The cultural vagaries behind ice-judging 'madness'

For all the pressure that faces favorite Alexei Yagudin in tonight's men's figure skating final, even more may be focused on Merja Kosonen, Evgenia Bogdanova, and their seven colleagues - the judges charged with choosing which performance will win gold.

Judges have long been accused of playing favorites, but rarely in the 94-year history of Olympic skating has the scrutiny of the men and women who give the marks been more acute. The decision by a different panel of judges Monday, giving Russia - not a crowd-favored Canada - the pairs figure-skating gold, has given the phrase "Salt Lake scandal" a second meaning beyond bidding committees or cash bribes.

As with ice dancing at the 1998 Nagano Games, allegations have arisen that judges colluded to fix the winner, and the International Skating Union initiated an investigation Tuesday. Yet not everyone is so quick to condemn the result as a sham, and insights from officials past and present shed light on how five judges could have come to a decision so different from that of a stadium of fans and a nation of viewers.

"Judges differ because of the backgrounds, and their culture has an influence on the artistic side," says Ben Wright, a former judge and referee who worked in six Olympics. "The differences are very slight, but they are there."

In a competition as tight as the one between Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier and Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, even the smallest difference can be magnified to a winning margin. Much has been made of the fact that the marks for presentation - which determined the winner, given that the overall scores were a tie - seemed to be divided down old geopolitical lines.

The United States, Canada, Germany, and Japan favored the Canadians, while the old communist-oriented bloc of Russia, the Ukraine, China, and Poland were joined by France in favoring the Russians.

In that split, some see the reemergence of a cold war voting bloc that, like some episode of "Survivor" run amok, banded together to see the competitors from its tribe win, rather than one from another. The Globe and Mail of Toronto even reported that France might have given its vote to Russia in the pairs so that Russia would vote for a French pair whose international results have been slipping lately.

Others, however, suggest less sinister motives. In skating, after all, there is no stopwatch to gauge the grace of a triple salchow. No one-eyed machine to beep when the music doesn't match the footwork.

Despite efforts to regiment mandatory deductions, figure skating remains a sport built on impressions and emotions, and these impressions can vary widely. Understandably, many Russians and East Europeans might favor the more balletic and technical presentations that have risen from their traditions - even with minor mistakes. Many Westerners put greater emphasis on flair and flawless jumps.

"The reason we have nine judges ... is because of differences of opinion and differences of what they focus on," says Larry Mondschein, chairman of the judges committee of the US Figure Skating Association. "Some come from a background in music, some in theater, ... and some look at it athletically."

One of the American judges at these Games, for example, is a music teacher. "He can tell you all about composition and how it fits into a performance," says Mondschein, who, like Wright, was speaking before the Olympics began.

Not every judge comes from skating roots, but they have all studied the sport. They have to.

Whatever criticisms may be levied against judging, the job requires a substantial commitment with little financial reward. Wright, for one, started judging after college in 1940 and didn't judge his first world-level event until 1969.

The roughly 1,100 US judges must also take a two-day refresher seminar every four years or so, plus a yearly true/false test to keep abreast of changes in the sport.

This preparation heads off most problems before they happen. Contrary to notions that skaters and judges make up a Peyton Place of dysfunction and mutual distrust, Wright says he can't recall a single complaint from an international-level skater about judging during his tenure.

The Canadians have already taken that step, lodging a request for further investigation into Monday's event. They have the American public's support, it seems. An unofficial NBC online poll found that 96 percent of its more than 200,000 respondents felt Sale and Pelletier were the rightful winners.

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