Ordinal numbers and unordinary reactions

The art and science of judging figure skating

The Winter Olympics opened less than a week ago with embraces of harmony and flag-wrapped dedications to the ancient codes of honor among friendly foes.

Just five days later the medal count of the winners is dwarfed by the decibel count generated by howls of rage and betrayal. Figure skating judges stand accused of conspiracy, sellout, and vote-fixing. The International Skating Union ordered an investigation.

It got so bad by Wednesday that the Winter Games were on the verge of moving from NBC's prime time to the docket of the World Court.

People who know the Olympics best wondered what took them so long this year to get around to the usual hysterics. NBC momentarily sidetracked Enron and is wondering out loud on its newscasts whether the vote for the Russians over the Canadians in the figure skating pairs was rigged. Helpfully, it showed old footage of skating judges signaling each other by twitching their shoes.

Think cultural differences, not cold war

The widely respected Olympic historian, David Wallenchinsky, wasn't so sure about a fix or conspiracy. "It's tempting to read old-time cold-war prejudices into [the judges] decision," he says, "but it is just as likely that the division reflects not so much a difference in politics as a difference in taste. Judges from the old Eastern bloc prefer the balletic Russian style, while judges from the West lean toward livelier, more entertaining programs."

All of which depressed a volunteer traffic aid in Olympics-smitten Salt Lake City. She asked a reporter in dismay whether this is how the 2002 Winter Games will be remembered. He said probably not. The Olympics are an extravaganza and a circus of some of the greatest athletic acts on earth, but they are still a mirror of some of the best and the worst in human striving under the pressure of money and acclaim.

Success or failure sometimes is measured in inches and nanoseconds. Greed, nationalism, fear, and dreams dance side by side, sometimes accompanied by suspicion. The mogul ski fanatics who adore America's Jonny Moseley booed the judges who relegated him to fourth place - not as loudly as the skating crowd booed the judges' narrow decision for Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze over the Canadians' Salé and Pelletier, but they did boo. Did the judges dislike Moseley's ultra grandstanding? Were the judges crooked in the skating?

Always a Tolstoy plot

How do you know? The fact is that the melodrama of the Olympics is often just as absorbing as the speed and artistry, and one way or another when the Russians come onto the scene, the melodrama thickens.

The Russian characters seem more darkly drawn or more mysterious or more magnetic. There is the closeup of the brooding skating coach, Alexei Mishin, looking like an icon from the old Soviet delegations to the UN. There are the men's single skaters Alexei Yagudin and Yevgeny Plushenko, professing not dislike but actual hatred toward each other. Or Yelena Berezhnaya, who suffered a serious head injury in a skating accident four years ago, again competing on the world stage, and the other gutsy and stoical Russian woman skating on a broken foot.

But Tolstoy would have been enthralled by the Mother Hubbard Russian on the sideline, the skating coach, Tamara Moskvina. She can be wise or droll or mildly outrageous. Facing the possibility that the Canadians might end the Russian pairs domination, she shrugged: "We're going against North Americans in North America. They have defeated us in politics and culture, why not in sports?"

Sometimes it was easier in politics.

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