Clear the ice of personal bias

It's hard not to feel a bit of sympathy for Marie-Reine Le Gougne, the French woman at the center of the Olympic figure skating fiasco. She will forever be known in sports history as the "scandal judge." Wisecracks about Ms. Le Gougne are swirling around the media like snowflakes in a blizzard, and here's one of mine: There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that Slobodan Milosevic is trying to get her installed on his war crimes tribunal.

Wait, is that inappropriate humor?

As author of the joke, I'm probably not qualified to rule on its merits or faults. But who is?

That's the question looming behind any contest that requires judges to rate intangible factors such as artistry, originality, or presentation. It's not a scientific method. Personal feelings sometimes skew the decisionmaking process, causing unpredictable outcomes and, as in the case of pairs figure skating, heated controversy.

I'm not a big fan of prizes that are based on someone's personal viewpoint. One famous American who shared my lack of enthusiasm in this regard was country-music legend Waylon Jennings. Mr. Jennings shrugged off awards during his career, and did not attend his own induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame last year. Waylon's disdain was based on the belief that performers in his field shouldn't compete against one another. Fair enough. My moment of insight came in 1983, while working as a TV-news writer in San Francisco.

I had been tapped for some part-time freelance work on weekends and was still learning the ropes, constantly worried that I might commit some terrible faux pas that would end my plans for advancement. One Saturday afternoon another employee stuck his head into the newsroom and yelled, "Who wants to help judge the local Emmies from Denver?"

I'm not sure how the system works now, but back then TV stations sent their nominations for local Emmy awards to other markets for judging, and my station had a load of news stories from Denver that needed to be evaluated. I was surprised to find that Emmy judges were being selected in such haphazard fashion. But with a looming deadline, whoever was in charge of the project didn't have time to be picky.

I didn't raise my hand. I would like to think that my lack of participation added to the validity of the final results. Ever since, I cannot watch or read about an awards ceremony without thinking, "Gee, I wonder how the judges got recruited?"

Sure, the official explanations always will make it sound like the highest standards are being carefully maintained, but you never know when a judge might be in a bad mood, distracted by personal problems, just plain corrupt, or incompetent. I'm glad the Canadian pair won their gold medals, and I hope the scoring system improves. But nothing changes the fact that when you hand out awards based on personal opinion, you're skating on thin ice.

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