kid who probably has more talent in her pinky toe than most of those who have been belittling her performance.

So I’ve been trying to figure this out, basically two aspects of the issue –
            a)     Is there a solid ground for the allegations?
            b)     Why is there such a heavy backlash for what is essentially a ‘sporting incident’?

To get to the bottom of that, you need to understand that there is a narrative behind figure skating. It is at the same time, an art form and a sport. So elegance, grace, poise, beauty, those imponderables, are a major part of it. Which means it’s scored a bit like “So you think you can dance”. But so do factors like jumps, spins, loops and combinations – where the scoring is more like the X-games. 

But the sport’s inherent beauty was not enough to catapult it to the world’s attention – it has fed, for the last twenty years, on a much headier cocktail, known as controversy.

To understand this, it is essential to understand the history of the scoring system in figure skating.

The finals happen in two rounds. A short skate first, which lasts about two-and-a-half minutes and eliminates some of the competitors, followed by a longer, four minute “freestyle skate” at the end of which the score for the short plus the freestyle gives you the final standings.

In the hoary past, the scoring was done on a 6-point, purely subjective scale. A panel of judges gave two scores, technical and artistic, the highest and lowest scores were eliminated, and the total of the rest was the final score. It meant a program that ‘looked’ better often swayed the scores, especially the ‘artistic’ scores, since judges are as human as anyone else, and generally meant that the skater who looked the most impressive (detractors would say, “pandered to the crowds”) tended to win, regardless of the difficulty level attempted, simply because the judges could always see what they wanted to see.

To understand the scoring, the subjectivity, and also the controversy that feeds figure skating needs us to go back to those two skaters who will forever be remembered in the context of each other – Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan.

No caption required

(Continued in Part 2)

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