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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Figure skating: Still fixed, still not a sport

If it is a Winter Olympic year, then everyone must care, once again, about figure skating. And no discussion of figure skating is complete without a discussion of corrupt judges.

Following the controversy in pairs skating in 2002, when judges from five countries traded votes to ensure a Gold for the Russian team, skating moved to a system of anonymous judging. The theory was that if no one could know how anyone else voted, there was less likelihood that someone would bribe a judge or trade votes, since there was no way to ensure the other side held up their end of the bargain. But a new study by Dartmouth economist Eric Zitzewitz finds that anonymous scoring has had the opposite effect: Home-country bias is about 20 percent higher than under the old full disclosure system. Although backroom-dealmaking is riskier (and thus less likely), the loss of public and media accountability makes it easier for individual judges to bias for home skaters (or skaters from "friendly" nations).

Jon Siegel discusses a proposal from his GW colleague Michael Abramowicz. His solution is to evaluate judges based on how close their individual scores are to the average of all the scores for a skater (with the average reflecting, to some degree, the "right" score). After compiling each judge's scores over time, rewards such as compensation and choice assignments (which competitions, which events) could be determined by how close a judge is to the average over all each competitions.

Interesting idea. But I disagree with Jon that this could "solve the problem of subjectivity in figure skating judging." Nothing can solve that problem, because the judging is inherently subjective and nothing is going to change that. But that just goes to my bugaboo of why it is not a sport.

Let me leave on two questions. First, why don't we have similar problems in other judged Olymic events (similarly, not sport), such as moguls skiing (I watched this and still have no idea how the winner was determined) or half-pipe snowboarding (or whatever it is that Shaun White keeps winning)? Second, were we actually better off in the days of the hallowed-yet-infamous East German Judge, when we recognized that the thing was rigged along Cold War politics and just dealt with it?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 18, 2010 at 08:47 AM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink

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