Ice dancing controversy? Canadian pair hints at tension with coach over USA.

Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir took silver behind Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White at the Sochi Olympics. Now, there are new rumblings of discontent.

Vadim Ghirda/AP
Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada and their coach Marina Zueva (r.) wait in the results area after competing in the ice dance free dance figure skating finals at the Iceberg Skating Palace during the 2014 Winter Olympics Monday in Sochi, Russia.

The first hints of a figure skating controversy emerged Tuesday, when Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir said that they at times felt like their coach was giving more attention to another pair she coaches, Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

On Monday, Davis and White won gold – the first ever for America in ice dancing – while Virtue and Moir won silver.

We're going to tread carefully here, because figure skating controversies tend to quickly devolve into nationalistic finger-pointing by people who only have the faintest idea of what they're talking about. Probably only a few people in the world actually have the knowledge to say something remotely definitive about this. But here, we can raise a few questions that might be helpful in considering the issue more thoughtfully.

Before we get there, though, it must be said that Moir did not appear to be complaining. He was simply offering his impressions about how the two pairs' Russian coach, Marina Zueva, divided her time. He was hardly accusing her of anything nefarious and actually praised her for her efforts.

This happens all the time at the Olympics: An athlete is asked a question, he responds to it honestly, and then that is turned into something that it was not intended to be. That creates a disincentive for athletes to talk honestly, which leads to more boring press conferences.

We want to try to avoid doing that here. But his comments do raise some issues that are worth discussing

1. Did the coach act differently in 2010? 

Moir suggested that the runup to Sochi felt different from the runup to Vancouver. Four years ago, the roles were reversed. The Canadians were the clear gold-medal favorite and the American's were the pair seemingly destined for silver – as turned out to be the case.

This year, Moir said, "We sometimes felt like [Zueva] wasn't in our corner. We had some odd things happen this year that hadn't happened before. For the first time, she wasn't there."

For example, Moir said Tuesday, Zueva chose to attend the US national championships instead of the Canadian championships this year. Both were at the same time and, of course, Zueva had to choose.

The question is whether Zueva treated the Canadian pair this year any differently than she treated the American pair in 2010, and if she did, whether there's anything wrong with that. If the Americans were the favorites, should she spend more time with them? And did she do the same in 2010 for the Canadians?

It's hard to judge by the question of which nationals she went to. In 2010, the US and Canadian national championships were staggered, with the Canadian championships running from Jan. 11-17 and the Americans' from Jan. 14-24. But it will be interesting to see if any stories come out about how Zueva acted in 2010.

At the time, Davis and White made no noises of complaint, but their career was still on an upward trajectory. This year, both teams are at the top. Moir said he told his coach "on countless occasions" that they would not be satisfied with silver. Davis and White probably did not say the same in 2010.

Zueva claims she does her absolute best to balance the pairs in what, admittedly, is a very difficult situation. She told CBS News she did not choose between the two, adding “I love and respect both teams.”

2. Did the coach create a better program for the Americans?

Despite the various ways the two pairs are intertwined, Virtue and Moir and Davis and White are very different in their approach on the ice. The Americans are athletic, the Canadians are balletic.

Which you prefer is largely a matter of personal taste. But clearly, judges have been leaning toward the Americans for a few years now. Davis and White won the World Championships in 2011 and 2013. So should Zueva then have created a different routine for the Canadians?

On one hand, that would have been a shame for viewers. The Canadian routine was lovely, even if it didn't win gold. Would a Davis/White clone routine that won gold have been better than the one Virtue and Moir skated Monday? Moir seemed to suggest that Zueva sought to keep the pairs' routines distinct. 

"We were trying to get balance. She listened to us and kind of reshaped our programs. She's an artist, too, and wanted to keep her vision," he said.

3. Why do the judges like the Americans better in the first place?

This is perhaps the thorniest question, and the one hardest to answer. Just looking at their scores in the free skate, the Americans won solely because the judges liked them better, and there's no real way to figure out why.

If you look only at the difficulty of the technical elements that the two pairs did, they are exactly the same. Both the Canadians and Americans received a base technical elements score of 43.20.

But the judges get to add or deduct points based on how well they feel the dancers executed the elements. The nine judges give their scores, seven of the scores are randomly selected, and then the top and bottom scores are thrown out. That leaves five scores, which are then averaged into a single score.

On every element except one, the Americans' received higher grade of execution scores. That gave the Americans a 1.28 point advantage right there.

The Americans lengthened their lead in the second set of marks, given for program components. This set of marks allows a judge wide leeway to mark a skater according to personal impression. The program components include six scores on general topics such as choreography, skating skills, and transitions (what a skater does between elements). These are scores out of 10 and are added up for the total program components score. (Again, nine scores given, seven randomly selected, top and bottom thrown out, remaining five averaged.)

The Americans scored a 59.13 on program components, the Canadians scored a 58.44. All the Americans' program components scores were higher, and notably, the Americans scored two 10s, for choreography and interpretation.

It is entirely possible that since Vancouver, Davis and White have matured into the best ice dancers in the world and the judges are justly rewarding them for it. That is, after all, why we have judges.

But the scores do not erase questions about whether the current judging system – like the previous one – can be gamed to let judges pick their favorites.

Some say it can. Within the grade of execution scores, and particularly in the program components scores, there is enough wiggle room for judges to do what they want, independent of the actual competition.

"Some judges use program components to place the skaters and not to judge the performance," says George Rossano of Ice Skating International Online, speaking generally and not about the ice dancing competition. "That's no different from before" under the 6.0 system.

Allegations in the French sports magazine, L'Equipe, that the Russians and Americans conspired to give Russia the team gold and the US the ice dancing gold sound a bit far-fetched. But within the complex world of figure skating judging, it's hard to dismiss anything out of hand. 

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