[Updated 5:22 a.m. EDT] After Thursday's free skate at the Sochi Olympics, there seems to be no small debate over whether Russian Adelina Sotnikova deserved to win gold over South Korean Kim Yu-na.
Judging controversy, the lifeblood of Olympic figure skating, is once again pumping through Sochi.
First, let's be clear. In the world of figure skating, it is never wise to reject conspiracy and corruption out of hand. There's too much of a history, too much leeway for tampering to speak with absolute certainty about just about anything at all.
But an analysis of the scores shows how Sotnikova won – essentially by skating a program of such technical brilliance that Kim could not keep up. That, it seems, is not up for serious debate. As in all things figure skating, however, the opacities of the scoring system leave room for some doubt in other areas of the judging.
Also playing a role in the outrage, perhaps, is that many viewers are getting their first up-close look at how the scoring system implemented after the Salt Lake scandal works, and they might not be not too thrilled.
After all, the results in the women's singles in Turin and Vancouver – the only two Olympics competed with the current scoring system – were not really in doubt. But here, three women skated nearly flawless programs after being virtually tied after the short program, and the scoring system's quirks have come out.
In the case of Thursday's event, they were decisive.
The simple answer to why Sotnikova beat Kim was that she skated the more difficult program, and she skated it more precisely – and by some margin.
Some viewers might point out that Sotnikova stepped out on the landing of her triple flip-triple toe-triple loop combination and argue that Kim made no obvious mistakes at all. But that's 6.0 thinking. The 6.0 system was much more impressionistic, which is why the International Skating Union was forced to get rid of it. There was too much scope for judges to do what they wanted.
The current system puts far more emphasis on every aspect of a skater's routine and rewards those who take more risk. Each element is worth a certain amount of points. Whoever scores the most points wins.
On Thursday, Sotnikova put together a program worth a lot more points than Kim's, which means she could afford a minor bobble and still win. In fact, her technical scores were so much higher than Kim's, she might have been able to fall once and still win.
This is how she did it.
In the free skate, each skater can put in three combination jumps. Combination jumps are important because they're the biggest point-getters out there. For example, one triple Lutz is worth 6.0 points. But put it in combination with a triple toe, and it's 10.10 points.
Sotnikova blew Kim away with her combinations. Sotnikova's three combination jumps added up to 27.48 points, with Kim's adding up to 22.64 points – a massive 4.84 point gap. Over all the other elements of the program – single jumps, spins, and footwork – Kim managed to claw back 0.90 points. But the damage was done, considering she came into the free skate only 0.28 points ahead of Sotnikova.
Sotnikova built such high scores on her combination jumps in two ways. First, she did harder ones. And second, skaters get bonus points for every jump made after the halfway point in the program – an acknowledgment that the same jump with tired legs is more impressive than with fresh legs.
Sotnikova put two of her combination jumps after the two-minute mark. Kim did only one. That might seem like a small thing, but Sotnikova took a risk that she could land them even as she fatigued, and in the end, that risk offset the cost of the step out on her last combination.
All of these points are not "judged," per se. If you execute the element, you get the score. Sotnikova's "base technical score" – the cumulative mark for all the elements she executed, with no "judging" involved – was 61.43 points. Kim's was 57.49.
That’s a huge margin, and the judges had no control over it.
The areas over which judges have more control are execution scores (how well the skater executed the element) and component scores (what the judge thought of the skater's artistry).
Here, the judges split.
They thought Sotnikova executed her program better than Kim did, even with the stumble. Her cumulative grade of execution scores were 14.11 points compared with Kim's 12.20 points. With the exception of the step out on the landing of the last combination (which cost her 0.90 points), Sotnikova scored consistently higher on almost every element. In other words, with the exception of the landing bobble, Sotnikova skated everything cleaner.
This is not an impressionistic score. It is an analysis of whether the skater used the correct edge, how much speed she carried into and out of the jump, her position in the air, and so on.
While it's possible that judges could inflate or deflate execution scores to influence a competition, it would be a risky gambit. After all, any skating coach could pick apart their scores by looking at the video. Tinkering with execution scores leaves you exposed.
Where judges do retain the ability to shape the outcome based on their impressions is in the component scores. Judging choreography and interpretation and performance are inherently subjective, giving judges leeway to prop up a skater they want to win.
If there was something nefarious going on, this is where it happened.
Kim beat Sotnikova on component scores, though barely. Her five component scores for skating skills, transitions (who you do between elements), performance, choreography, and interpretation added up to 74.50 points; Sotnikova's were 74.41.
Some raise a red flag, saying Kim should have had more of a lead here and might have been able to make up the difference on component scores alone. Others disagree.
Both Kim and bronze medalist Carolina Kostner received 10s from some judges in their component scores. Sotnikova did not receive any. But her component scores were consistently in the high 8s and low 9s.
It is possible that corrupt judges marked Sotnikova high – but not the highest – in their component scores, knowing Sotnikova had the harder routine planned and her technical scores would make up the difference.
One could make that case, but it’s not easy. Sotnikova is far more expressive on the ice than compatriot Yulia Lipnitskaya, who received component scores mostly in the 8s, and she did, after all, skate a spectacular program Thursday night. Gracie Gold, another skater many say needs to work on her polish, also scored mostly in the 8s.
The big problem with the current scoring system is that we don’t know which country gave which marks, because it does not release that information. The reason, officials say, is it allows judges to give their marks without fear of recrimination from their own federation. Critics say it allows them impunity to favor their own skaters.
The judging panel Thursday comprised judges from Switzerland, Germany, Ukraine, Italy, Estonia, Japan, Russia, France, and Canada.
Four years ago, some didn't understand why Russian Evgeny Plyushchenko didn't win the gold in the men's figure skating despite hitting all his jumps. American Evan Lysacek beat him by piling up the scores in other areas. Sotnikova, in a way, did something similar Thursday. She appears to have run up the score on Kim in the technical elements while hanging close in her components.
Kim gave a commanding performance of great assurance and, as always, enormous grace. But Sotnikova irrefutably took that little extra bit of risk and managed to skate a nearly immaculate program.
Whether that was enough, or whether Kim should have made more points back in the artistry and presentation of her performance, is open to debate.
This being the Olympics, that debate is sure to continue for some time.